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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.

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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.

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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.

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Feminism and Islam

Looking at the World As If Women Matter

by Tayyibah Taylor

“Looking at the world as if women matter” is just one of the many ways feminism is explained.  Some definitions are more academic and others are less generous, but searching through the philosophical pile of feminist theory and movements, one will discover first-wave and second-wave feminism, post colonial feminism, Western feminism, Black feminism, radical feminism, Islamic feminism and more, all with varying solutions to the issues women face.

As the Muslim American community grows and develops, the feat of building institutions requires our social architects to consider the religious, intellectual and political discourse on women’s equality.  Standing at the intersection of gender and Islam, Muslims are looking down a road with some smooth stretches, as well as some huge potholes.

Muslim scholars and imams who begin their ‘Women in Islam’ chapters and lectures with glowing reports of the rights Islam restored to women, then proceed to interpret the primary sources of Islam in ways that negate those rights, have created confusion and illusion.  To clarify we may ask, “When it comes to leadership in Islam, can gender trump competency?  If so, what else can trump competency and what else can gender trump?”  These and many other questions are asked in the conversation about the construction of the Muslim American landscape and culture.

Let’s look at who we are.  In the Muslim American community we have over 80 ethnicities represented; there are people following every school of Islamic thought, on all levels of adherence and observation.  In this fantastic mosaic there are people who are Muslims by choice and those who are Muslims by chance; there are Muslims of culture and Muslims of conscious.  There are those whose ancestors were here before this nation was founded and others who just arrived from Muslim-majority countries.  There are those who are learned in the nuances of Qur’anic hermeneutics, and those who cannot read or write a word of Arabic, relying on translations in English, Urdu, Persian and other languages.

It stands to reason this multiplicity of ethnicities, experiences, expertise and excitement about Islam is bound to yield varying readings of the Qur’an and different interpretations of women’s equality.  Some of us want to fill those potholes with material to neutralize patriarchal privileges, others want to fix them with secularism, while others want us to maneuver around the potholes.

In a community this complex, one size really does not fit all and neither does one style.  It becomes problematic when one Muslim’s experience, be it positive or negative, is the point of extrapolation from which to typify solutions for all Muslims.  Some would have us teetering in stiletto solutions that are two sizes too small, and others would have us lumbering in laced-up boots with solutions three sizes too big.

Expecting others to be where we are, spiritually, intellectually or socially, is second in folly and futility only to forcing our perspectives and beliefs on others.  The Muslim community in particular, and humanity in general, will stunt its evolution until each and every person can be viewed as a spiritual being on their way back to the Creator; until we each master the ability to slip from one frame of reference to another with the same grace, ease, understanding and non-attachment, that we can move from speaking one language to another.

Muslim women in America are in a privileged position.  On one hand we have our American legacy of freedom of speech, freedom of movement and an academic heritage of critical thinking (things not always present in some Muslim-majority countries).  On the other hand we have our Islamic legacy of spiritual agency, a contract to pursue knowledge, and a universal worldview.  We are poised in this privileged position to create a community where all voices are heard and respected; a community where our plurality is acknowledged and where unity does not hinge on uniformity.

Islam is more than a religion and it’s more than a way of life; Islam is a state of being.  When we truly live our lives in the state of Islam, that is in a state of wholeness, serenity and in alignment with the laws of the universe, every second of existence, and every fiber of self is centered on connecting to the Divine.  In that state, the flame misogyny has no oxygen.  In that state, a world is created where women, and all humanity, matter.

 

Tayyibah Taylor is the founding editor-in-chief and publisher of Azizah Magazine and has presented workshops and lectures on Islam and Muslim women throughout the country.  Born on the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean, Taylor grew up in Toronto, Canada and studied biology and philosophy at the University of Toronto.  She lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for several years and attended King Abdul-Aziz University for Arabic and Islamic studies.  She presently serves on the steering Committee of WISE, an organization that convenes global Muslim women leaders and fosters Muslim women’s participation in Islamic law and contemporary debates.  She presently sits on the board of the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta and the board of directors of Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasters and has also served on the board of trustees for the Georgia Council for International Visitors. &nbspTaylor is the mother of five children.

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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.

Sohail Chaudhry, left,
at a mosque meeting in 2005

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.

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Community Stories

Pushing the Envelope Without Breaking It

by Shahed Amanullah

What is the best way to affect change in a community under siege?

As a believer in the greater inclusion of women in Muslim institutions in America, I have long been supportive of efforts to bring attention to gender inequity in mosque life.  The reality of this aspect of our community became impossible to ignore when, in the course of my work in promoting transparency of Muslim institutions through use of the Internet, I found that a substantial number of comments at my mosque review site salatomatic.com were written by women detailing the indignities they had faced at neighborhood mosques.  The stories — ranging from exclusion from board politics to separate (and unequal) prayer spaces — were a stinging indictment of the larger community’s ignorance of, or inability to rectify, a situation which I believe has no religious sanction within Islam.


Read The Islamic Society
of North America’s Guidelines on
Women’s Participation»


A widely publicized example of this can be seen in THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN, which details the efforts of journalist Asra Nomani to forcibly level the playing field at her local mosque.  Ms. Nomani, whom I consider a friend and colleague, deserves credit for bringing light to this issue and calling on Muslims to rise to a higher standard when it comes to the treatment of women in community circles.  It is partly in response to her very visible actions that mainstream Muslim leaders, including ISNA President Ingrid Mattson, put forth measures to educate Muslim communities of the responsibility they had, both under the law and Islamic teachings, to create a safe and equal space for women in mosque life.

But while there is widespread agreement among Muslim leaders for the need for change, what is the best way to create it?  As THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN illustrates, confrontational action can sometimes be useful in jarring the conscience of a community.  However, it can also shut down dialogue and cooperation if improperly applied.  To know when or if such measures can be effective, one must first understand the history of mosque life in America, both at a national and a local level.

Since the events of 9/11, many mosques in the US have felt under siege.  As the most visible representations of Islam in America, mosques have been host to protest marches, media spotlights, vandalism, and even violence.  The resulting defensive postures by mosque patrons leave them particularly sensitive to confrontation, even when coming from within and with a message that otherwise would garner wide acceptance within the community.

Also, mosques differ widely in their accommodation of women.  Some mosques with large concentrations of immigrants often bring with them imported cultural norms regarding women.  Other mosques, particularly those with African-American and Sufi congregations, are more egalitarian in nature.  And to the extent that American-born or raised Muslims begin to take their place in mosque leadership, mosque policies regarding women have begun to mirror those of other American institutions.

During Ms. Nomani’s journey across America to confront gender inequity in a manner similar to her actions in Morgantown, she made a stop at the mosque that I grew up in, the Islamic Center of Southern California.  The Los Angeles Times article that covered the incident carried a photo of Nomani refusing to move as directed by Ms. Azmeralda Alfi, one of the matriarchs of the mosque.

Azmeralda Alfi

(Francine Orr/LATimes)

For those who are not familiar with this institution, the Islamic Center of Southern California has been one of the most gender-inclusive major mosques in the United States.  Its Board of Directors has had women on it for over 30 years, at times making up a majority of the leadership.  Women have been encouraged to participate in all areas of mosque life regardless of their personal dress code.  Ms. Alfi in particular is one of the mosque’s most active and effective leaders, directing policy at the highest of levels, founding one of the nation’s most progressive and egalitarian Islamic schools, and inspiring a whole generation of Muslim women to believe that mosque leadership is their right.

While I was growing up, women prayed inside the main hall of the mosque at all times, even for Friday prayers.  As the Friday prayers got more crowded, many women began praying in an area behind the main hall, but open to it.  At all other times, however, women pray in the main hall and “own” it every bit as much as the men.  At no time was the main hall ever designated “the men’s area,” and there is no ideological disparaging of women.  In fact, the crowding at Friday prayer has resulted in the overflow of men going into the parking lot to pray rather than the women—probably one of the few mosques in the country where this happens.  The Islamic Center of Southern California isn’t a mosque to be protested, but encouraged as a model.

Confrontation is a powerful and sometimes necessary tactic that is appropriate when a social problem is particularly entrenched.  In other cases, such as with Ms. Alfi at my hometown mosque, it serves to alienate potential allies and create the perception that Asra’s cause is a fringe one, when it is most certainly not.   Change is best affected when it is done with care and nuance, even when the issue carries a sense of urgency.   And what’s right for Morgantown may not be right for your local mosque.

 

As editor-in-chief of altmuslim.com, Shahed Amanullah is an award-winning journalist who writes regularly about the challenges and opportunities facing Islam in America. Shahed is also a contributor to Progressive Revival, a new Beliefnet.com blog. Named one of ten “Muslim visionaries” by Islamica Magazine, Shahed’s work and writings have been featured in magazines (Newsweek), newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune), radio shows (BBC News, National Public Radio), and major websites (BeliefNet.com). Television appearances include Nightline with Ted Koppel, CNN Headline News, the Today Show, and Hannity & Colmes.

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Feminism and Islam

Real Indicators of Female Empowerment:
Women’s Space and Status in American Mosques

by Hadia Mubarak

THERE IS NO SINGLE BLUEPRINT of the American mosque.  The internal structure of the mosque, the position women are given within the mosque’s leadership, and the value attached to women’s participation all vary according to the congregation’s demographics.  Age, gender, ethnicity, religious ideology, educational backgrounds and the professions of the mosque’s congregation significantly influence the space that women are allotted within the mosque and the roles they ultimately play in managing the community’s affairs.  Although the space in which women pray is subordinate to more important issues like women’s participation in community events, educational programs and religious affairs, my experience has taught me that the two tend to be interrelated.  While not always the case, women’s visibility in the main prayer hall often reflects their overall position and status within such a community.

In the mosque in which I grew up in Panama City, Fla., women prayed in the same room behind the men, separated by a few short wooden balusters like ones typically used for stair railings.  The first elected president of our Islamic Center happened to be a woman — Iman Elkadi, a respectable and active member of the community.  Despite the fact that at least one board member protested to “being led by a woman” at the time, the rest of the board members insisted that he should therefore resign.  Mrs. Elkadi and her husband (the late Dr. Ahmad Elkadi) had paved the road for the creation of the Bay County Islamic Society, establishing the first Islamic school, Muslim private clinic and mosque in our small city in the early eighties.

BONUS FOOTAGE:
Hadia’s ‘Shockproof Rag’

Women were not only visible in my community, but they also played an active role in the mosque’s administrative, educational and religious affairs.  After the first female was elected as president of our Islamic Center, women have been elected to the board on a regular basis.  The director of our Sunday school was a woman.  The girls’ youth group, of which I was an active member and officer, conducted regular fundraising banquets for the mosque, organized our community’s religious festivals and held annual open-houses on behalf of the community.  At an early age, I and the other young women in our community were accustomed to speaking in front of mixed crowds of men and women, attending General Assembly meetings, passing out flyers and selling baked goods in mixed gatherings.  Our voices were heard, opinions expressed and participation recognized and appreciated.

When I moved to Tallahassee, Fla. to attend Florida State University as an undergraduate student, I was disappointed to find that women were cordoned off in a shed that had been carpeted and affixed to the main building of the mosque.  Our only connection to the main prayer hall of the mosque was a crackling sound system that allowed us to hear the Friday sermon from our small, isolated space.  This internal setup of the mosque relegated women to invisible observers.  We could hear the men, but they could never hear us.  We could not see them, nor could they see us.

The experience taught me that although the physical space allotted to women is not women’s primary concern within a community, there tends to be a correlation between where women physically sit in the mosque and the greater role they are accorded in running the mosque’s affairs.  In contrast to the Panama City mosque, women did not attend General Assembly meetings at the Tallahassee mosque.  Not a single woman served on the mosque’s annually-elected board.  Worse yet, when I signed up to become an official “member” of the Islamic Center a few months before the annual elections, I was told by the mosque president that women did not have the right to vote in the annual elections because their “husbands voted on their behalf.”  I demanded a copy of the mosque’s Constitution, which made no mention of gender as a criterion for membership or leadership of the Islamic Center.

Refusing to accept the status quo, I and five of my friends registered as members and attended the general body elections.  We sat in the main prayer hall, which had been partitioned into two sections that day, a large section for the men and a smaller one for the women.  Citing the mosque’s Constitution and religious textual sources, we demanded the right to vote like everyone.  Our demands incited a heated and emotionally charged debate.  Although it was clear that the majority of the men were on our side, the small minority of men who were against us, including the chair of the elections committee, dominated the debate.  Exploiting his position, the elections committee chair took up a motion that put in his own hands the power decide whether or not women should vote — without subjecting the motion to a general vote.

I and my five friends left the mosque that day without voting for the men who would manage our mosque, make decisions on our behalf and represent us within the larger community.  We left feeling disgusted, isolated and enraged.  But we never for a second questioned the status that Islam accorded women or our God-given right to elect the leaders of our community.  We knew that Islam was on our side and that ignorance was on theirs.

IN 644 CE, UPON THE DEATH OF THE SECOND CALIPH, `Umar ibn al-Khattāb, a council of six individuals had commissioned one of its members, ‘Abdul-Rahmān Ibn Awf, to solicit the Muslim community’s opinion to determine which of the two finalists (‘Uthmān ibn ‘Affān or ‘Alī ibn Abī Tālib) would become the third caliph.  It is historically documented that ibn ‘Awf asked the women in the marketplace and in their own homes which of the two candidates they would prefer as caliph — something similar to a modern-day referendum.  If there was any doubt in the minds of the men in the Tallahassee mosque whether or not Islam gave women the right to vote, there was no doubt in the minds of the Prophet’s companions that women had every right to choose their leaders.  The fact that the leaders and members of the Tallahassee mosque even debated in 2001 whether or not Islam allowed women the right to vote is a reflection of a serious religious crisis.

Muslims in the twenty-first century have become so disconnected from their own religious tradition that we are posing questions that have long been resolved and unraveling threads of consensus that have formed the basis of Muslim historic practice for centuries.  In nearly every mosque in America, precious time, energy and resources have been wasted on emotionally-charged debates over where women should pray, whether or not to erect a barrier between the men and women, and whether or not women can serve on mosque boards.  Even a primitive knowledge of Prophetic traditions would demonstrate that such debates are pointless.  The Islamic tradition is replete with examples of women praying in the same place as men without a physical barrier between them, of women speaking out in the main prayer area and of women serving in administrative capacities.  The Prophet (peace be upon him) was unequivocal in his injunction that women be granted access to mosques.  Hence, when women are denied adequate space in mosques, they are being denied access and that mosque’s leadership is culpable of violating a Prophetic injunction.

IN THE FILM:
Woman-led Prayer

Does this mean that I believe women should pray side by side with men or lead men in prayer?  No.  If I am going to empower women in my community by pointing to textual, religious evidence of rights that Islam has given us, then I must abide by the limitations of those rights.  Without question, women have the right to pray in mosques, to enjoy adequate and equal space with men, to be active participants, to vote, to run for elections and most importantly, to be heard and respected.  There is no textual evidence, however, to support the notion of women praying side by side with men.  As a Muslim feminist (a term I define according to my own conception of female empowerment), the issue is not one I care to champion or support.

I cherish my modesty and privacy and would much prefer not to rub thighs and shoulders against another man in the midst of praying.  Whether I stand behind, in front of or next to the men of my mosque while praying is not my measure of female empowerment or progress.  To adequately gauge women’s status in a particular mosque, we must instead look at real indicators of equality and empowerment:  Do women serve on the mosque’s board?  Are women granted equal and adequate space?  Does the community invite female scholars and guest speakers or all lectures dominated by men?  Are the women visible?  Are they empowered to make their own choices regarding decisions that affect them?

As a woman, I feel empowered by God’s laws — laws that I know with absolute certainty are for my own spiritual, emotional and physical well-being.  At the same time, I refuse to rely on the interpretations of men to understand the laws of God.  Women must engage the Islamic tradition themselves in order to restore rights that they were granted as early as the seventh century.  When armed with knowledge of our God-given rights, then no human being can stand between us and our prerogative to exercise those rights.

 

Hadia Mubarak was the first National President of the Muslim Students Association to be either female or born in the United States. Her parents are from Syria; she grew up in Florida. She is now a graduate student at Georgetown and a researcher in the Islam in the Age of Globalization program.

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Reactions

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.

BONUS FOOTAGE:
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.

IN THE FILM:
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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Community Stories

Bringing Out the Best in Our Communities

by Mark LeVine

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).

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