By Ruth Broyde Sharone
ANI ZONNEVELD – A PROFILE
One day she woke up and said to herself, “Enough is enough.”
Feisty and courageous, Ani Zonneveld, born in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, is on a mission. A Muslim woman in her early 50s – who has lived in the U.S. since 1981 – Ani has weathered enormous criticism and backlash for being the founder, president, and guiding light of Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV). Criticism doesn’t dissuade her, however. It only seems to make her stronger and more determined.
Ani founded a progressive Muslim community in 2006 in LA. A year later, in partnership with pockets of progressives in the United States, she launched MPV. Currently the organization has a presence in 11 countries (U.S., Canada, Chile, Germany, The Netherlands, France, Australia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Tanzania, Burundi), with Switzerland and Tunisia soon to be added. In its literature, MPV describes itself as “a grassroots, faith-based, human rights organization working to counter fundamentalist narratives on the ground and at the policy level, and to ensure that human rights are upheld and not denied on the basis of culture, theology, or theocracy.” The slogan on their website reads: “Be Yourself. Be Muslim.”
A blonde pixie haircut framing her expressive face, Ani was a songwriter and Grammy-award winner, trained since age five as a classical pianist, before undertaking life as a reformer and activist.
Appealing from the Qur’an
She faces considerable personal risk from traditional quarters of Islam because she is openly critical of countries and communities that are guilty of intolerance and racism, which she says is the polar opposite of what the Qur’an mandates. She mentions Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, noted for intolerance, and says she recently wrote an open letter to the Saudi King calling for an overhaul of Sharia (Islamic law) and recommending that “he bury the hatchet” with Iran.
“This is a book for all peoples and all times,” Ani underscores, quoting the Qur’an, “and it has to be relevant to 21st century values.” Marriage and inheritance laws, she specifies, need to change to be equal for men and women.”
MPV describes itself as “the only institution that establishes egalitarian expressions of Islam for women, minorities, and for LGBTQ rights.” They work to achieve that by creating inclusive spaces for religious discourse through the arts, education, social activism, and community events. As a result they have encountered harsh criticism for having men and women pray together, side by side, which Ani likes to refer to as Mecca Style, the way men and women pray when they are at the Kaaba, Islam’s most sacred mosque, located in Saudi Arabia.
Ani maintains a hectic travel schedule in order to visit MPV’s various chapters around the world and consult with local members. With recent UN Consultative status, MPV can no longer be considered a renegade organization, although it is easy to understand why it has caused so much controversy in the Muslim world in Asia, the Middle East, as well as conservative Muslim communities in the West.
Ani, who has an 18 year-old daughter ready to go off to college, did not have a traditional upbringing herself. She was on the road with her family from the age of two and a half because her late father, whom she sorely misses and emulates, served as Malaysian ambassador to Germany, India, and Egypt for 16 years.
“I am my father,” she says emphatically, describing him in loving terms as a ‘go-getter’ as she starts to tear over. His clarion message to her while he was alive was always the same: “Whatever you do, make your life count.”
Her relationship with her mother and three out of her four siblings, however, who all live in Malaysia, is problematic. Her mother, who has espoused a Wahhabi (very strict) interpretation of Islam, refuses to speak to Ani until she gives up her activities, and her older sister, a lawyer for Sharia legal cases, is also very critical of Ani’s advocacy for social justice in the name of Islam and for challenging centuries-old traditions. But Ani does have a close relationship with her eldest brother, who is an artist.
“I’m sure it is because my brother is an artist that he supports me,” Ani declares. “God is the most creative entity of all, and as human beings, because we are fashioned in the image of God, we too are creative entities. That is our spiritual soul and our inheritance.
Transforming the Hardened Heart
“The first thing radicals do is eliminate singing, music, the arts, and anything that is creative and, by doing that, they harden the heart. And when your heart has been hardened, that’s when they have you. You will not find a radical who is a musician or an artist, because artists are too connected to their spiritual soul.”
The worst thing her enemies say about Ani – mostly on social media – is that she is an “infidel.” Some of them are also confused about her identity, thinking she has a Jewish family name. But her husband is of Christian heritage and originally from Holland.
Last November she experienced serious censure and even threats to her life when she visited Malaysia, her country of birth, where she has an office and part-time staff. “We’re challenging the status quo,” she says proudly. “There is a healthy number of youth who agree with us. MPV in Malaysia is 100% youth driven, but they face great opposition from the local government, which is constantly propagating Wahhabism by way of national TV, radio outlets and the mosques,” she explains.
“If you challenge the current form of Islamic practice there, or if you ask questions, you are charged with apostasy.”
Her critics extracted a You-tube video of her doing the azaan (the Islamic call for prayer) at an MPV conference some years ago. That video went viral and garnered 90,000 views in two days, with 2,800 shares, mostly condemning her activities. Only a few dared to post supportive comments for her and MPV.
Some of those who opposed her activism threatened to burn down the hotel where they were going to have the conference, she related. The religious authorities contacted the hotel and said if you don’t give up the names and addresses of those coming to the conference, we will raid the hotel. Instead, Ani and the local MPV leaders publicly canceled the conference, moving it to a different place and keeping the new venue strictly confidential for attendees of the conference.
All in a day’s work for Ani Zonneveld who rarely writes songs any more, but who is passionate about composing a new chapter in 21st century Islam and whose private mantra is “whatever you do, make your life count.”