Ahmed Nassef didn't hug me, but I would have let him. I'd heard of him, had read stories about him and had tried unsuccessfully to contact him several months ago.
Last weekend, I was in Washington, D.C., to speak at a Hillel Conference, and guess whose name was also on the speakers' roster?
When my talks were done, I went to his. The college students were already packed into the room, and I understood why.
Nassef is the founder of Muslim WakeUp!, a 2-year-old organization dedicated to creating a progressive Muslim culture in America, and his efforts have met with some initial success. And as far as I could tell from visiting the organization's Web site, the man hasn't lost his sense of humor trying.
Nassef has wide shoulders and a broad, expressive face. He was born in Egypt 39 years ago, and then moved with his family to the United States when he was 8. He grew up in Los Angeles and Glendale, attended UCLA and developed a successful career in Internet marketing.
The organization he and Jawaad Ali founded began as a kind of marketing experiment. After Sept. 11, 2001, it started to bother Nassef that the spokespeople for Islam in America tended to be culturally, politically and religiously conservative, and portrayed Islam as monolithic.
"They talk about Islam like it's a human being," he said. "Islam says this, Islam says that; like, I talked to Islam the other day and he said...."
On the other side, non-Muslim Americans shared misconceptions that the majority of Muslim men were pious militants who kept their women in burkas -- what Bill Maher so sweetly refers to as "beekeeper suits." Nassef was certain -- informed by studies and his own experience -- that most Muslim Americans were more like him. A Zogby survey found that about 10 percent engage in a high level of observance. The rest, like himself, observe some holidays and cherish their faith and heritage, but have no consistent relationship with the politics or institutions of these 10 percent. "I figured there are a lot of people who feel the way I do," he said. "And I began to wonder how I could reach them."
He decided a Web site was the ideal way to reach an untapped audience.
Muslimwakeup.com reflects the widest possible swath of the Muslim American experience. It is pro-gay rights and pro-women's rights. It has a section called "Sex and the Umma," which features Muslim women's erotica (guess which part of the site gets the most hits).
It also has a feature called "Hug a Jew." A member of the Web site embraces a Jew, then explains that person's story. "One of the core principles of Islam is justice," Nassef said. "The whole idea of collective judgment goes against the principle of justice."
"American Jews and Muslims could find a common agenda on issues like social justice and education, but they can rarely get beyond a certain international conflict," Naseef said. "Once you get to my generation and the younger generation all they talk about is Israel and Palestinians and bombings. Then you're no longer talking about human beings, just monsters."
Hug a Jew is Nassef's way of humanizing a people some might -- unjustly -- stereotype. Like I said, the man has a sense of humor.
The site now receives 70,000 unique visitors per month, according to Nassef, and a lot of media attention. The plan is for the site to form a catalyst for different forms of expression of Islam in America. One reason so many Muslims stop going to mosque and lose their faith, Nassef said, is that they have come to understand that their choice is orthodoxy or nothing.
"It's very rare to find a place where you can be an American Muslim, a place where you can feel you belong," he said. "This is a thing all my Jewish friends have."
A sister site, pmuna.org, for Progressive Muslim Union of North America, will help organize and inspire the kind of religious but non-orthodox movements in the Muslim world that we Jews developed a few generations back. Nassef, his wife and their 5-year-old son live in New York City, where the 92nd Street Y Jewish Community Center provides plenty of inspiration.
"It's a great inclusive place," he said. "We need to build these kinds of institutions."
In December, hackers penetrated Muslimwakeup.com and slathered it with accusations of apostasy. Nassef has received hundreds of angry e-mails, and some death threats. But he majored in Islamic studies at UCLA, is a native Arabic speaker, and doesn't shirk from confronting those who claim their Islam is the one true one.
"Secularism has a long tradition in the Arab world," he said.
Recently he was invited to debate an imam at Stanford, and Muslim students crowded in to hear him.
"I think there is movement," he said. "We're going through an important time in our community. More and more people are seeing us as a voice."
Recent books by Irshad Manji and Asra Nomani are hopeful signs that he is correct.
I sat down with Nassef after his talk and we spoke about the challenges to his vision. There is no steady source of funding. It's not clear that progressive Islam divorced from mosques can succeed beyond a generation. But the speaking invitations keep pouring in, the site has grown by 10,000 visitors in a month and Nassef exudes confidence.
"This is the beginning of something that will build," he said. "These are the first steps."
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