Asra Nomani is a woman with a mission. She wants to equalize the role woman play in the Muslim community. Also she wants to pray next to men in service and be in the same room during celebrations such as Ramadan. Others may say that it goes against tradition but, in Asra’s defense, in the Qur’an, just like the Bible for Christians, it never states that a woman cannot sit next to a man. It seems all these rules were manmade and are not against any spiritual rules.
As an eleven year old, I don’t understand why something like this causes such an uproar. It seems like it shouldn’t matter. From watching the program, I don’t think that a woman praying next to a man would change or worsen the experience when at service.
As some of you may know, Asra was an amazing reporter for the Wall Street Journal for fifteen years. And she worked alongside a very honorable man named Daniel Pearl, a man who was kidnapped by Muslim extremists and killed. The footage of him being killed was sent to the U.S to watch. Asra was one of the last to see him and saw him the day he was kidnapped. It is a very sad and tragic story.
She now has also written two books and has gone on at least one book tour. When on this tour, she met some very supportive and unsupportive people. At one stage of the tour, Asra went into a mosque and sat next to some of the men there. Some people asked her what she was doing, and she simply stated that she was praying. After talking a while they threatened to get men to pick her up and take her outside. Finally, they gated off that section and brought other women over there.
After the service she talked to some members, among many things a woman said ‘”You should be ashamed of yourself!” Asra replied by saying, “ I pray for you.” The woman said, “I do not need your prayers.” I find this to be quite rude.
I have learned a lot from Asra and THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN, and I would recommend it to people of all ages. To me, Asra is an amazingly kind and wholesome person who is definitely one of my heroes. I feel like I have met her through the documentary and that is truly an honor.
I would like to leave you with one final but very important thought about my faith. While Catholics may get to sing, sit, and celebrate together, we are still not fully together. I don’t mean to question anyone’s faith, but if Asra can try and get woman to have a higher place in her religion, why do so many Catholics believe that women can’t be priests or other higher members of the church?
After all, I believe good people all go to heaven. Maybe we need someone as brave and courageous as Asra to lead us. While Asra is still fighting, I pray she will succeed. My question is, why can’t we all be equal? And, yes, I am a boy.
Dylan Chambers is an 11-year-old aspiring writer living in the Cincinnati area.
The Problem with Asra Nomani
by Suhail Qureshi
After September 11th, it seems there were only two kinds of Muslims portrayed in the media. One was the “crazy extremist Muslim” and the other was the Muslim apologist who felt Islam needs to be reformed and plays up to the stereotypes the mainstream media portrays about Muslims. Asra Nomani fits the latter.
An example of this is when, in the film, Nomani states that domestics violence is a major problem in the community. This plays up to the stereotype that Muslim men treat their wives badly. What is this based on? Where’s her proof that Muslim men in America are beating their wives at a greater clip than men of other religions or no religion. There is no evidence whatsoever. Brittany Huckabee, the director, does nothing to challenge Nomani’s assertion. I wonder if a Muslim director would have.
Nomani is a person who has been published in many different leading newspapers and interviewed on popular news shows. Now she is being featured in this documentary. Does anyone think she would get that extensive publicity had she challenged stereotypes about Muslims, as opposed to reinforcing them? She is being used by a media that is hostile to us and our society.
I have read many articles about Nomani and by her. Most Muslims are not upset by what she stands for. They are upset as to how she went about it. If she thinks there are issues in the Muslim community, shouldn’t she have written about it in Islamic publications? That would make sense. Instead, she calls CNN and writes about her cause in non-Muslim newspapers. She should have understood that this would have led to a hostile response. If it is a Muslim problem, why involve outsiders? It’s our community. Let us talk about it and decide for ourselves what is right or not right without outside interference. Change should come from within and not feel like it is being imposed by non-Muslims.
Also, I feel many people don’t like Nomani because she is trying to reform Islam when she has no crediblity within the community. This is a person who, I guess during her tantric sex phase, had a child out of wedlock. She wasn’t living the Muslim lifestyle when she was doing this. If you are going to preach a religion, a person should at least try to live a lifestyle acceptable to that religion. It’s sort of like Bristol Palin teaching abstinence.
I wonder if that experience is at the heart of Nomani’s struggle. Is this whole feminist Muslim thing a way of getting back at the man who knocked her up and left her? What she needs to understand is that, if he was half a Muslim man, he would have done the honorable act of marrying her. In Islam, it is a man’s duty to take care of his family. It is not a choice.
As far as the documentary goes, it was well done. I was expecting a hatchet job of the Morgantown Muslim community. Instead, I felt I got a fair portrayal of the situation. I came away thinking the same thing that many Muslims before have expressed about Nomani. I have nothing against her cause. It’s the person.
Suhail Qureshi is a hijack survivor and a Muslim living in Houston, TX. His first book, In the Name of Democracy, tentatively scheduled for release in December 2009, tells the true story of his family’s ordeal on PIA Flight PK326.
Reflections on Social Justice and Change
by Aminah Carroll
Life lessons can be richly taken from the verite-style documentary THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN, and they go well beyond the subject matter of Muslim identity.
Indeed this documentary is a hopeful narrative, showing that candor, civility and constructive engagement can significantly alter soul-crushing bureaucracies for the better. This can happen in even the midst of grave disagreements over the course to be taken by organizational entities from venerable organizational cultures such as a mosque, a church, a synagogue, a temple, a tribe, a state, a nation, or an international body like the European Union or the United Nations.
What is equally apparent, and sadder, is that the social change agents among us, like Asra Nomani — progressive feminist American-Muslim denizen and globe-trotting world citizen, journalist and professor — pay a high personal price for raising consciousness and advocating improvements that require any entrenched organization to move beyond its comfort range maintaining the status quo.
One perspective on characteristic strengths of any governed group that allow it to achieve historical longevity and fruitfulness (as opposed to entropy) is that the particular group or religion — Judaism, for example — keeps alive within it over considerable time, as healthy variants, three very different but vital sub-groups: traditional (orthodox) , moderate (conservative)and progressive (reform).
Each of these groups preserves faith and ensure that the faith doesn’t fall so far into extremes of error that it dies out without balance and correction.
This forthright documentary chronicles the clash between concerted, articulated, bold, reformative social change agency as stimulated by Nomani, and the protective defensiveness of a religion under hostile world critique, Islam. It’s a clash that comes to life in a fairly reactionary way in the Morgantown, WV, mosque. At times, the mosque is transcendent, and, at other times, it is an uneasy amalgam of orthodox, conservative, and reform-minded Muslims and their families. The end result is a very healthy examination of the cultural evolution of a mosque and its people.
The pace of forward thinking, social justice and positive change may not satisfy the movers and shakers, who urge us to the light in every generation, and press us forward, often at great cost to themselves and their loved ones.
Still, this terrific documentary allows us listen to the diverse voices of Muslims who love God, their precious faith’s tradition, and also their sisters and brothers. These voices reveal that first at home, and now in the greater community of the nation and the world, the activist Asra Nomani has succeeded in waking up sleepers in a misogynistic medieval dream to the need to restore to Islam its original feminism.
Aminah Yaquin Carroll, raised in Massachusetts and a former long-term New Yorker, now lives on a small farm in West Virginia and works as a writer. She has a BA in Religious Studies from Fordham University, an MPA from CUNY Baruch and is a fellow of the national Institute for Educational Leadership. She has worked in human services and public program development for more than 30 years and has been active in interfaith work for decades. She is a life-long Red Sox fan and a practicing Muslim.
Seeing the Film in Morgantown
by Parween Mascari
I am an Afghan-American woman born in Parkersburg, WV, and now living in Morgantown, WV. Jokingly, I call myself a “halfghan.”
I went to the Morgantown screening of THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN with the hope of learning more about Islam, the religion of my father, and also gaining more of an understanding of Asra Nomani’s struggle here in Morgantown. Aside from the religious issues, I was also interested in how our small town would be depicted in a film involving such national-scale conflict.
What I got was a better understanding of Islam and of Asra Nomani’s struggle — and I left with a dedication to do whatever I can to improve the condition of women in Afghanistan, the land of my paternal ancestry.
I left the screening with tremendous respect for Islam and its practices, its focus on family, its eloquence and its traditions. For the first time I thought about its strength and the struggle to hold onto its identity and its traditions in the face of the tremendous pressure of American pop culture. I also left with a better understanding of how our particular mosque in Morgantown faces even greater challenges because of the great diversity of cultures, backgrounds, ideologies, and even languages of its membership. I also realized that I have something in common with many members of the mosque solely by virtue of my Afghan appearance. I can relate to the fears expressed by the panel members as a result of perceptions and fear in our post-9/11 society.
I also left the screening with tremendous respect for Asra Nomani. Personally I felt a great empathy for what she went through not only in Pakistan with the death of her friend Daniel Pearl, but also in returning “home” and finding herself a young mother unwelcome in her own house of worship. Being from West Virginia, and loving to call West Virginia home, the one thing I can always count on is that welcoming feeling I get when I arrive home safe in the mountains of WV. That is such a special feeling and I’m not sure others from outside of West Virginia can quite understand the magnitude of it.
I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for her to come back after her tremendous personal ordeal and be denied much-needed refuge and sanctuary in her beloved “Almost Heaven West Virginia.” It was clear from the film that she expected to be welcome in the mosque her father had helped to found but was instead told to enter through the back door and pray in a separate room. I cannot imagine the disappointment I would have felt coming back to Morgantown and feeling unwelcome and segregated in my own church.
Learning about Asra Nomani and her work and recently meeting several brave Afghan women has inspired me to work to improve the condition of women and children in Afghanistan. In January, I had the opportunity to go to Washington, D.C. to help host a visiting delegation of Afghan Judges and lawyers. We met with great American women leaders like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
The Afghan women were so brave and inspiring. Like Asra Nomani, they followed their beliefs and their conscience and sought to make change in their country, often at great personal risk.
The Afghan women judges and lawyers I met talked about the need for chairs in their schools because the children, too tired from standing, couldn’t learn. I vowed to do what I could to help when I returned to West Virginia. In March, I formed a company called Sultan’s Daughters, and I have been selling pashmina shawls to benefit construction and furnishing of schools in Afghanistan. My company has already raised enough money to fund 10% of the construction and furnishing of one school in a village called Pagisam.
The Morgantown community, as it always does, has come out in support of this worthy cause and of helping others in need. On June 26, 2009, a young professionals group here in the Morgantown community, Generation Morgantown, will host a fundraiser at a local restaurant, Cafe Bacchus, to benefit the school project in Pagisam village, by a nonprofit agency, the Nooristan Foundation. That project will construct and maintain the village school in the Nooristan region of Afghanistan. It will also raise awareness and hopefully make people want to be more involved in making a difference in Afghanistan’s future.
THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN inspired me in several ways. First and foremost, the film is really about having the courage, drive, and strength of character to follow your conscience. People can debate on Asra Nomani’s tactics — and I think rightfully so — and whether she went about things the right way. They can debate about the merits of the respective positions about the logistics of the mosque services, and I heard valid points on both sides of that debate.
But the larger point is that she took a stand for what she believed in. For that, Asra Nomani is a role model for myself and for my daughters. I will teach my daughters to listen to their conscience and if they do that, like Asra’s parents in the movie, I will be behind them 100%. I will teach them, as I have always taught them and as my parents taught me, that with hard work and perseverance they can achieve anything. I will teach them not to let gender-based stereotypes or limitations get in the way of achieving their goals and that they deserve to be treated equally to men.
The movie also inspires me to learn more about Islam. Growing up Catholic, the religion of my mother, and attending Catholic school I didn’t learn anything about Islam other than it existed, that it was one of the three monotheistic religions because of the belief in one God, Allah, and that we share the same old testament. Although I am not Muslim, I am inspired by the film to educate myself about Islam. I am also inspired to visit the mosque in Morgantown and actively try to meet Muslims living in this community.
One final point I will make is that this film is inspiring for what it says about the country we live in and the freedoms it affords all of us. When people didn’t agree, Asra took a stand, the media was called, the media was granted access, there was controversy, there were demonstrations, elections, and even a trial. Then a film was made and it has provoked open discussion in Morgantown and now a national debate on this website about sensitive issues where people can speak freely without fear of retribution.
When the film started the mosque was in its infancy. Now the mosque has regular elections, a new constitution, and women in leadership position. The controversy at the mosque wasn’t handled by physical violence or by guns or tanks in the streets but by dialogue with both sides zealously advocating their respective positions and the occasional shouting match. This really is a beautiful country we live in where we are permitted to speak our minds and practice whatever religion we choose.
Parween Mascari is an attorney living in Morgantown, WV.
Credit Where Credit Is Due
by Sohail Chaudhry
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.
Response to The Mosque in Morgantown
by Salam Al-Marayati
Thank you for sharing the documentary, THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN. The show was not about that mosque but about Asra Nomani, a journalist. It was about Asra Nomani’s quest for peace and justice among Muslims. After viewing it, I am left with the sense that Asra Nomani’s quest is more within herself and not with her community. She needs to conclude what an American Muslim identity means for her.
Her platform for moderate thinking is deficient since it is only comprised of marching in front of and protesting in mosques. Her mission for reform is better served by working with the men and women in the mosques who share the aspiration for reform in the Muslim community. The desire to pray in a mixed gathering, similar to mixed prayers in Mecca, is understandable from a visceral standpoint but not acceptable from the standpoint of one who wants to lead a reform movement. As Edina Lekovic stated in the documentary, the issue of access to mosques, leadership within the Muslim community, and other social issues facing Muslim women are keys to effective reform.
For me, an American Muslim identity means that I am free to practice Islam the way I understand it and what makes sense to me based on the Quran and the authenticated non-controversial tradition of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). “Let there be no coercion in matters of faith” as the Quran mandates in Surah 2, verse 256. If I see or sense compulsion, I have the right to challenge the authority, even and especially the authority of the mosque if they claim that they are speaking the voice of God. Challenging authority is a great American and Islamic tradition. The schools of thought and jurisprudence we find in classical Islamic law today was the product of those who challenged authority of their time and place. There is one mistake Ms. Nomani makes, however. That is, she confuses authority with the mainstream. If one works for reform, then alienating the people who want reform results in bad feelings and chaos. By imposing her approach on others who share her views, Ms. Nomani is undercutting her own objective and isolating herself to become a lonely voice. I empathize with her pain and suffering from her personal trials and tribulations in dealing with challenges facing Muslim women today.
Ms. Nomani points to certain translations of the Quran but fails to see that those translations are either inaccurate or incomplete in understanding the full context of what the verses are based on or what they are trying to promote. One needs to understand that translations of the Quran are just that, translations and are not always taken as the absolute Quranic reference. The translation that calls for disassociating Jews and Christians as “friends,” for example, is not accepted in mainstream Muslim thinking. That translation is misleading since the Quran also allows marriage to Christians and Jews. It is inconceivable for Muslims to marry people but not act friendly to them. Hence, the translation of “awli’aa” is not friends but actually protectors, which alludes to a particular historical point of Muslims who were under siege and the Quran is admonishing them to maintain solidarity in their defense. The verse is dealing with a specific incident, and unless the incident repeats itself, our takeaway from it is to not allow division among Muslims. Otherwise, the following verse is our orientation toward Christians and Jews:
Verily, those who have attained to faith [in this divine write], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians — all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds — shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve. (2:62)
The verse that deals with “beating” has always been placed under the difficult verses to understand. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) never struck any person. Some have proposed that the verb “dharaba” has other meanings. I’ll let scholars determine the roots and meanings of the word, but my faith in Islam and my commitment to follow the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) tells me to not tolerate domestic violence nor its justification by extremists in their exploitation of this verse (you may refer to our book, In Pursuit of Justice: The Jurisprudence of Human Rights in Islam).
I also believe that Asra Nomani is quick to call people extremists, similar to those extremists who are quick to label people “infidels” as a practice of what is called “takfir,” i.e. declaring someone a non-believer. Judgmentalism is bad from both the moderate and the militant perspective. However, judgmentalism is worse when it comes from moderates than when it comes from militants because we expect this behavior from militants. Speaking out against injustice is a must, as long as we are clear on what that injustice is. Conservatism and extremism are two different issues. Synagogues that don’t allow women to even enter the main area of the temple or touch the Torah are not extremist synagogues. And Asra does not know whether the people who killed Daniel Pearl pray or not. Based on FBI sting cases of bomb plots, for example, some are drug dealers if not drug addicts, and some are thugs if not petty criminals.
I agree with Asra Nomani that many, including Muslims, do not understand what actually happened at the time of the Prophet in terms of mixed gatherings. I would only ask her to continue searching for the answers and not allow people to use the name of the Prophet or Islam as a license for excluding women in the public affairs of society.
But alas, her work with the community is at an impasse, and she has decided to take a position in Washington, DC, at a non-profit journalism organization. If she produces better journalism, then good for all of us. The work for reform at the community level, however, continues with or without Asra Nomani.
Salam Al-Marayati is Executive Director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a public service agency working for the civil rights of American Muslims, for the integration of Islam into American pluralism, and for a positive, constructive relationship between American Muslims and their representatives. He is a well-known speaker and has written extensively on Islam, human rights, democracy, Middle East politics, the Balkan Crisis and the Transcaucus conflict. He has also been deeply involved in interfaith activities. He served as co-chair of the Interfaith Coalition to Heal Los Angeles, which formed as a result of the Los Angeles uprising in the Summer of 1992. Salam works as an advisor to political, civic and academic institutions seeking to understand the role of Islam and Muslims in America and throughout the world.
The Mosque in Morgantown is a production of Version One Productions, Inc., in association with WGBH. It is a presentation of the Center for Asian American Media with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Additional funding was provided by the LEF Moving Image Fund. PBS broadcast is presented by WETA-TV, Washington, DC. © 2009 Version One Productions, Inc.