Thursday, June 18, 2009

America at a Crossroads/The Mosque in Morgantown

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The other film I watched this morning was an episode of an occasional series called America at a Crossroads, and it was called “The Mosque in Morgantown” and dealt with the conflict at the Islamic Center of Morgantown, Virginia, which achieve national notoriety even though the small college town only has about 500 Muslims in it, and most of them are students or teachers at the local university. The central character is Asra Nomani, who gets upset at her local mosque because women are not allowed to worship in the same hall as men — a separate balcony is set up for them — and she regards this as unfair discrimination and against the best principles of her religion. Nomani’s background is highly unconventional — she studied journalism at the local university and left Morgantown to work for the Wall Street Journal, where she was assigned to cover the war in Afghanistan and its spillover into Pakistan at the same time as another Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl — whose murder by Pakistani Islamists naturally horrified her and made her less inclined to accept the most conservative interpretations of Islam.

In Pakistan she had an affair and got pregnant, and decided to return to Morgantown because she thought it would be a good place to raise her son as a single mother — only by having a baby out of wedlock she had violated Islamic teachings, and she scandalized the local congregation still further when she went to the front door of the mosque and demanded to be let in (women are only supposed to enter via the back door) and to be allowed to pray on the same floor as the men. This show could easily have turned into a heroine-and-villains tale — noble woman heroically resisting the men in charge of her religion and their sexist strictures about women’s proper behavior (at least one of the mosque officials justifies the policy of segregation by saying that in the prostrate position in which Muslims pray, women’s asses would be sticking up and this would inflame the lusts of men if they were allowed to pray in the same space at the same time!) — but director Brittany Huckabee had a broader agenda in mind, encompassing the women in the Morgantown mosque who have no trouble with and even support the segregation, and she’s fair to both sides in the argument.

The controversy inflames itself as both sides dig in and attitudes harden — at one point the men running the mosque are actually preaching sermons and publishing prayers for Allah to strike Nomani with some unspecified but undoubtedly dire punishment — while Nomani goes on a book tour to promote her memoir, Standing Alone in Mecca (the title is a reflection on the fact that when she went on the hajj she was able to worship in the same room, and at the same time, as men; and why should a mosque in America be pissier about the subject that Islam HQ back where the religion was founded?) and gets herself covered by CNN and ABC. At the same time the film is a subtle but unmistakable indictment of the religious mentality in general, particularly the conservatives’ argument that the Quran was delivered complete and entire by God through the Angel Gabriel to Muhammad and therefore it is unalterable — versus the modernizers’ argument that the Quran, like any other book of moral teachings, needs to be read in historical context and its lessons applied to the modern world. Obviously this kind of conflict is hardly unique to Islam — it’s essentially the battle in our own majority culture between evangelical and mainline Christianity — and Nomani is clearly aware of this tradition since her ultimate protest is to write a 99-point critique of the mosque’s teachings and fasten it to their door in deliberate evocation of Martin Luther’s similar protest against the Roman Catholic hierarchy of his day.

The Mosque in Morgantown is a fascinating movie, made so especially by Huckabee’s refusal to paint the struggle in black-and-white terms — and it’s a bit of point-making that should be required viewing for people in this country who are continually calling on the Muslim world to “moderate” itself (sometimes while they themselves subscribe to the more Fundamentalist varieties of Christianity!) and vastly underestimating the difficulties involved — and the protest of some of the conservatives in the movie against their being equated with the 9/11 terrorists and Daniel Pearl’s murderers rings true (truer, quite frankly, than the whining of anti-abortion activists in the official “pro-life” movement about the murder of Dr. George Tiller when the viciousness of their rhetoric not only can have the effect of encouraging the more demented members of their movement to murder abortion providers but, I think, is designed to do that!).