Progressive Islam: A Critical View from Latin Muslim Feminists by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente & Eren Cervantes-Altamirano


Progressive Islam(s) in the West, particularly in Canada and the US, have been defined as movements that primarily encompass Islamic feminism(s), LGBTQI affirming movements, anti-Conservative theologies, feminist theologies, women-centered liturgies, etc. From within this umbrella, we have seen calls to embrace women-led prayers, women-only spaces, LGBTIQ inclusive and affirming mosques and practices like ijtihad, which are said to be useful in breaking away from Conservative understandings of Islam. All in all, Progressive movements often depict themselves as “reformers” within a paradigm that is usually conceived to be dominated by Orthodox theologies and attitudes mainly driven by Saudi Arabia and Iran.

However, to what degree are Progressive movements truly inclusive? Are they as “radical” as they have been made out to be? Are Progressive spaces any safer for women and trans-women? Are Progressives free of misogyny and violence?

Let’s be clear. Leading figures of Progressive movements have experienced, and will continue to experience, different types of oppression by virtue of being Muslim, People of Color, Black folks, women, LGBTIQ, etc. and we take a stand firmly in solidarity with them. Nonetheless, acknowledging Progressive spaces are relevant and needed, this does not necessarily mean that these have encouraged the kind of radical thinking that is required to break down the barriers that oppression poses to Muslims in general.

To date, Progressive Islam(s) are led by academic figures and upper middle-class Muslims in Canada, the US, France and South Africa, among others. As one could say, Progressive Islam(s) are heavily housed in the Ivory Towers of West. Beyond the class issue, advocates of Progressive Islam(s) have done little to address ableism and mental health in the communities that are said to be “safe spaces.” It is not only the fact that Progressive Islam(s) are heavily represented by body-able people, but that there is little room to discuss issues that affect those of us who have navigated the spaces, including suicide, trauma, lateral-violence, and misogyny. In fact, numerous women and trans-women, particular those of color, continue to suffer harassment, violence, racism and marginalization from Progressive members, something that is often solved by mechanisms of discursive privilege: Alienating the person and sweeping off the issue under the rug.

To this, we add that white supremacy continues to go unchallenged in many of these settings. Not only are white voices still over-valued, but white women and white LGBTIQ members are often given the floor to represent Progressive movements over people of colour, Black folks and Indigenous people. And within all these attitudes epistemic violence, an incredibly colonial attitude, remains at the core of much of the work that is done in Progressive settings.

Progressive Islam and Epistemic Violence

Yes, we know and we are familiar with the term, and we are going to talk about it.

The term epistemic violence has been used by numerous Indigenous and Black activists as well as decolonial scholars, including Walter Mignolo, to describe the process of “disqualification and simultaneous appropriation of ‘indigenous’ knowledge.” To this effect, epistemic violence within Progressive settings works by invalidating non-Arab or South Asian knowledge of Islam, by erasing other ways of knowing other than Western “rationality,” by promoting the voices of upper class Muslims, white women and LGBTQ folks and by policing the “Progressiveness” of anyone that walks into one of these spaces. At the same time, this epistemic violence entails the appropriation of the language of resistance and decolonization, developed by Indigenous, Latinx and Black people, which have become the sexy topic in Progressive spaces.

As Latin American Muslim women, epistemic violence is at the core of our experience.

In being Latin American we are not considered “real” Muslims. What is more, we are often shut down and told that we have nothing of value to offer to Muslim communities, as a whole, and to Progressive movements. Progressives, in later years, have appropriated the language of resistance that was born in the colonial borders of Latin America, the Caribbean, Turtle Island and Africa, without ever engaging in a meaningful way with the grassroots and academic work done by the people of these communities. Similarly, in recent years we have seen a rise in the language of decolonization from the very Progressives that overlook the ways in which our communities have done the work for over 500 years and have recorded it in academic journals for over 50.

Yet, above all, even when resistance and decolonization are being used in the Progressive rhetoric, the movements have largely neglected to deconstruct and analyze the ways in which Progressive Islam(s) have been coopted by the neoliberal state, so we wonder:

How can we talk about resistance when the leading figures of Progressive Islam(s) develop alliances with the states that criminalize Muslims, kill Black communities and marginalize Indigenous peoples? How can we talk about decolonial work within the sphere of Progressive Islam(s), when we see Progressive Muslim women and Progressive LGBTIQ folks having dinner at the white house with the very people that drive laws that police Muslim women and criminalize Latinx and Black communities? How can we talk about Progressive Islam(s), when we refuse to call Israel a settler-state?

To engage in these practices, to allow neoliberal rhetoric to occupy Progressive spaces, to believe that Islamic feminism is useful by virtue of encouraging women to lead prayer, to endorse the idea the Progressives “know better” and to coopt the language of resistance and decolonization are practices of violence and erasure. These attitudes obliterate Indigenous, Latinx and Black epistemologies. They also tell women of color, particularly Black and Indigenous, and trans-women that their day-to-day issues of marginalization and violence come second to the right of upper class Muslim women to stand in front of a congregation.

They are also inherently anti-Black and anti-Indigenous by virtue of neglecting to recognize that Progressive movements are largely taking place in occupied and settler lands that have histories of colonization, genocide and slavery. And ultimately, are violent to those doing work on the ground… those who do not have the privilege to have their own mosque, their own academic journals, their invites to the White House, their all-paid conferences in all-inclusive resorts and such…

So, let’s talk: What is Progressive in all that?

 This article have been co-authored by:

Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente is a social communicator, writer, mentor in digital activism and community educator in gender and capacity development. She has led initiatives for grass roots female leaders’s empowerment in Latin America and Africa. She is an intersectional latin muslim feminist in the crossroads between Religion, Power and Sexuality. Her academic work adresses Feminist Hermeneutics in Islam, Muslim Women Representations, Queer Identities and Movement Building. Vanessa is the founder of Mezquita de Mujeres (A Mosque for Women), a social media and educational project based in ICT that aims to explore the links between feminism, knowledge and activism and highlights the voices and perspectives of women from the global south as change makers in their communities.

Eren Cervantes-Altamirano is Binnizá (Zapotec Nation) from Mexico. She is a convert to Islam, and has worked extensively on issues of gender, sexual violence and violence against women within Muslim, Latinx and Indigenous communities both in Mexico and in Canada. Eren is currently completing a MA in Public Administration and conducting research on Canada’s international development projects in Latin America and Africa targeting Indigenous communities. Her work has been published at Muslimah Media Watch, Love InshaAllah, Ishqr, The Tempest and in her own blog, Identity Crisis, among others.

Image: Flickr

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Categories: Feminism and Religion, Islam

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11 replies

  1. Wow ! You opened the eyes of quite a few of us.. You showed a new angle to look at ‘ Progressive Islam’ being promoted of late.

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  2. This is a very important piece. Anyone who has even brushed up against “Progressive” Islam groups on Facebook can attest to the way that privilege infects these spaces. Many of us no longer use the progressive label for this very reason let alone interact with many of these people anymore online or in real life. While I would argue that there is room for disagreement on possible approaches and political positions within a diverse understanding of progressive politics, there is no room for the racist privilege you’ve articulated here so eloquently.

    I’ve had some hard lessons over the years about privilege and as a result no longer speak on or organize panels, take part in other events, and I’ve even quit this blog. The Toronto Unity Mosque has been part of this struggle to be as fully inclusive the way you have articulated it here, often learning in the moment where we come up short and pivoting right then and there. When I asked the community what we could do to help people find their voice, a brown woman said, “fewer white voices.” I quit giving sermons from that day forward (despite only giving them about three times a year and being a co-founder of the mosque itself). I don’t know if it helped her come forward to speak, and it broke my heart in two to no longer connect that way with the community I helped found, but there was no other ethical choice to make. Frankly, I don’t need to take up any of this space. I’m not saying anything that someone else could not say just as well if not better. If there is something that is particular to my expertise or my experience, like sharing these thoughts, I’ll say something within certain bounds. Otherwise, I try to keep my mouth shut (emphasis on the word “try” these are hard habits to break).

    Thank you very much for this post.

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  3. Amen and amen! Thank you Vanessa and Eren for this post.

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  4. This is why I don’t care about being seen “as an ally”. Liberals will not accept Islam until it is literally a carbon copy of their beliefs.

    I refuse to jump in that lizard hole.

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  5. The “ground” has been ceded to an invisible academia that exist in the ivory towers of academia. Sequestered from the “real” they spin out phantasies that have yet to reach the people. After picking myself off the floor I reread your article and it got even stronger Shukran and keep on “keeping on”.

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    • Loved your post and wondered do you know of any Hispanic Masjids in NYC Dr.TA Bashir Co Director: Islamic Certificate Program, New York Theological Seminary (NYTS) Coordinator NYTS DV Task Force Founder and Co Director, House of Peace,Inc ( est. 9/11) A Gender Equality Organization 718 276 6135 (phone & fax) President, Muslim Advisory Committee(MAC). tabcib@aol.com

      >

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  6. For LGBTQI-affirming spaces, it might be possible to include El-Tawhid Juma Circle. If you want to link to it, I suggest linking the FB page (page, not group) for ETJC-TO. It is more active and responsive. But that is only if you want to.

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  1. Nine days to the election. Not that I’m counting. Not that I’m not counting, either.

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