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Grammy-winning songwriter Ani Zonneveld: “In times of COVID-19 people need music and spirituality”

Grammy winning songwriter Ani Zonneveld sees people’s great desire for music during the pandemic, because it’s heart-opening and -healing. With her spiritual songs, the Muslim American singer already tried to heal the wounds after 9/11. The attacks had brought her to the foundation of the US-based NGO and PaRD member “Muslims for Progressive Values”, looking for an Islamic language of Human Rights.

Mrs. Zonneveld, the inauguration of the new US-President Biden: Was it a sign of inclusion and hope for minorities? What does it need for minorities to be united in a society?

I think this was a perfect example of the inclusivity agenda of President Biden. If you look at his nomination of the Heads and Deputies of the Departments, they are also very inclusive – you have Deb Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Interior Department. There is Rachel Levine, the first ever openly transgender as assistant secretary of health and Pete Buttigieg, the first ever openly gay man in that position to be the Head of Secretary of Transportation. So, it’s very inclusive of Gender, Women and Colour. It’s a good example and more representative of what America is. I think the only way that really can unite or do away some of the false narratives is to be able to overcome COVID-19 and provide job opportunities and benefiting everyone. But I think it’s going to be hard and a struggle.

You can never unite people if you are being dismissive of who they are, no matter how ugly and discriminating their position is. There is a root cause to hate, and until we get to the root of it, we can’t resolve it, which will lead to disunity.

What was your motivation to found “Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV)”?

I just wanted to create a Muslim community for myself, one that is inclusive and egalitarian in its interpretation. After 9/11 I wrote, sang and produced a CD as a way to counter 9/11 and the image that all Muslims are terrorists. The lyrics of the songs were promoting Islamic feminism and the role of women in Islam and just positive messaging. What I discovered, was that none of the Muslim retail stores would sell the CD because they said I use all the musical instrumentation and that was forbidden and I was a female singer and my voice is by default sexual and therefore needs to be censored. At that point, I was very angry with this interpretation of Islam because I know for a fact that Muslim women have always contributed to society and to teaching. The first converts to Islam were women. So, I started my own community “Muslims for Progressive Values” which then became an NGO. It is a way to create a culture of Human Rights in Muslim societies whether it be in the West or in Muslim majority countries.

With “Muslims for Progressive Values” you promote critical and intellectual discourse on sensitive issues around gender equality and sexual orientation. How important is it for religious communities to reflect on their convictions and beliefs?

It is very important for religions to be relevant even in the 21st Century. The Quran always talks about rationality and reasoning and demands Muslims to think and reflect. In the meantime, many young people of Muslim or Christian faith traditions give up on their religions, because they find it irrelevant or archaic. Here in the United States, young people tend to have a more spiritual and inclusive understanding of religion – not orthodox. At the end of the day, what religion is supposed to be is to be for the good of humankind. If that’s not what it’s doing, then why even have religion? For “Muslims for progressive values”, and for me, the values that we inculcate are an Islamic Human Rights language used for the benefit society. That is really working for us as an organisation.

The development that all SDGs are trying to attain will never happen until the religious language within Muslim societies changes when it comes to girl’s rights

Could you give an example?

When working in many Muslim communities, we address women and girls’ rights in Islamic human rights language, on issues of critical thinking, and their right to work outside the home especially when the Quran is very clear on these rights. You cannot have development when half of the society is held back. Women are intentionally held back starting from barring girls from higher education, which therefore disqualifies them from employment opportunities, which results in economic dependence of the men, the father, brother, or husband. The development that all SDGs are trying to attain will never happen until the religious language within Muslim societies changes when it comes to girls rights – the girl’s rights to go to school, to get an education, to decide if she wants to marry and when she wants to marry. Development will not happen until we go back to the roots of what is holding back women in development and attaining economic independence.

To what extent are you able to search the dialogue with more traditional groups that might not share your liberal views?

We don’t associate necessarily with conservative Muslims. MPV is about values, so I don’t really look at what religion you follow or not. We have found that when it comes to women’s reproductive rights, LGBT rights, or when advocating for a particular legislation, often times here in the American context, for many years, MPV tends to be the only Muslim organisation in a coalition of progressive faith organisations. For example, when the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) was discussed as a way to end discrimination of LGBT such as in housing, employment, MPV was the only Muslim organisation in the progressive faith camp. The conservative faith camp on the other hand, was made up of conservative Catholic, Evangelical and Muslim organisations. The conservative faith camp wanted an exemption – that this law would exempt faith organisations, meaning they will be allowed to discriminate for faith reasons. For me as a person of faith I had a real problem with this. I said: “How can you as religious organisations justify discrimination in the name of religion, if anything, faith should be leading anti-discriminatory practises.” This is a perfect example of how many times MPV stands alone. On the issue of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), there were only two Muslim organisations involved in banning this practise in the U.S. The good news is that the anti-FGM law passed recently which included the language: “FGM cannot be justified in the name of religion, tradition or culture”.

How can a minority or group of interest avoid to only stay in its own “bubble” in times of social media and algorithms predefining your community of interest?

It is not very difficult, You just have to make that extra effort! I make the effort of switching to Fox News or conservative outlets, or reading what conservatives are reading and listening, what they are speaking and saying in the mosques. As a matter of fact, we have friends on the ground in Washington who are tasked with listening to mosque sermons and taking notes as to what they are thinking. It’s important to note that more Muslim Americans voted for Trump in 2020 than in 2016. When asked why, their response is that are not on board with Black Lives Matter and are against the “LGBTQ agenda”. There is still hardwired racism and prejudices in traditional Muslim communities. To counter that we have a #NoHateInMyFaith initiative. You can learn about that here.

What are your plans for the next months?

On March 24, we will hold a parallel event at Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) with our Kenyan partner. In Kenya we have been working to reform the religious Sharia court, called Kadhi court. The secular national law in Kenya states that the marriage age is 18, but in the Muslim enclaves you still see child marriage illegally being conducted. You have to ask who the religious leaders are who are marrying these young girls to older men. It is against the law, but it should also be against your conscience to do such a wedding. We will discuss our reform work on matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance. The event is co-sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, and co-sponsoring organisations are African Muslim Women Action Network (AMWNA), and our umbrella organisation Alliance of Inclusive Muslims (AIM). I invite your readers to check out our event page here.

Furthermore, I’m in the process of setting up an AIM World Youtube TV Channel, which is going to be a channel rooted in inclusivity, love, compassion and human rights in the context of Islam. It’s going to be in different languages and the programming will be contributed by our different partners all over the world. It’s going to be 24 hours, in different languages and all promoting our values. There are thousands of channels promoting intolerance and hate in the name of Islam. There needs to be at least one to counter that. And, I could use some help.

As a Grammy winning song writer – how do you fill the gap of cancelled concerts and the lack of culture in times of COVID-19?

In times of COVID-19, what people do need is music and songs and so I find myself singing at several occasions as an opener or closer, in bringing people together in a very spiritual way. I’m a member of the United Nations Multi-faith Advisory Council and I sang for its 75th Anniversary of the UN event. I think there is a real desire for music, because music has a way of opening hearts and healing. Particularly the songs that I sing are very spiritual, I borrow the interpretations of Rumi and Rabia al-Basri, who was a female saint in Iraq in the 8th century and whose poetry is so beautiful and inclusive. I also take English interpretations of the Quran and set it to classical music that I composed, arranged in a choral style, because we don’t have such musical genre, so I created one that I coined “Islamic hymns”! I felt that as a Muslim in the West we really miss singing, especially in English and in the context of Islam, and most importantly, we need to create our own Muslim culture.

What unites people? Music or Religion?

Music! (laughs) It’s an easy answer. I want to share a story with you: I was invited to sing at a Christian conference some years ago. After my performance, an older man came to me and said: “You know, I hate everything about Muslims and Islam.” That was his opening line. I said: “OK.” Then he got quiet and started crying. He went on: “But after seeing your name and the title of your event on ‘What is progressive Islam?’, something compelled me to come and listen to you. And now my hate is gone.” This for me was a perfect example of how music can really unite people. This man made me realize so many things. He taught me that people don’t necessarily want to hate. And also, it’s the person who hates that is in pain, not the one who they’re hating on. Hate kills the haters. I have always been open-minded but that taught me to be even more open-minded. It is so important to really listen to what people are saying. You can never unite people if you are being dismissive of who they are, no matter how ugly and discriminating their position is. There is a root cause to hate, and until we get to the root of it, we can’t resolve it, which will lead to disunity.

By Claudia Jordan, PaRD Secretariat