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An Interview with Ani Zonneveld


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/09/22


Ani Zonneveld is the President and Founder of Muslims for Progressive Values. She discusses: family background; the inculcation of an environment in the US; founding Muslims for Progressive Values; the bigger educational and social initiatives of the organization ongoing at the moment; building bridges; and freedom of expression, freedom of and from religion or belief, women’s rights, and LGBTQIA rights.

Keywords: Ani Zonneveld, Islam, Muslim, Muslims for Progressive Values.

An Interview with Ani Zonneveld: President and Founder, Muslims for Progressive Values[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: With regards to family background, what was the political or religious background if any?

Ani Zonneveld: I was born in Malaysia and raised a Muslim, but I lived all over the world growing up because my father was a diplomat. So, I lived in Germany, Egypt, and India for a total of 15 plus years.

However, the Islam we were raised on was inherently traditional but pragmatic and progressive in the scheme of things – definitely different from the Islam of today.

2. Jacobsen: You have a family. What is the environment in the US that you wish to inculcate there with regards to political and religious use within reason?

Zonneveld: My husband is a non-Muslim. My daughter identifies as Muslim. She is a young adult of her own mind. So, I’ve done my part. The rest is up to her and how she wants to live her life. I’m a free thinker. I don’t believe in curtailing or dictating how anyone should think.

I believe in thinking, in the free spirit, the creative soul, and the free form of expression. So, that’s how I am. That’s what I expect of people. I don’t accept intolerance of any form – whether you’re religious or an atheist; I’m not tolerant of the intolerance of the other.

As for the political climate in America, we have become a theocracy and the clever thing is, they’ve used the boogeyman Islam to fan fear to get the most radical Christian into office, who by the way, shares the same misogynistic and homophobic worldview as the Muslims the use! These radical Christians then legislate their beliefs at the State and Federal level. I have been calling them out for years, as I see no difference between them and the Sharia laws in the Muslim world.

3. Jacobsen: How did you found Muslims for Progressive Values?

Zonneveld: Now, that started out as a form of protest, basically. I’ve been a songwriter/ producer for 25 years or more in the United States, but I was a closeted Muslim. Then 9/11 happened. I decided, at that point, that I needed to come out, but I also, knew that if I was to come out then I would be facing a lot of questions about various issues. I, therefore, needed to be educated and self-critical about Islam.

So, in the process of relearning for myself, I discovered that the teachings of the Quran were progressive and liberating, even more so than my upbringing. So, at that point, I decided, “There’s no way I’m going to go back to the traditional mosque”, because once you are unshackled, and your mind is totally free, why go back to the prison?

Since I did songwriting and production for a living, I decided to do an Islamic pop CD highlighting the new knowledge about Islam for me: the progressive values, the contribution of women in Islam, etc. That was my way of contributing to society, but I quickly discovered that none of the Muslim websites and retail stores would sell the CD because I was a female singer.

According to them, the female voice needs to be censored. It’s awrath; it’s sexual. The second reason was because I used musical instrumentation and apparently that was also forbidden since during Prophet Muhammad’s time, he only had the percussion. (That was in 2004, since then male Muslim singers have used all modern instrumentation in religious songs). I’m like, “This is the most ridiculous ‘theology’ I’ve ever heard.” I was born and raised Muslim and I have never heard of this.

Male musicians, however, were allowed to use instruments. This is a minor example of how they’re such hypocrites. So, that was another reason why I left the mosque and the traditional Muslim community.

In response, I started my own progressive Muslim community in Los Angeles. Along with other progressive Muslim communities in the United States, we got together in 2007, where I was voted by the founding members as President, to register Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) as a non-profit and to run it. Now, in 2018, eleven years later, it has become an international human rights organization.

4. Jacobsen: What would you consider some of the bigger educational and social initiatives of the organization ongoing at the moment?

Zonneveld: For example, we have this initiative called #NoToHomophobia. We started this after The Pulse shooting, although we have always been at the forefront of this issue, advocating for LGBT rights in The United States through legislations and by developing educational tools to change the Muslim mindset on homosexuality. The Pulse shooting was evidence we needed to prove the effects of hateful religious narratives. That this man, Martin, had internalized so much of the hateful theology that was spewed in the mosque and within the community that he responded violently.

So, we have been publicly challenging religious leaders in American Muslim educational institutions to do away with homophobic teachings. It’s unacceptable because there’s no punishment for being a homosexual in the Quran nor did Prophet Muhammad ever punish anyone for being a homosexual.

The other that we are very proud of is our “Imams For She” initiative. It’s inspired by U.N. Women’s ‘He For She’ initiative. MPV partners worked with male Imams, the scholars of Islam, who are affirming and advocating for women’s and girls’ rights.

So, our program is in Tunisia and in Burundi where we go to the most remote villages. We work to educate girls, women, and young men on women’s and girls’ rights.

Us working with these enlightening Imams and scholars of Islam is key to changing people’s mindsets on the ground.

5. Jacobsen: That raises two questions for me; the first is shorter, the second is longer. So, I’ll go to the shorter one first.

In terms of building bridges with the ex-Muslim community, with the various Muslim communities, how can those bridges be built at least at a fundamental level in terms of moving the progressive conversation forward in terms of implementation of rights and values in culture?

Zonneveld: We build the bridge by using an interpretation of the Quran that undermines bigotry, and we invite people to use this bridge. But some folks, just want to blow the bridge up every chance they get, that includes ex-Muslims, conservative, radical Muslims, non-Muslims who hate all Muslims, and by Muslim governments who see us as a threat because we promote critical, progressive, and creative thinking.

For us the principle is simple. An individual’s rights need to be upheld regardless of cultural or religious beliefs.

If at the end of the day love trumps hate, we believe – I believe – that an inclusive, loving, and compassionate way is the only way forward. I can’t engage in hate. I find it destructive and counterproductive. Our language, work comes from a positive framing. Yes, hate is louder, and garners more followers, but that is just not how we operate.

6. Jacobsen: To the second question, the four points that Muslims for Progressive Values, which is as you noted based in the United States, are freedom of expression, freedom of and from religion or belief, women’s rights, and LGBTQIA rights.

If, and as, a progressive Muslim advocating for these through Muslims for Progressive Values talking to Los Angeles, Californian, American, or ordinary Muslims about these topics that have inculcated in them more traditionalist and conservative views and values, what are common responses from them when you’re advocating for these four things? How do you respond?

Zonneveld: When we first started, the traditional Muslims use to scorn at us for identifying ourselves as “progressive”. Now, they are all tripping over each other identifying themselves as one! Mind you, many of them are just pretenders claiming to support women and LGBTQI rights. I’ve heard imams and well-known movement leaders in the U.S. make these claims in front of an interfaith audience. But it’s just lip service. They do nothing to substantiate these claims.

So, the good thing about the political climate we are in the U.S. is that conservative Muslims have to pretend to be nice to us progressives.

Lately, the short documentary about my work “al-imam” has been making the film festival rounds, is distributed by National Geographic, and the latest news is that it won a competition and will now be screened at the American Pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019.

But outside the conservative stream, here are some numbers. The latest Pew Research concluded that on the issues of homosexuality, 52% of US Muslims say homosexuality should be accepted by society — compared to Evangelical Protestants at 34%.

We’ve always known that American Muslims have always been progressive compared to the religious authorities. The problem is that the media focuses on the conservative religious authorities as representative of American Muslims when the majority of Americans Muslims don’t even subscribe to those ideologies, and according to the latest Pew Research, 72% find spiritual inspiration outside the mosque anyways!

We started with the intent of being an American organization because those talking heads, the ‘mullahs,’ don’t represent us. Now we are in 8 cities in the U.S. with many communities in many countries borrowing our values and practices. And on October 1, 2017, we launched a global umbrella organization Alliance of Inclusive Muslims, in Tunisia, made up of members spanning five continents.

7. Jacobsen:  Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Ani.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Founder and President, Muslims for Progressive Values.

[2] Individual Publication Date: September 22, 2018:; Full Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2019:


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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