Searching for an Inclusive Islam
Eight years after "Muslim bad girl" Asra Nomani began her battle with her Morgantown, West Virginia mosque for women's equality, she wonders when her dream for an inclusive Islam will be realized. For Nomani, the struggle continues.
BY: Dilshad D. Ali
There’s a statement in the program about how you came into your fight from the violence you had seen in Pakistan. And then you saw a sort of extremism in your own mosque. You spoke of a slippery slope from extremist words to violent acts. The moderates in your community see good in your conservative mosque leaders. The moderates say, “We need to work with these people.” But you say you can’t work with these people.
Yes. I really don’t like it when people just are in denial and don’t call things as they are. That’s the problem we’ve got in our community, where we don’t want to take responsibility for the impact of literalist Wahhabi ideology on our world communities. And that’s why it is allowed to expand and grow and claim young men. I have my criticism against a lot of these FBI busts in America, but clearly the evidence is that in so many places around the world, mosques are breeding grounds and recruiting stations for men with a militant calling. And they claim our young men through ideology.
I’ve seen young men get transformed in Morgantown into this really literal, conservative type of Muslim who then has intolerance for the people around them, from Americans to Jews and Christians and Hindus and Buddhists. If we’re going to be responsible in our community, we’ve got to be honest about what’s going on.
In an American-Muslim community you’ve got all sorts of approaches to how religion should be practiced. Is there a way for all groups to work together?
In most situations, if you allow hardcore ideologues to prevail, they’ll try to control everyone. They don’t want coexistence with a different interpretation of Islam than theirs. Why is it that people don’t have a problem with the Amish? It’s because they’re not trying to run the world. But the scary part is that there are ideologues from far right Christians who are trying to create a map of Israel that would allow for the coming of Christ to hardcore Muslims who want to control everyone else.
Theoretically it would be lovely if everybody could coexist. But, what I’ve observed is that the hardcore want to control, and sadly, by definition, the moderates are pushovers.
How do we present the best of Islam to non-Muslims?
We really have to be honest and take responsibility for our own failings. People have common sense. They don’t judge the entire religion especially when you separate yourself from the interpretation of the faith that leads to violence against innocents. I think that where non-Muslims just check out is when we don’t take responsibility for literal interpretation. We need to take responsibility for the verses in the Qur’an that seem intolerant.
Do you think we can cherry pick within religion? Follow the verses that work for us, and ignore the ones that seem intolerant?
I don’t have a problem with that. I think so often this concept of cherry-picking is associated with negativity. Catholicism has gone through it--cafeteria Catholic they call it where you just go through the buffet line and pick what you like. Religion is identified by how people practice it. Even the Wahhabis cherry pick. Because if you really believe that you can’t have innovation in religion (which is what Wahhabis believe), they still allow for what’s convenient for them.
Just through the practice of being a human being you cherry-pick your way through life. I just reject that assumption that that’s disparaging. Every day of our lives is filled with choices. I think we have to stop chasing this idea of this universal practice of the religion that is divinely mandated and required, because we set that up as the bar. And then it's intimidating. It silences critics. It silences questioning. It is used by the ideologues as a way of making people feel inferior.
And [Muslims] absolutely do not have a monopoly on narrow-mindedness. I met a bunch of Evangelical Christians and they found out I was Muslim and they’re like, "Oh, you’re carrying the curse of Ishmael." Religious intolerance is everywhere. We all could do ourselves a better service on the communication strategy.
We need to acknowledge these differences instead of trying to pretend we’re like Ummah (a Muslim community) spelled with a capital U, because when that happens and we try to chase this grand sense of community, that means we put ourselves in bed with folks that we really don’t agree with. I think there’s always an ummah with a little u.
What’s the difference between an Ummah with a capital U and one with a little u?
Ummah with a capital U wants a group thought and wants to silence anybody who thinks outside of the box. And ummah with a little u allows for diversity and disparity and interpretations of the faith.
To me, Ummah with a capital U is an idealistic myth that we’re chasing and using as a means of silencing outliers in the community. And the ummah with a little u is realistic, and a human and respectful of the differences between the people. And ultimately, I think it’s more Islamically inspired. I believe that the ummah of the seventh century was one that allowed people to be much more self-realized than the one of the 21st century. We need to allow for the differences.
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