The Mosque in Morgantown: Finding Our Religion within American Pluralism

By Rose Marie Berger 06-12-2009

In March, I had lunch with Asra Nomani at Sticky Fingers, the vegan bakery across from the Sojourners office. Nomani, former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam, mentioned the culmination of a two-year film project she'd been working on that PBS would be airing as part of the "America at a Crossroads" series. The Mosque in Morgantown premiers Monday, June 15, 2009, at 10 p.m. EST. (check your local listings.)

I first came across Asra Nomani in 2003. There was a small article in The Washington Post about a woman who was fighting for women's rights in her mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia. I was intrigued by a Muslim woman -- born into an Indian Muslim family and raised in the United States -- not only returning to the heart of her religion but doing it in a way that produced the kind of radical call to freedom true faith engenders. I was intrigued that she claimed Sojourner Truth, the ex-slave who adamantly defended the rights of women in the church and in society, as one of her inspirations.

The Mosque in Morgantown is the story of Asra and her mother, Sajida, who in 2003 entered their mosque in Morgantown by the front door and prayed in the same room with men. This was counter to the rising practice in many mosques, in which women are forced to pray behind partitions. In June 2004, five women from around the country joined the Nomanis to pray in Morgantown's mosque.

Not only did Nomani forcibly integrate the mosque, she "nailed" (taped, actually) her "99 Precepts for Opening Hearts, Minds, and Doors in the Muslim World" and an Islamic Bill of Rights for Women on the mosque door. She stood firmly in the tradition of Martin Luther, who pounded his 95 Theses into the church door in Wittenberg, and Martin Luther King Jr., who posted the demands of the open-housing campaign on then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's office door in 1966.

The Mosque in Morgantown takes the viewer inside a religious community that's in the midst of a simmering battle between progressives and traditionalists. We see how Nomani's prophetic tactics of direct action alienate the moderates and horrify the traditionalists. We see the struggle for power that should be familiar to anyone who's ever served on a parish council or vestry. We see the creative responses that emerge from the community as it is forced to deal with change.

Nomani is driven to fight the "slippery slope" of extremism that she perceives to be taking over the leadership of the mosque her father founded. It's clear to the viewer that Nomani, who was a close friend of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, must take clear and decisive action against religious extremism in her home community because she's seen where such extremism can lead.

At the same time, members of her community take great offense at being lumped in with violent extremists just because they take a traditionalist view of their faith. Other community members don't like her tactics. They prefer a moderate, more measured, course. "The American experience," says moderate mosque member Ihtishaam Quazi, "works against the idea of a slippery slope that Asra is so afraid of."

Unfortunately, as we've learned from the murder of Dr. George Tiller by religious militant extremist Scott Roeder and the murder at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum by militant religious extremist James W. von Brunn -- both of whom claim to be Christians -- the "American experience" and the vibrant flame of a pluralistic democracy must be guarded with eternal vigilance.

Watch The Mosque in Morgantown and find out more here.

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, blogs at rosemarieberger.com.

For more about Asra Nomani, see "Men Only?" by Rose Marie Berger and "Living Out Loud," by Laurna Strickwerda. To read Nomani's articles in Sojourners, see "A Faith of Their Own," "The Islamic Reformation Has Begun," and "Struggle for the Soul of Islam."

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