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The Zonneveld Experience in Gloucester Road

I do like cold West London evenings. It reminds me of the time when I used to meet up friends for a religious natter (which may be an oxymoron!) in the Hammersmith area. There is certainly a different ‘feel’ to West London than East London where I’m used to.

Ani Zonneveld

I was happy to find myself in the part of the metropolis last Wednesday evening. I hadn’t been to Gloucester Road in over a year and it was nice to see tourists bustling around and hearing snatches of European and Far Eastern words and phrases. I came to this part of town to meet with Ani Zonneveld, the president of the Muslims for Progressive Values, the leading progressive Muslims group in the USA. I had first befriended Ani in the true spirit of the internet age, on Facebook. On Facebook, one can go on collecting friends like a kid from the fifties collects baseball cards, without ever meeting the person in real life. Ani – despite the ‘Zonneveld’ surname  - looked Arab or Pakistani. I only found out later that not only was she Malaysian but also exactly like me – a Malay with Indian heritage from the same part of the old country. We had much more in common than I thought!

As I walked to her hotel just behind Gloucester Road station, I spied a little restaurant across the road called ‘Bugis Street’. Now this was serendipitous! Bugis Street was a famous street in Singapore (or perhaps infamous - transsexual prostitutes roamed free there till the 1980s!) and as a Malaysian myself, I recognised the name straight away.

I met Ani in the hotel lobby. She was a small woman (or perhaps I perceived so due to my relative largeness!) but her winning personality could be felt immediately. I immediately was hooked on her warmth and friendliness. This was the president of the world-famous MPV and I was honoured to have her exclusive attention.

Naturally we adjourned to Bugis Street. It turned out to have an ambience of a Chinese coffee shop which was a big part of Malaysian culture back in the day. Such coffee shops had not only character but their own home made coffee with its distinct taste. I fully expected us to grumble about how the food there, like all Malaysian and Singaporean restaurants in the West, was a poor copy of the authentic stuff back home!

We started with a sad discussion with how Malaysia, while progressing in science and technology, is regressing in terms of attitudes and humanity. Ani and I both came from generations when Malaysians were much nicer to each other. I blame the two fundamentalisms which I call the 2Rs, racial and religious fundamentalism. The Malay-Muslims’ identity as the indigenous people meant they were becoming increasing unfriendly to their fellow Malaysians of other races and religions. It was indeed a pity, we lamented, that the Malays who were renowned for their friendliness and hospitality would now lose that reputation.

I also mentioned Ani’s latest interview on an Arabian talk show. Although she more than held her own, it was clear that the show was biased against her. This bias is due to her audacious attempt to challenge the male dominance in Traditional Islam – symbolised by the ubiquitous male imam in the ritual prayer. Ani fully supports the institutionalisation of female imams in ritual prayer and you can imagine how shocking this must be to most Muslims.

At this juncture, it might be useful for us to ask why is this the case? After all, these women imams are not doing anything evil. On the contrary, they are leading ritual prayers! In other words, leading physical observance for the reverence of Allah. What could be so wrong with that? Perhaps it is our own attachment to the image of the male imam which makes us so resistant to the idea. Whatever the case, we must never let the type of mockery Ani experienced to deter us from this course. Ani certainly did not. On the contrary, it simply motivated her further!

We also discussed a few projects in which I might be able to make myself useful too. I was especially excited about a video series where we would disabuse Muslims of the misconceptions we carry with us without even thinking. Issues like wife beating, the veil, female imams and the exclusive rights of salvation. I do believe that this project, if articulated correctly, can become a great tool to combat misinformation about Islam. Conservative Traditional Islam dominates the Islamic landscape and has the default status. Whenever we look up anything on ‘Islam’, it is usually this Islam we find. This has got to change and if anyone can change it, Ani can.

The evening ended all too quickly and Ani presented me with a precious gift – a CD of her performing special spiritual songs. Besides her work on progressive Islam, Ani is also a highly accomplished singer. I was delighted with the gift. And strangely, neither one of us complained about the food!

Farouk A. Peru is a Phd Candidate in Islam and Postmodernism and teaches Islamic Studies at King's College, London.