In watching THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN, I couldn’t help thinking that I was watching a quintessentially American story of religious progress. In many ways, this country was born out of a desire to reshape existing religious traditions to fit changing realities and beliefs.
Indeed, there is little that is unique about Asra Nomani’s struggle to achieve equality of worship for herself and other women in the Muslim community of Morgantown, West Virginia. American Christians and Jews have been fighting similar struggles for well over a century as members of both faiths struggled to create a “positive historical” form of their religions based on a willingness to reexamine what were previously fundamental tenets of their faith on issues regarding the infallibility of religious texts, gender relations, relations with other faith communities and, most importantly, equality and justice within their communities. To quote one of the leaders of the mosque, Christine Arja, “I want [an Islam] that fits in with my culture too.”
Crucial to creating such an Islam is Nomani’s realization that much of what her fellow worshippers have assumed was inalterable doctrines of their faith, such as women praying separately from men, are in fact not mandated by the Qur’an and therefore could be challenged by women and men who want to pray and celebrate together inside the mosque. More difficult, but equally important, is the willingness by Nomani and her allies to confront verses in the Qur’an that have traditionally been interpreted as mandating the hitting of disobedient women, avoiding friendships with Jews and Christians, or violent holy war.
The conflicts within Morgantown’s Muslim community are not unique to American Islam — the same issues are behind attempts to re-imagine Islam in the Muslim majority world and Europe as well. They are part of the larger process whereby members of all the world’s major religions are slowly understanding, in the words of the Swiss Islamic theologian and philosopher Tariq Ramadan regarding his religion, that “in the global era, what’s good for Islam must be good for the world, and what’s not good for the world can no longer be considered good for Islam.”
Some of the particular issues of the debates within the Muslim community of Morgantown are particularly relevant to the larger issues of Islam’s relations with other cultures and faiths. The first is the supposed link, clearly espoused by Nomani, between the cultural and religious conservatism of many mosque members and political extremism. For her, there is a direct link between the unwillingness of the (largely) Arab-born leaders of the mosque to allow woman to worship next to men and the purportedly expressed views by these members in support of hate-filled rhetoric or even violence. Yet others in the mosque — both those who oppose her agenda and those who generally support her goals — disavow such a link.
There’s not enough evidence presented in the movie to determine which side is right, but here again it’s worth noting that conservative Christian and Jewish communities in the U.S. are similarly among the most antagonistic towards other faiths, and willing to sanction negative views and even violence towards others. Indeed, as I watched the film I couldn’t help wondering how many Christians and Jews in Evangelical or Orthodox congregations have been as willing to take on the patriarchal, xenophobic and even violent theology of their co-worshipers? Not enough, that’s for sure.
As Nomani put it, “It’s not just about women’s rights, it’s about a greater intolerance. We have to have zero tolerance for the kinds of words spewing out of our pulpit.” It’s hard not to say “Amen” to such a sentiment no matter what your religion. At the same, however, one can understand the misgivings and even anger of some of the more progressive members of the mosque towards her rabble-rousing tactics. More than one argued that much of what Nomani wanted could have been achieved even more quickly if she worked within the mosque rather than making her fight so public, using, in another member’s words, “silent persistent activism.”
I’m not sure I buy this argument, however. Communal change rarely happens without people willing to risk their position inside the community to force other members to confront injustice and oppression within it. As one of the more liberal members of the mosque, Ihtishaam, argued, “It might not be politically correct, but those laws are what make Islam, Islam.” But the point is that the vast majority of the laws Nomani and other progressives are fighting against are not from the Qur’an, but rather human interpretations that are historically grounded and can and should change with the times.
In fact, some members began this film vehemently disagreeing with her only to admit later that once they had looked at the sources themselves they realized she was right. While it’s true that the mosque gradually opened up during the several years covered by the film despite many members wanting to ban her, it’s hard for me to imagine these changes would have occurred anywhere near as quickly if Nomani hadn’t pushed the agenda and forced the community to confront its problems “from the outside,” as one of the other members of the mosque lamented. Rarely can groups or communities move forward enough unless some members are willing to go too far to, in Nomani’s words, “Push and push and push until we turn the corner and let the best of Islam shine through.”
THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN shows the struggles one small Muslim American community is going through to create a truly American Islam. It’s a story that should resonate with Christians and Jews who are still struggling, sometimes against great odds, to bring out the best in their religions.
Mark LeVine is Professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic studies at UC Irvine and author or editor of more than half a dozen books, including Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House/Three Rivers Press, 2008), Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009) and Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil (Oneworld Publications, 2005).