The story of progressive Muslim-Americans

Omar Akersim is a gay muslim who prays regularly and observes the Ramadan fast. He is also a part of a small but growing number of American Muslims challenging the conservative interpretations of Islam that defined their worldview. He has faced many trials with his conservative parents, but he has also stayed true to his faith.

The comes as millennial American Muslims work to reshape the faith they grew up with so it fits with their identity, with one foot in the world of their parents’ beliefs and the other in the changing cultural landscape of America. The results have challenged many scholars and leaders to what it really means to be Muslim.

“Islam in America is being forced to kind of change and to reevaluate its positions on things like homosexuality because of how we’re moving forward culturally as a nation. It’s striving to make itself seen and known in the cultural fabric and to do that, it does have to evolve,” Akersim stated. “Ten or 15 years ago, this would have been impossible.”

The shift doesn’t end with breaking obvious taboos. Young American Muslims are making strides into challenging fashion, music, and continues to stir things up with unorthodox takes on the things of American pop culture. Nearly 40 percent of the estimated 2.75 million Muslims in the nation are American-born and that number continues to grow.

Advocates for a more tolerant religion state that the constraints on interfaith marriage and homosexuality aren’t in the Quran, but are based on the interpretations of Islamic law that have no place in any nation as a tradition, even in Muslim countries.

“I think it’s fair to say the traditional Islam that we experienced excluded a lot of Muslims that were on the margins. I always felt not very welcomed by the type of Islam my parents practiced,” Tanzila Ahmed said. She published an anthology of love stories by Muslim American women, “Love Inshallah.”

Many are still conservative in practice, but others are challenging it. As a result, there is a new emphasis on meeting for prayer and socializing in neutral spaces instead of mosques. Universal inclusion is also very strongly encouraged.

“Some of them still want a mosque, they still want to belong and to pray and others are shifting and they are very comfortable being non-religious,” Haddad added. “These people feel that they can get rid of the hang-ups of what the culture has defined as Muslim and maintain the beliefs and values, the spiritual values, and feel very comfortable by shedding all the other restrictions that society has put on them.”

In Los Angeles, the religious organization called Muslims for Progressive Values has been pushing the boundaries with a female leadership who performs same-sex and interfaith marriages, support groups for gays, and even a worship style that includes women giving sermons and men and women praying in the same room.

Ani Zonneveld, the founder who is a Muslim singer and songwriter of Malaysian descent, started the organization in 2007 after she recorded some Islamic pop music that generated a backlash. It is now recognized by the U.N. as a non-governmental organization.

“For us, the interpretation of Islam is egalitarian values — and by egalitarian it’s not just words that we speak. It’s practice,” she stated about the group. “It’s freedom of religion and from religion, too.”