Ani Zonneveld is an imam, and yes, also a woman. She qualifies that she is “an imam with a small "i" — though her reluctance to go with a capital “I” says more about her democratic approach to worship than any deference to Islamic tradition, one that has been and still is very male-dominated. She has no patience for that Islam.
Instead she founded a Muslim community — Muslims for Progressive Values — that embraces gender equality, gay rights and interfaith marriage. And although it is based in Los Angeles, it has spread — often quietly — across the world.
Zonneveld was meant to be a diplomat. That at least was her father’s plan for her. He was an ambassador and she was raised in several countries, including Germany, Egypt and India. But she found her way to Los Angeles and became instead a singer and Grammy award-winning songwriter. (She wrote songs for Keb’ Mo’.)
Then, after the events of 9/11, she looked at the religion she was raised in and decided to study it and to “surrender” to the process. She ultimately re-embraced Islam, and made it her mission to fight back against Saudi-exported Wahhabism, the strict interpretation of the faith that she holds responsible for inspiring extremist groups from al-Qaeda to ISIS.
Earlier this year she wrote an open letter to the king of Saudi Arabia to chastise him, and to call on him to do more to combat the rise in global extremism. She has called on other governments to divest from Saudi Arabia, citing Sweden as a good example.
Zonneveld is not shy of challenging the rules of her religion, most of which she insists are cultural accretions. She happily takes turns with others in her L.A.-based community to lead Friday prayers. She also sings during worship — anathema to the traditionalists — and she created Muslims for Progressive Values as an alternative model of community.
“It was a way for us to bring together Muslims of like minds that is gender parity, human rights for everyone, freedom of expression, freedom of and from religion, separation of religion and state, all (those) good values that have been side-lined and instead have been replaced by blind ritual and orthodoxy that is very stiff and very harsh in its interpretation," she says.
Her group has spread beyond America, and counts more than 10,000 members, though many have joined or sympathize in secret. Her open embrace of LGBTQ rights, now so culturally acceptable in America, is radical in Islamic terms.
“It is radically going back to tradition,” she insists, “because Prophet Muhammad didn’t prosecute anyone for being a homosexual, there is no punishment in the Quran for being a homosexual, period.”
There is certainly punishment in much of the Muslim world today, including hanging in Iran. So, the interpretation of Islamic law — or Sharia — in many countries is in Zonneveld’s sights.
She has created a campaign called #ImamsForShe to educate imams about cultural practices such as child marriage, which she insists is un-Islamic. And she has started a program at the United Nations.
She is giving diplomats lessons in the Quran hoping that it will embolden them to challenge countries like Iran on their interpretation of Islamic Law. The daughter who was meant to be a diplomat is now training them instead.