Some viewers of THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN might come away with the impression of a mosque governed by extremists and people of rigid ideologies that is then revolutionized through the struggles of one woman determined to bring and protect women’s rights in a male-dominated community. As one who has been part of the Islamic Center of Morgantown since 1999, I feel the responsibility to clarify that this was not the case. The mosque moved forward only through the dedicated, long-term efforts of members who worked within the community in the spirit of Islamic kinship rather than confrontation.
The Morgantown Muslim community consists primarily of educated professionals and students working in master’s and Ph.D. programs at West Virginia University. We come from diverse backgrounds, speaking different languages and following different cultures from across the globe. That diversity means a broad spectrum of ideologies and worldviews. Our members may differ on U.S. foreign policy, the reasons for the declining world economies or even the amount of spices suitable in meals served at the mosque — but one thing brings us together under one roof: the worship of One God. In all the years I have been part of the Islamic Center I have never once witnessed a community member challenging the divine rules that dictate our lives as Muslims. Differing interpretations on how to understand and apply these rules have never stopped us from getting advice from trusted Islamic scholars or sitting together and discussing them in a brotherly way.
Every group and organization passes through various stages of maturity. The mosque in Morgantown is no different. Since its inception and the inauguration of the new mosque in 2003, the Islamic Center of Morgantown has faced many challenges in terms of organization, outreach and infrastructure. Since 2003 the community has grown in size, and various amendments to the constitution have meant more community participation and better links of communication.
Female participation in various roles has always been an important part of our tradition at the Islamic Center of Morgantown. Whenever individuals put hurdles in the path of progress in this area, the community mobilized swiftly to remove these hurdles and better sense has always prevailed. Today women are part of the ICM Executive Committee, leading and actively participating in planning and organization. The ICM School Board has more women than men. The school itself is highly dependent on its female instructors, who cultivate young Muslim minds with their wisdom. No community event or outreach activity is complete unless Sisters take the lead. The front door and the main prayer hall were always open for Sisters and no official rule ever existed in the ICM constitution, nor was any decision even taken by the mosque authorities, preventing sisters from using the front door or praying in the main prayer hall.
Change comes with patient struggle and perseverance, not by walking into a sacred place of worship and challenging people while showing no respect for their beliefs and ideas. The ICM has a democratically elected leadership and anyone who wishes to bring reforms has the door of elections open. Some, however, think that threatening tactics and aggressive body language brings about change. The mosque in Morgantown is what it is today due to the years of hard work, patient effort, hours of communication across various personalities and, above all, the will to make progress by creating an environment of friendship and understanding.
Extremism is a way of thinking and is not exclusive to any particular ideology. Anyone who seeks to move forward through arrogant denial of and disrespect for others’ beliefs is certainly an extremist.
Sohail Chaudhry is the imam (prayer leader) of the Islamic Center of Morgantown. He is completing a master’s degree in education technology at West Virginia University, teaches accredited courses on Islam and Arabic at WVU and is a frequent speaker to interfaith audiences. He is a native of Pakistan.