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.
It is comforting to know some things have never changed since Islam began. But some argue that religion should be adapted for modern times. How can you find the balance between the two?
We have to expand the way Islam is expressed in the world. Right now we’re institutionally dominated by a very conservative brand of Islam, one that always keeps women in the back, if not segregated completely—a brand of Islam that keeps women from the pulpit, whether it’s to lead prayer or to even give a speech.
There’s hardly a mosque in the world where a woman can’t enter without covering her hair. The Catholic Church went through their theological evolution regarding the little handkerchiefs that women ended up putting over their hair to symbolize this covering. The synagogues have gone through their own evolution to create different denominations of sorts. Churches allow for different types of services.
[Muslims] have to intellectually allow for these differences. I can imagine people cringing at the ideas that I’m suggesting about women being able to stand in the front row, and they’ll throw all sorts of theological arguments against it. But there is a calling inside the community for interpretations of Islam that allow for it.
Is there room for both—mosques where Muslims worship conservatively and mosques that invite interpretation?
I think there is room for both. Traditionalism and conservatism has as much of a right to exist as any other interpretation. What I just oppose is the imposition of an interpretation on everyone. And there’s too much of an oppressive dynamic in our community and in our mosques. I have a problem when an interpretation of any faith is used an excuse for violence or oppression of others. I have a human rights issue with that.
Some Muslims argue that a lot trouble stem from a literalist interpretation of the Qur’an. And in the Bible or the Torah there are also verses that can be viewed as intolerant. There are verses that seem to contradict each other. Should we read these verses literally or interpretively?
There are many people who say that the Qur’an is the word of God, and you have to take it literally. I don’t accept that conclusion. I believe that we do have to use these principals of ijtihad (independent interpretation) to practice the faith in a way that is compatible with our modern day society and common sense.
This is ultimately where my conflict with my mosque became clear: What I kept hearing from the pulpit was a literal interpretation that was problematic on many levels, from how they thought we should relate to the West, to Jews and Christians, and to women. It was an expressed a violence against other people. That’s when you just have to say, no, that’s not acceptable.
Do you think faith and religion can be adapted to people, or people have to adapt to their religion says?
I think faith and religion has to adapt. It should be more of people defining the religion than the religion defining the people. It is really laughable the way that folks try to reach for some divine mandate to how they’re supposed to live, completely separate from their own intellect and soul. It’s like we’ve got cue cards from heaven about do this, do that. And we can seek inspiration and guidance from teachings of the past and the sacred text, but at the end of the day we have to seek this: What the Prophet Mohammad has said--a fatwa from our heart.
Ultimately, as human beings, we were granted this incredible right to have free will. With that comes this incredible responsibility to use our free will for good. When I hear people say that their mandate comes from this sacred text that commands them to bully their wife at home or not shake hands with a Jew or a Christian, it just becomes socially irresponsible. Then you are using religion as a cop-out. I asked my dad once, “Are you sorry that you set me off on this path?” And he said absolutely not, because as a scientist he knew that when you question, you sometimes suffer. You tremble under the consequence of your inquiry and suffer greatly sometimes.
You’ve always put yourself out there in your work and now this PBS program. Has it been worth it?
It’s definitely been worth speaking honestly from my heart about the struggles and the challenges. Every time I get a letter from a young woman who is struggling in some far corner of the world, and she feels a little less alone, it’s worth it. I’ve spent far too many moments feeling slain by the loneliness of inquiry of the orthodoxy around us. These kids who are out there challenging the traditions and norms of their community--I don’t want them to feel like they’re alone. After this long journey, I feel I have no contradictions of glaring proportions. It’s really nice to live with authenticity, with transparency.
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.