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Conversation with Ani Zonneveld on the American Immigrant Experience, Extreme Rhetoric, and Progressive Muslim Values: Founder and President, Muslims for Progressive Values


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/01/15


Ani Zonneveld is the President and Founder of Muslims for Progressive Values. She discusses: the American immigrant experience; story of finding some of the history of America in the midst of the development of personal history unfolds; extreme rhetoric and its consequences; progressive Muslim communities; organizations; and final thoughts.

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

Conversation with Ani Zonneveld on the American Immigrant Experience, Extreme Rhetoric, and Progressive Muslim Values: Founder and President, Muslims for Progressive Values

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

*Interview conduced August 25, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, we talked a couple of years ago. This is 2018. We talked about some of your personal history, views, and work in activism within a particular tradition within Islam. Today, we are going to be talking more about a) the immigrant experience and b) historical perspectives and things that, at present, leading from that historical perspective that are helpful and not-so helpful in terms of discourse, in moving dialogue forward.

In terms of immigrant experience, in terms of a), what are some of the experiences coming to America later in life living in a wealthy society, granted with high income inequality, and a lot more freedoms for citizens compared to a lot of other countries?

Ani Zonneveld: One of things that really stood out for me. As a new immigrant at 18-years-old, I was really dumbfounded by the politicking that the political parties had when it came to trade issues. This is when I first came to the United States and NAFTA.

I was really surprised at what I thought they were giving away. Although, I didn’t know the issues deeply, etc. But as someone who came from a very politically active country, I was aware that in Malaysia there were protections from trade because, for instance, they are a small country and didn’t open the borders and allow for much more powerful companies to come into Malaysia and take over the firms and the industries, or open its market and get nothing in return.

I was surprised American economic and free trade is straight policies in that regard. But that’s too generous. That was my naïve immigrant take on it. When I landed in the United States, I landed in Illinois. I experienced some racist remarks and some things like that.

For me, I don’t take those things to heart because there are many more kind-hearted Midwesterners. You get your good and your bad batch of people. Although, you learn very quickly upon landing in America to sound as American as possible.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Zonneveld: [Laughing] Because when you had an accident, even though, I had more of a British than a Malay accent otherwise. You were looked on as dumb or dumber. Your accent doesn’t dictate how strong your grammar is or your written skills are.

In America, in order for you to be socially accepted, you needed to sound as American as possible. That’s fine. Some see this as assimilation. Some see it as terrible. I do not see it as that. I don’t see it like that because I lived and grew up in three different countries all of my life.

I’ve always been the minority, whether religious, race, or ethnicity. But I’m secure in my identity. So, for me, assimilating or becoming part of the culture that I’m living with and learning their culture and their religion and dressing like them; for me, it is not a problem. It is enriching.

I come from that perspective as an immigrant who is secure in my identity. When I look at America now and when I look at the conversations on cultural appropriation, and how wrong and right it is, that whole conversation around that sounds so crazy.

That we are having an issue with cultural appropriation. Where is that line on cultural appropriation? There are a lot of these discussions happening now. That I find them very problematic.

Jacobsen: When you came to America, the entire narrative so far describes a situation in which an individual is coming to a country, finding a need to adapt – needing an American accent, for instance, while not having a deeper understanding of some of the roots of these things, the longer term historical perspective of the nation.

Now, many, many people admire the foundational principles of the United States. At the same time, a lot of others will point out the contradictory lives of the people who made those same stipulations.

So, it is a weird admixture of admirable principles at the outset and missteps and hypocrisies in the lives and the subsequent setups in the United States of America at its founding.

In terms of its political activism, it more or less has been changing the history over time towards the ideals and away from the monstrous acts in its history. So, what is the story, for you, of finding out more of the history and seeing some in your own lifetime?

Zonneveld: Yes, it is hypocritical. In regards to coming to the realization of the shortcomings of America’s ideals vis-à-vis its reality as a result of my activism, I’ve lived in the United States since 1981. I have lived here for many decades.

For four years, I was in college. Then I was in the music business for 25 years. I wasn’t an activist. I was clueless of a lot of the social injustice within the American system. When I became an activist and human rights defender in a lot of the work that I do, it was work around African Americans and what we need to do here in the United States.

I would not have realized there were youth charged with crimes done under 18. I wouldn’t have known for international law. It is unconscionable to do that. As a country, it is reforming its judicial system, so children do not get any sentence without a chance for parole.

It is a chance to reform the system. In California, in the most liberal state in the United States, we had children in prison without any chance of parole. We were able to get that law passed at the state level in partnership with other faith organizations.

Another example was social security benefits for caregivers were exempted. When they passed social security some decade ago, the only way the Southern democrats would pass this law is if caregivers were exempted from receiving social security benefits.

This was because traditional caregivers were black slaves. So, when I found this out, I was stunned that this was such an issue in the United States, still. It is still an issue in many states in the United States.

This is another state-by-state case. We need this to happen on a state-by-state level. All this leaves me, as an immigrant, to learn about such things as redlinings, the black GIs not getting housing loans like the white GIs did. Even though, they were in the same army.

So many things that have deprived African Americans of equal opportunities, blatantly so. So, it is just such a heavy discussion to have; so, I think, unfortunately, the fact is there are so many deaths of unarmed black men and women, as well, by police.

We have had months of demonstrations for Black Lives Matter in the context of Los Angeles because trans black folks are being killed more so. So, that’s a more acute zoomed-in vision of not just your general black public, but also LGBT people.

So, this all popped up in the context of Covid-19 when we are all attentive to the media. There is a lot of attention on this issue and rightfully so. I am hoping that we will finally have the reforms needed.

Given that there’s such a mix of intergenerational and mixed races that have marched on the streets for Black Lives Matter, I am hoping the moment is now, even the election season, etc. I hope the moment is now. Also, I am very mindful.

I see a lot of incredibly divisive language on social media and media. A lot of people screaming at each other rather than people having a very strategic discussion, intellectual discussion, on how to change the structures.

If you are accusing someone of being a Nazi or accusing someone who is not black of being racist because you could, it does not bring people together. It does not bring in allies to renew this movement and to restructure America to the best that it can be.

That is my concern and that is my worry. I’m really happy when, at the funeral service of John Lewis, Reverend James Lawson who is an iconic African American, non-violent advocate. He veered off-topic from his speech and said, “I have to say this.” He was quite angry in his tone.

He said, basically, the dismissive language and the tone that you use will be unhelpful and history will judge you by that. I was really happy to have someone of that stature speak out. I am not African American.

It is not my place to say this. There’s a lot of anger and rightfully so. You know what is really interesting. The people calling for peaceful demonstrations are the victims of the families themselves.

These family members – my God. They’re just beautiful people. For them to be so incredibly gracious, I don’t know how they have the heart to be so gracious. Everyone else who has been destroying and fearing in the name of the lives that are dead.

They are really doing those lives injustice. That saddens me.

Jacobsen: How is this political context of bombastic, pompous and extreme rhetoric from the leadership influencing how ordinary Americans across political spectrums interact with one another? How is this further exacerbated by some of the chaos inherent in being, at present, at least, the number one nation in terms of the coronavirus pandemic and its impacts on individuals?

You have three major things happening. You have these massive protests, the largest in American history. An international pandemic with America as the major of it at present, as well as an overarching of actions, leadership, which aren’t helpful to any discourse to bring people in the United States together.

Zonneveld: There are two kinds of leaders. There are leaders who care about their country, their wellbeing, and using the power to bring people together. Then there are those who use that power for their own personal gain. Trump is obviously the latter.

He doesn’t give a crap about what happens to America. His whole rhetoric about Make America Great Again has only torn America from within. I am dumbfounded by the Americans who are still supporting him.

I am dumbfounded that they can’t see what a traitor he has been to American ideals. How he has brought the worst, how he has created division bigger than what it was, how he has peddled to our enemies and to the dictators, I am dumbfounded!

I don’t understand how people can’t see that. This requires a conversation with a psychologist, not with [Laughing] a lay activist such as myself. I don’t understand that mindset.

Jacobsen: What do you think progressive Muslim communities can bring to the table in bridging the divides created and advancing the universal vision of human rights and progressive values?

Zonneveld: As a progressive Muslim, I have to ensure that the readers are going to understand “progressive” in this regard is not a political progressive definition. It is a spiritual progressive. It is often mistaken for progressive politically.

That is not what it is intended to be. Now, by default, we stand for LGBTQ equality, human rights, women’s rights, anti-discrimination, etc. So, by default, we are political progressives by our values.

But you also see “fake progressive Muslims” who are using the progressive political language by politicians to earn their votes on the Left. The secular Left wanting to be inclusive, big tent, while not realizing that the use of these supposedly progressive Muslims is a way for them to utilize the process of democracy for their own political agenda.

I have a problem with some of those progressive Muslims who are running for office. They have this double-think. They are progressive on the public platform from which they are running on, but those are not the progressive values that they live day-to-day with their families and how they raise their children.

I think that’s the sort of problem; I have with the political climate. The politicking of the political language and narrative to advance yourself. Muslims for Progressive Values, what I think we can do as a non-profit, is advocate for the values that adhere to the values of equality and human rights for all.

I think on LGBTQ issues; it is constantly under assault in the Trump Administration. Our religious institutions receive federal funding and are allowed to discriminate against gay couples in the adoption of children, for example.

You’re not supposed to be able to discriminate as religious institutions if you are receiving federal funding. There are so many cases of this issue. As a progressive Muslim organization, we have collaborated with a lot of progressive faith-based organizations fighting back against a lot of this, e.g., what they have used is the Religious Freedom Reclamation Act to justify discrimination in the name of religion of others whoever the “other” is.

That’s what it was intended to be; it was intended to protect religious minorities, like Native Americans when the government was taking over their land for development. Land the Native Americans saw as their burial grounds.

That’s what it was intended to be used for, but now it is used by the Religious Right to support their religious agenda. I see the conservative Muslims are using the same modus operandi as the Christian Right to justify discrimination against LGBT people.

They try to use it to justify female genital mutilation in Detroit, two years ago, for example. So, yes, this is where we’re at! It is no longer a secular state. It is a theocracy. It has become a Christian theocracy, Christian Sharia Law.

I say, “Christian Sharia Law,” because: How is it any different than others who legislate and inform laws based on their understanding of the Quran? They are implementing it for the rest of America or the rest of the States.

So, it is unconstitutional.

Jacobsen: So, for those who are interested, either as secular people or as Muslims, what are some organizations that they can look into, become involved in, and support some of these more progressive values as defined before, or can research more to get a better understanding?

Zonneveld: Muslims for Progressive Values is the oldest progressive Muslim organization. We have been consistent in our messaging, in our advocacy, and in the positions that we take. There are some new organizations.

But they’re advocacy, political advocacy, types. I am not getting involved with them, actually. For one, because we are a non-profit, we are not a 501(c)4. We are a 501(c)3. So, because we are a non-profit, we cannot endorse political candidates, for example.

We tend to have discussions with politicians about positions and candidates. We have a forum and exchange ideas, “This is what we feel like. America should have marriage age for children at age 18 and older, not younger. Period. America should have a federal law against female genital mutilation and cutting. Because we don’t.”

That kind of advocacy, but we can’t endorse particular candidates. You would have to go to the progressive advocacy groups like or wherever on the political spectrum someone is.

Jacobsen: Any final thoughts?

Zonneveld: Also, there is this language put out on the side. It saddens me. Because there is so much divisive language, which can take away from restructuring the police, restructuring whatever the system is needing restructuring.

So, when you use the term, “Defund the police,” it is a kind of an intellectually lazy term. I have a problem with things like that. I would like to see really thought out things. There are a lot of African American scholars and thinkers who we do not hear in the media.

We see a lot of people in the media. It doesn’t get us anywhere as a country. That’s my overarching sentiment about the political climate in America, whether Black Lives Matter, Trumpism, the divisive language happening.

That’s my reflection on that.

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Ani, it’s a pleasure.

Zonneveld: You’re welcome, Scott.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] President and Founder, Muslims for Progressive Values; Founder, Alliance of Inclusive Muslims.

[2] Individual Publication Date: January 15, 2021:; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2021:


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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