After the terrorists attacks of 9/11 and after Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was brutally executed in Pakistan, his colleague Asra Nomani returned to her home of Morgantown, West Virginia, pregnant and alone, reeling from what she had witnessed. She reached out to her faith and turned to her local mosque for solace--and realized there was a different conflict brewing right on her home turf.
Nomani’s battles with her mosque to create more equality for women turned into a fight to rout out the extremism she felt was permeating her world. Her radical ideas about how to create an inclusive Islam, which included advocating for women-led prayers and a cherry-picking practice of religion, rocked the Muslim-American community to its core and earned her a “bad girl of Islam” persona. Now back in the spotlight with the recent debut of a PBS documentary about her fight, Nomani spoke with Beliefnet about making mosques friendlier, why moderates can be pushovers, and how humanity, not religious dogma, must be the last word.
Everyone has a different vision of what an inclusive Islam should be. Has your vision changed since you began your battle?
[Years ago] I watched Michael Wolfe’s documentary about the life of the Prophet Mohammad. And I literally had tears in my eyes as I was watching that documentary, because I realized that, as a community, we’ve gotten so far away from the dream that the prophet had in the seventh century--of having a community where all people would feel welcome and there would be civility.
In my mosque, it was a typical Salafi/Wahhabi ideology permeating--men would virtually throw themselves against a wall and throw their eyes in far distance, afraid that they were going to turn to stone if they looked at a woman.
There was no connection between [the men down below yukking it up after prayers] and those women and those children stuck up in the balcony.
And that is, to me, the complete opposite of the mosque in the seventh century where women talked directly to the Prophet Mohammad, where he prayed with his grandchildren on his back, where there was civility to people of other faiths, even to people who would be rude to the prophet. These stories are told over and over again in the community but hardly ever practiced when it comes to our place of worship.
So when I think of an inclusive community, I think of one where you don’t have to fear judgment when you walk through the doors of a place of worship. I know too many women who don’t bother going [to the mosque] because there’s going to be someone who tells them that their shirt isn’t long enough or they weren’t supposed to wear nail polish, and will literally stop them in prayer and throw overcoats to them to cover themselves up even more.
In this race to prove that you can out-Muslim the other person, we have really gotten far away from our humanity to each other.
Would Islam be more inclusive if Muslims just practiced the way they see fit instead of other Muslims trying to show them the “right way”?
I think that demanding people to follow a script on anything never works, and all you do is turn people away from the faith and your place of worship. There’s an intentional effort not to welcome those people who don’t fit into your idea of a good Muslim. We’re facing the same challenge that churches and synagogues have had to confront, which is that a great number of people who carry the label of your religion do not feel welcome in your places of worship. And that’s fine for the people who want to keep power based on their particular ideology, but then we fail our larger community.
[That first time after returning from Pakistan] I walked up to the front door of my mosque with only had my son on my hip. They turned me away from the front door. I knew that my community in little West Virginia had failed me in my search for a place of comfort in my inherited faith/religion. I did not have a place at my mosque growing up, and I knew that that was going to be the fate for another generation of American-Muslims who were not growing up in the same traditions that are imported over here from our elders.
Of course there’s a growing, expressed conservatism [in America] among the youth, but there’s also an entire community of kids that want to go to the prom, who are on Facebook, who grapple with issues of identity, whom we need to be kind too. Like at my mosque, little girls who didn’t wear hijab were called out and virtually shamed them. I heard the same rhetoric in communities across the country.
You don’t want to raise your kid with that kind of oppressive teaching. Are you going to lose your youth or are you going to set up basketball courts and allow them to have rock bands and poetry jams and the all ways that they want to express themselves? That was my ultimate goal, to make mosques friendlier to a lot of my younger selves who were as rudderless as I had been in my organized religion.