Community Stories

Evil Among Us

by Brittany Huckabee

Originally published at The Huffington Post on June 15, 2009

“I think Eldred Sasserine is the devil.  I see it in his eyes.”

A friend whispered those words to my mother more than twenty years ago, and she says they still send a chill down her spine.

Eldred Sasserine was a retired cattle rancher from Oklahoma who had made it his mission to depose the new minister in our small-town Colorado church.  Sasserine and his partisans said that Glenn Greenwell wasn’t preaching enough hellfire-and-brimstone, staples of Sunday sermons before he arrived.  Moreover, he was “fellowshipping” with other Christians in town, flouting the received truth that our denomination stood alone on the path to heaven.  I remember the day Glenn submitted his resignation.

I was about ten years old.  My family attended the local Church of Christ on Sunday mornings, Sunday nights and Wednesday nights, so what happened there left a deep impression on me.  Looking back, I realize I was seeing the clash between tradition and modernity that plays out in so many religious communities, written small among the red canvas pews of our little brick church next to a horse stable.

Years later, the conflict seeped back into my mind when I heard about another clash in another religious community.  This one was in a mosque in West Virginia.

A colleague told me about an old friend who had just returned to her hometown mosque and found it had been taken over by a conservative clique — extremists, she called them.  These men were excluding women and families from the mosque, and their sermons lashed out against the West and non-believers.  It all sounded familiar.  I wondered, were these Muslims really any more exotic — or dangerous — than the Oklahoma cattle rancher who wanted to control my childhood church?

After all, I grew up to a soundtrack of sermons that painted mainstream American culture as an evil, corrupting force.  We were to be “in this world, but not of it.”  The devil was out there tempting us at every turn, not least of which in the rock music I’d already learned to love. School dances, evolution, bikini swimsuits and television shows like Cheers and The Golden Girls were also his domain.

And at our church, too, women could not hold leadership positions.  My mother lost a bid to teach our Sunday school class because women were not permitted to instruct a “baptized man,” even if that man happened to be a ten-year-old boy.

Most sermons before Glenn arrived focused on the difficulty of achieving salvation.  People of other faiths — and Christians of other denominations — were seen as irredeemable sinners. As my brother overheard a family friend telling my grandfather in the car, “Clarence, I’m concerned for your soul.”  The problem: our grandparents were Baptists.  My brother remembers crying because Grandmom and Granddad were going to hell.

When he was hired as preacher at the age of 31, Glenn Greenwell tried to change the culture in the church, to create a religious narrative more useful to daily life.  He entertained us with stories and tied them back to scripture.  He encouraged us to ask questions.  He organized breakfast meetings with other local pastors.  He emphasized grace over condemnation, and he said we were not the only ones who would be saved.  But the hold of tradition was strong, and Eldred Sasserine’s complaints fell on receptive ears.

Half the church remained neutral in the conflict.  The other half was almost equally divided between the two factions. My mother says Glenn resigned to save the congregation from splitting.  But right after his departure, Sasserine and his partisans split anyway and the church was left adrift.  Our family moved away a couple of years later.

My brother doesn’t remember much of that.  As he puts it, “Long car ride; you get there and it’s all old-lady perfume and ‘you’re going hell,’ so I just tuned it out.  I went to sleep.”

I did my share of sleeping in church, too.  But I couldn’t quite tune it out.  A desire to explore that divide between tradition and modernity animated my aspirations as a documentary filmmaker, and eventually led me to begin filming in Morgantown, West Virginia in 2004.

What I found there was a lot of similarities — and some differences, too.  In Morgantown, as in Colorado, the struggle hinged on competing notions of scripture as seen through the lens of cultural tradition, underlined by an old-fashioned power struggle.  In Colorado, the divide was largely on generational and educational lines.  In Morgantown, it came down to those who sought to forge a distinctly American Muslim identity versus those who preferred to cling to the practices of their home countries.

And I can’t ignore an obvious difference: Islam is now fraught with heavy political baggage.  After 9/11, language about the evils of American culture and the irredeemability of non-believers took on a much more sinister cast.  And indeed certain supposedly traditional beliefs have been harnessed to violent political ends.  But ultimately I don’t believe the sermons given at the mosque in Morgantown represent anything more or less dangerous than those I heard in my church.  They reflect the universal fare of conservative religion.

In Morgantown the mosque didn’t split.  Moderates and progressives in the community pushed back, until the mosque finally began to grow into a more inclusive institution.

Tradition is a force of nature.  It will always serve as a counterweight to the destabilizing push of modernity.  One can argue that its adherents in Morgantown were rigid or small-minded, but they were not evil.  And neither, I suspect, was Eldred Sasserine.


Brittany Huckabee is an independent filmmaker and the director of THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN.

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General Discussion

Conservatism vs. Extremism

by admin

In the film, Asra refers to certain mosque members as extremists. How does one draw the line between religious conservatism and extremism? Did Asra make a tactical error in employing this term in her activism? What political dangers are associated with the label of extremism? Is there any upside to using the term?



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.

MPAC’s Edina Lekovic on social change

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.

Asra on Literalism

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.

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