How to identify a genuinely progressive Muslim

August 2, 2017 • 12:00 pm

This idea is not novel with me: as my friend Malgorzata noted, it’s been suggested by several people, including here by Caleb Powell. The premises of the idea are these:

  1. There are lots of Muslims who cast themselves, or are cast by others, in the role of liberals, progressives, or “Islamic reformers.”
  2. Some of these Muslims get death threats from more extremist Muslims, while others don’t
  3. Extremist Muslims threaten death only to those “progressive” Muslims whom they see as impeding their program of Islamism
  4. Those “progressive” Muslims who don’t get threats are, I think, those whom Islamic extremists perceive as advancing or enabling their program—either by whitewashing Islam to squelch criticism, or by pretending to be progressive and pro-democracy when they really have another agenda.
  5. Therefore, if you want to discern whether a “liberal” Muslim is truly progressive, see whether he or she gets death threats from other Muslims.

Now I’m just throwing this out for your consideration, and have thought about it for just a short time, but I’ve made a little list. Two lists, actually. The first are those “reformers’ who do get threats from Muslims, and the second comprises The Unthreatened. The lists are below, and I’ve had a bit of help from some friends in the know.  I am responsible for any inaccuracies, of course (for example, some people on the second list may have gotten some threats).

Two caveats. The threats must be from Muslims, not from other people. Linda Sarsour, for example, says she gets threats all the time—but they’re not from Muslims. Second, the people on the list must be practicing Muslims, or say that they are. Ex-Muslims—people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ali Rizvi, Sarah Haider, Faisal Al Mutar, and Maryam Namazie—all get death threats because they’re apostates, and apostasy is a capital crime in Islam.

By the way, some of the people on the first list require police protection. I’ve put links (most from Wikipedia) to all of them so you can read about them.

So, the lists:

Muslim reformers who often get threats from other Muslims (i.e., people to pay attention to):

Maajid Nawaz
Asra Nomani
Hassen Chalgoumi
Bassem Eid
Tarek Fatah
Raheel Raza
Zuhdi Jasser
Taslima Nasrin
Irshad Manji
Tahir Gora
Imam Mohammad Tawhidi
Malala Yousafzai

Muslim reformers who don’t often get threats from other Muslims (people to be wary of):

Reza Aslan
Linda Sarsour
Tariq Ramadan
Hatem Bazin
Keith Ellison (the only a Muslim member of the U.S. Congress)
Mehdi Hasan

Caleb Powell’s “Who’s Who in Islam“, which was my very first link above, also gives a list of groups that, he believes, promote a regressive agenda—either deliberately or as a byproduct of their actions. I don’t know all of these, but the ones I recognize seem to be properly placed. Again, this is not my list, but it’s worth perusing. The links are also Powell’s:

Groups/Media/etc.5Pillarz, BDSBrandeis, CAGE, CAIR, Electronic IntifadaGoldsmiths Feminists, French Collective Against Islamophobia,Greens, Hope not Hate, Iceland, LSESU Palestine SocietyMPAC UK, National Women’s Studies Association,NUS, Rights Watch (UK), Six PEN Authors, Southern Poverty Law Center, University of Warwick, Yale Muslim Student Association,


81 thoughts on “How to identify a genuinely progressive Muslim

      1. No he’s definitely a Muslim but he believes in a strong separation of church and state. He founded the Muslim Canadian Congress which an atheist most likely wouldn’t do.

          1. Here is how he describes himself on his web site:

            I write as a Muslim whose ancestors were Hindu. My religion, Islam, is rooted in Judaism, while my Punjabi culture is tied to that of the Sikhs. Yet I am told by Islamists that without shedding this multifaceted heritage, if not outrightly rejecting it, I cannot be considered a true Muslim.

            Of all the ingredients that make up my complex identity, being Canadian has had the most profound effect on my thinking. It is Canada that propels me to swim upstream to imitate with humility the giants who have ventured into uncharted waters before me. Men like Louis-Joseph Papineau, Tommy Douglas, Pierre Trudeau, and Norman Bethune; women like Agnes Macphail, Rosemary Brown and Nellie McClung. For it is only here in Canada that I can speak out against the hijacking of my faith and the encroaching spectre of a new Islamofascism.”

          2. I’m pretty sure it was Tarek Fatah that posted on his website a few years ago a whole lot of beautiful Muslim art works that depict Muhammad. It was as a protest against fellow Muslims, and regressive supporters of those Muslims, who said it was unIslamic and disrespectful to the religion to draw Muhammed. Fatah said there had been many such representations historically and the problem was actually a new conservatism in the religion.

          3. Hmmm, strange constraints on depth of reply on the main page. This in response to Diana’s reply on Tarek Fatah :

            Of all the ingredients that make up my complex identity, being Canadian has had the most profound effect on my thinking.

            That alone – considering there is something more important than [insert name of religion here] – is enough to earn a death sentence from many [insert name of religion here]-ists.

          4. Oh he does get the death threats. It’s not easy being him. He has had cancer return and of course receives nasty remarks hoping he suffers and dies.

          5. You can detect the iron fist of the “loving god” inside the velvet glove of the gods followers. Or is it a velvet fist inside an iron glove?

          6. Indeed and you will find the religious enforcers in the religion – male and female. Awful.

          7. If a nonbeliever can found a religious organization then he can also claim to be muslim.

            Actually, the fact that Tarek Fatah found the Muslim Canadian Congress is a better proof than the fact he claimed to be muslim.

            Action are more relevant than words.

          8. If a nonbeliever can found a religious organization then he can also claim to be muslim.

            Actually, the fact that Tarek Fatah found the Muslim Canadian Congress is a better proof than the fact he claimed to be muslim.

            Actions are more relevant than words.

  1. Your heuristic based on who gets death threats from other muslims actually isn’t bad at all, although there’s a hierarchy of cringe-worthiness among the people you quite sensibly are suspicious of.

    Tariq Ramadan is a Salafi, a fascist and an anti-semite. His “reforms” are just a fig leaf, a lie for gullible westerners. I wouldn’t be surprised if he has genuine ties to terrorist organizations.

    Linda Sarsour isn’t a muslim reformer, she’s a muslim conservative who has found it profitable to ally herself with some progressive causes to sneak in support for muslim conservatism.

    Her mentor was a man indicted for terrorism in the case of 1993 bombing of the WTC FFS.

    Keith Ellison is a sympathizer of the Nation of Islam, a 9/11 Truther and a Regressive Leftist, but still, compared to Sarsour, to say nothing of Ramadan, he’s basically a progressive.

    Reza Aslan, on other hand, is just a buffoon.

      1. I wouldn’t call Aslan a useful idiot. He is a tendentious, malicious liar. He knows exactly what he’s doing, or he wouldn’t lie about Islam so regularly and blatantly.

      1. Considering the perception and status of d*gs within Islam, many Muslims would consider what you wrote a most offensive insult of Aslan.

        Then again, Islam is itself an insult against d*gs….



    1. A sketch show director would dust down the “Pearly Gates” set, a jinni costume for the St Peter figure, and a script saying “Insufficient vigour in jihad to promote Islam – downstairs for you.”

  2. Lists?
    A list of Muslim reformers who often get threats from other Muslims (i.e., people to pay attention to).
    A list of Muslim reformers who don’t often get threats from other Muslims (people to be wary of).
    So if there is a “Muslim reformer” you hasn’t received threats from other Muslims, we should be “wary” of them?
    Isn’t there something wrong with this method of dividing people up, making lists in this way?

      1. Like someone else said in this thread, not all “Muslim reformers” receive threats. This includes Muslims who are sincere opponents of sharia law and Islamic fundamentalism in all its forms. This surely includes those among them who express this opposition publicly. I have great respect and admiration for them. Same for those among them who express this opposition privately. Don’t be wary.

    1. Isn’t there something wrong with this method of dividing people up, making lists in this way?

      I think PCC(E) flagged this very clearly with his phrase “a little list
      From The Mikado :

      As someday it may happen that a victim must be found,
      I’ve got a little list. I’ve got a little list
      Of society offenders who might well be underground
      And who never would be missed, who never would be missed.

      One of these decades, I’ve really got to watch some G&S. The snippets of lyrics I pick up are really quite tempting.

      1. One of these decades, I’ve really got to watch some G&S.

        Indeed, you do. Brilliant music, brilliant comedy.

        Incidentally, it’s become de rigueur for Ko-Ko’s list to include the most obnoxious offenders of the time and locality where the performance is taking place — sometimes even updated with the morning’s headlines. For example, today it’d include those who forget to silence their phones at G&S performances, Hollywood directors remaking century-old comic book stories, and the Mooch — oops! He already went missing, and nobody misses him!

        (And, of course, all that would be delivered in authentically-styled patter, which is quite the challenge for the production crew to come up with on short notice.)



  3. Hmmm…Jerry, I like the post up until the compilation of the lists. We rightly criticized the SPLC’s inclusion of various people on their lists, and it seems unwise to begin putting people on our own lists.

    But, again, comparing and contrasting those who would use violence to silence Linda Sarsour as opposed to Maajid Nawaz does, indeed, provide a good window into the full dynamics at play. Your enemies might not fully understand you, but they understand enough to invest in their animosity towards you.


    1. It’s mainly meant to show the correlation of true progressiveness with the presence of threats. For crying out loud, I’m not the SPLC. And I didn’t really criticize their making of a list (as I recall). After all, this morning I criticized three of the leaders of the Women’s March who sympathized with terrorists and anti-Semites. I could have listed them 1), 2) and 3). There’s no difference between doing that and doing what I did above. It is a distinction without a difference.

      1. Yeah, I get that…but they started with good intentions (I hope, giving them the benefit of the doubt). We should learn by their bad example.

        Maybe rather than “lists,” just a sampling of representative cases to demonstrate the correlation? It would be truer to what I understand your aims to be (an objective analysis of what at least initially appears to be a clear pattern) and much less…well…Nixonian….



        1. That’s the objection–it’s a numbered LIST. I don’t buy that because it IS just a sampling of representative cases, and with more work I could have made the listings much longer (as the first link does–do you object to that).

          What substantive difference is between my giving a numbered list and a sample? There isn’t any. If people are put off by my putting numbers in front of the names instead of reciting the names in two paragraphs, that’s their problem, not mine.

          1. It may well be a question of style rather than substance…but style matters, too. Take that hypothetical list of Jews that clifhiker suggested…and print it up with German black-letter calligraphy with vibrant red gothic decoration, and the exact same list of names would take on a rather different significance. And, of course, instead do it in Helvetica with a dimmed background of Torah scrolls and a Magen David and the significance is again radically changed in the opposite direction.

            Again, I’m not in the slightest suggesting that your motives are impure. Most emphatically the contrary! It’s because I know you that I’m suggesting you consider if this is the most accurate way to represent your actual thoughts….



          2. I understand where Ben’s coming from. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of lists too (and I did criticize SPLC). Otoh, I don’t have a problem with what Jerry’s done because I know him well enough to know where he’s coming from. However, I can see how others might misinterpret it.

            I think the criteria for the lists are good.

          3. The problem here being that it’s all anecdotical experience. Anyone stumbling upon this list without knowledge of Jerry’s intentions can twist this.

            Hell, he’s already being branded for baby-murder ; let’s be careful not to add “muslim-lister” to that either !

          4. I still don’t understand, nor think you’ve made an argument for, how switching the style in this post to what you are suggesting makes a substantive difference in how it would be perceived.

          5. In short, lists of people who are disfavored for whatever reason are too often used as lists of targets — with Nixon’s famous “Enemies List” that I linked to as a prime example. Others include the SLPC’s list already mentioned, and lists of doctors who provide abortions. Or Senator McCarthy’s list of suspected communists, or….

            I must again hasten to emphasize that I most emphatically do not think that Jerry is proposing that this list be used in anything remotely approximating such a manner.

            But I am concerned that that’s how it’s going to be interpreted by people who don’t know him.

            Again again, he’s spot on in his observation that Islamists tend to use real and threatened violence against truly liberal Muslims, and don’t tend to use such against those who espouse warm-and-fuzzy platitudes favoring repressive Islamic theology. That’s an important observation to make.

            I’m just worried about the optics of drawing up team rosters, is all.



    1. You are right, Taslima is a self-declared atheist & secular humanist. The latter from her Twitter description & the former from below:

      “I criticise all religions, including Hinduism. I opposed Hindu godmen, rituals such as karva chauth and shivaratri, and condemned the oppression of Muslims in Gujarat. I donated Rs.10,000 to poet Shankha Ghosh, who was collecting funds for rehabilitating Gujarat riot victims.I objected to the oppression of Hindus in Bangladesh, Jews in Nazi Germany, Muslims in Bosnia, Palestine and Christians in Pakistan. I also wrote in favour of films such as PK, Water and The Last Temptation of Christ. Please don’t call me a Muslim, I am an atheist”

  4. Jerry,

    Good list. However, I think you should include Iyan Jamal al-Din (a secular Shia cleric in Iraq). There are numerous videos of him debating other Muslims on topics like secularism and extremist ideology.

  5. I think many of the people who would object to the validity of these lists would themselves be ‘wary’ of public figures who have not been attacked by the alt-right

  6. I’m curious … if an activist Muslim wrote a blog about “How to identify a genuinely progressive Jew” … wouldn’t you find that offensive? Regardless of content?

    not that I disagree necessarily with your assessment … just a little put off by the approach

    1. Nope, I wouldn’t consider it offensive to make such a list. I might disagree with the criteria, esp. if “progressive” equaled “pro-Palestinian”, but if someone wants to categorize people on whether they’re progressive or not, I have no problem with that.
      Somehow I feel that if I had put the names into paragraphs rather than numbering them, the reaction would have been different, but I don’t understand why. The intent is to show a correlation between getting a threat and being a real progressive.

  7. Since my opinion, or lack of one, is of no importance and has no influence on anyone else I see no reason to make any lists. I pay no attention to anyone on any list. Too many people are taking sides on issues that they have no real power to influence and are just talking to make themselves feel important. Ignore them and cultivate your own gardens.

    1. The point of the list is to demonstrate that truly progressive Muslims receive threats from other Muslims, while apologists for Islam don’t receive such treatment. It’s useful to see that in this form to make that distinction clear and demonstrate that it’s a useful way of figuring out who is merely disguising themselves as progressive, using the label as a cover for apologism.

  8. If list is a hang up for some…call it a guideline. If you haven’t been threatened by Muslims on a regular basis then you probably should not be calling yourself a progressive Muslim. And then – the following people would be or wouldn’t be…

  9. Seyran Ateş in Germany, who recently opened a “secular” mosque in Berlin (already featured here The twitter feed for the aptly named Ibn Rushd – Goethe Mosque is here–

    Also from Germany, Ahmad Mansoor a Palestinian/Israeli/German who runs deradicalization programs for youth in danger.

    I don’t think the Egyptian-German scholar Hamed Abdel-Samad still identifies as Muslim. Maybe someone else knows. He certainly qualifies in terms of death threats — books like Koran: Message of Love, Message of Hate; or Islamic Fascism. A fatwa by Egyptian clerics sentenced him to death for saying that Islam has a problem with violence.

      1. I seem to recall that, many years ago, John Paul II made a reference in an academic seminar to an earlier scholar who had said that Islam was “spread by the sword” – not endorsing that scholar, just mentioning what he had said – and immediately Muslims around the world were screaming for the Pope to be killed.

        “Don’t you dare call us violent or we’ll kill you!”

        Anyone else remember that?

  10. For the purpose of logical completeness, there is a set (I’m sure) of truly progressive Muslims who don’t get death threats… Those who are “quiet” and thereby don’t provoke threats. Sort of like how closeted atheists don’t provoke the wrath of fundamentalist Christians.

    1. Except since they are closeted, we either don’t know about them or we would be outing them.

        1. I’m guessing D-Mac had something in mind closer to “celebrating,” rather than outing against their will.

  11. There are a few ex lonely voices from Bangladesh who would have consented to be on your list of reformers, progressives Prof(E)
    Further, Muslim reformers perceived to be a threat are already on a list so i don’t have a problem with pointing this out, as we all know why.
    This correlation seems painfully obvious.
    The heavy weights on either side of the spectrum and listed above are an unholy necessity to bring the puss to a head.
    Where it can be lanced… and once more, this could take some time.

  12. Much as I respect the bravery of those who seek to reform Islam, my greatest respect goes out to those who have broken with their religion entirely and become agnostic or atheist. Of course I feel this sort of respect for anyone who has left ANY religion behind, but the sheer physical bravery required to become an Islamic apostate – with death not being just a prescriptive warning in dogma, but a actual and proven existential danger. The movement that represents these fellow atheists here in the UK is The Council of Ex-Muslims. This past month they held a major conference in London – the theme – “A International Conference on Freedom of Expression and Conscience” – with presentations by Bangladeshi freethinker Bonya Ahmed; American Atheists President Dave Silverman; Activist and Author Djemila Benhabib; FEMEN Leader Inna Shevchenko; and Moroccan-born French Writer Zineb El Rhazoui, as well as Richard Dawkins, A.C. Grayling and many more.
    I would invite readers here at WEIT to view some of the presentations and forums from this event:

    If you hope to feel that out of this horror of religious madness that we exist within today, that the human spirit and that human bravery can rise above these dangers and win, you need only sample some of these video presentations.

  13. Jerry, I find this exercise deeply unpleasant. Have you no sense of the history of these kinds of lists? My mother was on several of them, nearly 80 years ago in Poland, first as a Jew, then as a member of the resistance, then as a target of post-war Soviet distrust. An uncle was another one, as a Polish intellectual, shot at Katyn. His wife was another, deported to a copper mine in Kazakhstan – she survived, released after Stalin’s death. Another uncle was on the list – deported to Siberia, where he simply disappeared. My uncle in law, also deported to Siberia, released in 1957.

    All a long time ago. You may also remember that the US has had its own lists, under Joseph McCarthy.

    So now you are setting up a list which is a bit like the medieval ducking stool for witches. A Muslim whom other Muslims want to kill is a good Muslim, while a Muslim who is not under threat of death from other Muslims is a bad Muslim?

    This is not pretty. I understand the point you are trying to make, but I don’t think this is the way to make it.

    1. Until Ben and John (among others) had not seriously highlighted the great dangers involved in making lists I was about to email off my grocery list to Safeway, but I realized the great offence it projected to vegetarians (in my preference for meat products) to Jews and Muslims (in my ordering pork chops) and to the Latino community in the cultural appropriation reflected in my request for La Victoria Taco Sauce.
      To help address the overall problem in the dangers of offence from listing, I went on to try to make a list of the various types of offending lists themselves – but was halted by realizing the logical conundrum I faced by becoming immeshed in infinite regress.

      1. Yes, brilliant. There is clearly a direct equivalence between Muslims who have/have not received death threats on the one hand, and items on a Safeway shopping list on the other.

        How did I miss the potential for snarky satire there?

  14. There must be something in it. When I saw the title my immediate reaction was ‘deaththreats.’
    (And we all know these threats are not loose ones, but deadly serious).

    1. From Wikipedia:

      Rushdie came from a liberal Muslim family[citation needed] although he now identifies as an atheist. In a 2006 interview with PBS, Rushdie called himself a “hardline atheist”.[

  15. It may work for famous or publicly outspoken muslims, whose opinions we would expect many other people to know. I’m not sure I would pin a “not a real liberal Muslim” on a Muslim who didn’t have any death threats against them simply because they were quietly living their life.

    I think charity and social activism is a moral good, but I don’t necessarily see it as a moral requirement that makes you evil if you aren’t doing it. IMO a liberal Muslim is not obligated to march or publicly fight against conservative Islam any more than I am obligated to go to atheist marches etc. in order to be considered a morally good atheist.

  16. I spy trouble ahead with this list. I think it was unwise, and the usual suspects will seize on it and impute intentions I don’t think Jerry has.

    I’m also aware that even people like Mo Ansar have turned up on Islamist hit-lists, and he’s no-one’s idea of a progressive. Don’t underestimate the hostility that proper Islamists feel towards any Muslim who participates in democratic society. This list feels too simplistic and binary.

  17. Not a fan of ‘lists’, but if you’re going to have one then Imam Taj Hargey needs to go on.

    He’s the Imam of the Oxford Islamic Congregation and the Director of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford in the UK.

    Hargey rejects the Hadith, rejects Sharia, famously publicly burned a burqa in solidarity with women, started a gay-friendly mosque, rejects the idea that depiction (even satirical depiction) of prophets is punishable, outright rejects violent punishment, etc.

    I disagree with him on many things (he’s a Qur’anist* and I completely reject the Qur’an), but he’s definitely a reformer.


    *I find this position confusing: he rejects violence and embraces gender/sexual-equality while proclaiming himself to be a Qur’anic literalist. But the Qur’an is very clear on when to kill people and what for and the role of women. Still, I cautiously support Hargey in his attempt to liberalise the faith.

  18. There’s a major logical problem with your formulation as it stands: any prominent Salafi you care to name has certainly received death threats from Shi’a Muslims. You should add that the threats can’t be due to sectarian hatred.

  19. You assume that what are thinking extremists is accurate.

    You forgot to say that they threaten not only progressive, but also other extremists, e.g., Rachid Abou Houdeyfa, the french imam of the city of Brest.

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