An explanatory footnote to my blog post on ‘Unmosqued’

I hate defensive writing. I hate saying, I didn’t mean this and I didn’t mean that. But that’s what I’m going to do today.

First, my last blog post on the Unmosqued discussion was heartfelt, the product of almost two decades of work with the Muslim American community.

Second, that selfsame blog post was not primarily a reflection on or analysis of CIMIC, the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center. I was not being insincere when I said that CIMIC is head and shoulders above the other mosque and community experiences I have had. We have here people who are genuinely interested in the community, in being inclusive, and in being egalitarian.

But CIMIC, like (let’s pull a number out of a hat) 90% of mosques in the United States, works within a particular format, and that format is what I spoke of in my last blog post.

The fact that a mosque arranges a viewing of Unmosqued speaks volumes for the secret desire for change among even gatekeepers.

One thing is certain: when I demand change, for me, for my daughter, for my sisters who have never been to the mosque, I am doing so because we all need that change. We are trapped within a format, a methodology, and it’s not working for almost all of us (I could pull out another percentage from my hat here).

One of the problems is, in most communities, we are too busy reacting to ongoing challenges to think about that change.

One of these challenges that I have seen decent, well-intentioned mosque folks deal with is this: the salafi Islamists at the gate, pushing for control, more control.

If you’ve lived through the 1990s, you’ll wonder why they’re still trying to get control, but they are. And when they get a khutbah in, you hear their views on gender and politics, and you respond with NO MORE.

No more authoritarian, foreign, sexist religious ideology. It was dominant during the 1990s here, and we have no nostalgia for it.

In the words of the dating website: It’s Our Time.

The ‘Unmosqued’ discussion

photo-mainWe had a viewing of the documentary Unmosqued at our Islamic Center tonight.

It resulted in, on the one hand, the release of pent-up energy and input that I have never seen here (and long-standing members said they hadn’t seen in ages). On the other hand, the rather negative note on which the documentary concludes – with rather sparse indication of possible routes to the future – meant that the viewing also resulted in a sense of despair and a sense of unresolved polarization.

I am hopeful that we will have more community discussions similar to the one we had today.

The brief ensuing discussion (cut short by ‘isha prayer and the lateness of the hour) revealed a polarization around a) a profound sense of pain, alienation, and disconnect and b) the reaction of gatekeepers (which is a relative term), one of resentment toward the negative emotions (see a). We didn’t have the opportunity or the leadership to resolve this polarization either.

I am left, wistful, with one of the last comments in the documentary – a young man who said that the current mosque culture would not change or shift but simply die, and be replaced by something different.

Rather optimistically, I thought, another young man said that Muslim Americans would be leading and creating the mosques of the future. Yes, I thought, but only if  those mosques are very different creatures. I certainly can’t see a lot of young Muslim Americans of the future sidle politely into the back of the congregation, to listen quietly to some man (week after week, some man) rehearse his oddball views on life and Islam. They will either depart, or (if we are lucky) they will become part of a very different mosque.

One thing is certain:

The defensive reaction of the “choir” is not going to help resolve the polarization. If someone has been hurting, who has been urged and yelled at to be invisible and inaudible for years in this space, you cannot scold them for being in pain. You cannot scold them for being absent at the meetings (where their views are shrugged off anyway). You cannot judge them for being uninvolved in the mosque when the cultural setting of the mosque, the cultural language or style of the mosque is alien to them. It is a man’s space. It is a middle-aged man’s space. The unconventionally religious, the female, the youthful, the Black, the convert, etc. have been excluded and marginalized a long, long time. So don’t tell women (for instance) that it’s their own fault for not charging into the man-dominated crowd and making their mark on the mosque. I will not have it. I have served, I have worked, I have represented, I have smiled through the pain a million times, and I am the community. I will not be scolded for not doing enough. I will not be told off for having been thrown out of this space years ago.

imageAnd one more polarization:

Some women do feel a part of the mosque community and they are happy to serve (or be permitted to serve in subsidiary roles). I understand. But I do not wish to help my husband with his mosque work. I wish to have my own role in the mosque. I do not wish to cook or serve food. It’s not one of my talents. Gardening and lifting heavy objects are not my talents either. But I can lead discussions. I can teach. I can evaluate the Sunday School. Oh, and I can write khutbahs and deliver them. [Do I hear terrified silence?]

Also, ladies, I do not want to hear the words “Sisters’ Representative” ever again. No. You are not my representative to the Men. Thank you, but no. It is 2015. No more of that rubbish please.

So with all love and respect to those who are content with the status quo as well as to those who offer cultural spaces in the existing mosque – it’s just not enough. I want more. And I am not alone. I am the majority – the absent majority. If I am to contribute (as opposed to just show up for the occasional Friday congregation, gripe about the irrelevance of the sermon, and leave), I must have more. I will not settle for less.

Call me impious, call me a discontented shrew if you will, criticize me for my clothing if you want. I am hardened from years of practice. But for my daughter’s tomorrow, because I know she will flee the mosque if it is anything less, I will continue to show up in my own clothes, in my own style, and I will continue to demand MORE.


Update, March 1: OK. It seems that this post really spoke to some people. I want to add a couple of things:

First, I think our local mosque and Islamic Center is head and shoulders above the dreadful experiences I’ve had before. But as I said (repeatedly), we need MORE. The choir is happy or content with what we have. But they are unaware of the crowds that, unlike even me, are completely disconnected from the mosque.

Second, in case anyone got the wrong impression, I think the documentary is excellent. It is the perfect catalyst to break through smooth exteriors beneath which there lurks turmoil. But once people have got back in touch with their pain, they must have leadership and facilitation.

With polarized perspectives, that is one thing that we must have: facilitation. I wish I’d been It at our discussion, but there just wasn’t enough time.

OK, I was also simmering in my pain.

That pain. The moment I saw those images of barriers, walls, dividers, and CCTV. It all came back to me. Hours of service, immersed in the mosque community, running over to the mosque -like a mother hen – the day it was vandalized, iftar dinners in the freezing women’s space during winter Ramadans … And hours of argumentation, men saying (in various accents) that women didn’t belong in the main space, in the executive committee, anywhere except the women’s prayer space, the fury, the impotent fury and disbelief that this was happening in my beloved mosque space.

So excuse me for being in pain, and for my tone being a little unbalanced. I promise, next time, I will be a calm and empathic facilitator. Give me a chance. Another discussion, okay? A second viewing of Unmosqued and I will be better.

Because I really, truly believe that at our mosque, Unmosqued allowed for the best, most powerful, most energetic flow of ideas I have EVER seen.

To the harried-looking mom in the beat-up old burgundy SUV

When I turned the corner on my way to the gym, I saw your car. It was pulled next to the grocery store and you were unloading groceries from the cart into your trunk. Your kid caught my eye.

Because I have an 8-year old, I tend to notice 7-9 year old kids. Maybe it’s because they have this look of confused big-kid-ness: like they’re not little kids anymore, and they can pour milk and cereal for themselves, but they can’t be left alone, so they can’t really decide where they stand. And because kids like mine are growing taller and sturdier, their parents tend to expect much more of them. We look at them and realize that our kids can now knock us over (well, at least mine can knock me over) easily, and we can’t really carry them easily. So something has changed, and we expect more of them. We expect them to act like little grownups. We expect them  not to spill the juice when they pour it; we expect them to remember their math homework; we expect them to behave sedately in public spaces. And when they act like children, we – well, I – sometimes lose it.

Your little boy was pushing the cart, and it slipped from his hands and trundled on, down the slope from the curb, into a small collision with your old car. I inadvertently exclaimed, “Oh no” as I drove past you, and I noticed that you reacted too. The tired, harried, grumpy look on your face was too familiar. The edge in your voice, that dangerous edge, was too familiar. And your kid, that sweet little 7-8 year old boy with coffee-colored cheeks and a big puffy coat, reacted with practiced fear, cringing quickly, leaping back swiftly, aware that he needed to back the hell up, away out of the reach of that grownup bundle of nerves.

I’ve been there, you know. I’ve been at my wits’ ends, at the end of my tether, and my kid has dropped, slipped, broken something or other, and I just can’t handle it anymore. Maybe that is why I react with such internal savage anger. Look at that sweet face. Look at his eyes. Look at his fear. Quit screaming at him. Be a grownup and let him be a kid. I am full of judgment, full of grief, full of sympathy for him and full of fury for you.

So I park, and I stand outside, watching you, bullying you with my gaze, telling you I’ve got my eye on you. Don’t you treat him like that. Because I can sort of see in his fear that he is used to more than screaming. When you open the back door to put a grocery bag in, he leaps quickly away from you, fearful. So I walk slowly to the gym. I want to come up to you and say something. I’m afraid you will unleash your fury on me. After all, I think, how would I feel if someone were to preach good mothering to me when I was having a bad day and my kid was … was … acting like a CHILD?

So I don’t really know what to do. I want to protect him and put a smile on his face, but a nagging thought clouds over my anger for you: you’re having a really bad day. Your face is haggard, your hair is messy and wrapped in a bandana, and your car is not in great shape.

As if to prove my evaluation of your car’s health, when you start the engine, I hear it cough, sputter, and die.

What a day.

I’m still mad at you, but I’m also wondering what a day you must be having. So after a few minutes, when I see your car still there at the grocery store, I abandon my hoodie on a treadmill, step down, and walk out. I go up to you. Your car is stationery. Your kid is now sitting in another car, an old white sedan – a friend came to help you out? – and you are now loading all those groceries into the white sedan. The kid is in the passenger seat of the sedan. stressed-mom

I go up to you. You are so harried you don’t hear me say ‘Ma’am? Ma’am? Excuse me!’ several times. Eventually you turn and I ask if you are okay and if I can help you. As if to explain why your car is there blocking traffic, you tell me your car’s not working, so you’re going to drop off your groceries and come back for it. You seem okay now, maybe getting some help has put you in a better mood, so you smile, and I make a sympathetic face for you and wish you good luck. You thank me with a smile and hurry off.

As I turn back and leave, to return to the gym, I catch that little boy’s eye. He is smiling at me and waving. Is he grateful that I stopped to ask his mom if she needed help? Is he grateful for a friendly face, for someone who was willing to be nice even if she didn’t actually do anything for him?

I give him a thumbs up and a big grin.

I walk away, wondering if mom is unemployed or underemployed, if her car will die now. I wonder how she will manage.

I wonder, seamlessly, how I will manage next time I have car trouble and my kid is being a pain in the neck. I wonder if someone will stop to be nice, or if they will offer me nothing but judgment.

I haven’t told my daughter about the Chapel Hill shooting

I haven’t told my eight year old daughter about the Chapel Hill shooting.

I don’t want her to know that Muslim college students who are model citizens, work hard, and do everything right are still at risk of being murdered in cold blood by their neighbors.

barakatI want to conceal from her as long as I can, that basketball-playing, all-American, joyful young Muslim college students are at risk of being executed in their apartments.

After being murdered, these community volunteers who devote themselves to the poor and the needy, are blamed. They used a parking spot. They laughed and talked in their own home. They wore clothes that reflected their faith.

This young radiant couple and the young wife’s sister – ‘best third wheel ever,’ Deah called her – had a bright future and they looked toward a better world for all of us.

What was their fault? What did they do to be executed?

A shot in the head for each of them – BANG. BANG. BANG. – no hesitation. Craig Stephens Hicks did not chapelhillvictimsrazanstop after killing one, or the second. Not until he had snuffed out all three lives did he stop.

So I don’t want to tell my kid that she is growing up in a culture where she and her faith community are routinely demonized. I don’t want her to know – until when? Until she is ready. When will she be ready? When are you ready to deal with hate for being who you are?

So I surf channels and I absorb the hate from Fox News, and I mutter about it to my husband so my daughter will not hear me. I don’t want her to grow up with the disease of self-hate. I don’t want her to feel like she has to hide who she is. I don’t want her to know that when she steps out into the world and, happily, shares how she prays namaz, she may be putting herself at risk.

When she joins the mosque youth group that contributes to a peace garden project at the Mennonite Church, someone will be watching and reading the worst into this bridge-building. Someone will be saying, “They have conquered us through immigration. They have conquered us through interfaith dialogue.”


And yet again, through this tragedy, we have learned that mainstream media have made themselves irrelevant by their selective silences, by their falsehoods, by their selling of hate. We have learned to rely on social media for our news.
Some people think that the disease of Islamophobia is limited to right-wing Christians and Zionists. They have learned, today, that this is not the case. Much Western secularity is just as infected with the contagion of hate as is right-wing religion. We have seen how laicite often thinly veils a long-standing racism. It’s not religion – whether Christianity, or Islam – that is the problem, nor is atheism and secularity the problem. The problem is racism all wrapped up in hate.

razanRacism wrapped up in hate. Hate and anger all wrapped up in excuses. Fury agains hijabs and adhans all wrapped up in the paucity of parking spaces.

But without guns, hate would be yes, horrible – traumatic, even. But without guns, a mother would not lose her child, a father would not have to bury his young son or daughter, the world would not lose another shining star, another hope for tomorrow.

For those who think that we need more guns to protect ourselves, let them consider the Chapel Hill shooting. For those who think we need go into a preventive war frenzy, consider the young lives of Yusor, Deah, and Razan.

In memory of these loving and bright souls, I will not retweet or share any hateful posts. I reject everything that fans the flames of the hate that took the lives of Deah, Yusor, and Razan. I ask you to do the same. For you, for me. For our tomorrows. For our children.

The Women’s Mosque & the Obsession with Unity

rt_womens_mosque_1_kb_150204_16x9_992I am delighted to share the news of the first women’s mosque, the first all-women and women-led Friday prayer. I was delighted to share the news with my 8-year old daughter as well. The prayer was held in Los Angeles, so we were unable to attend. At least my daughter knows that there is a space where women give the call to prayer, women deliver the khutbah, and women lead the prayer. I have been waiting, truth be told, to tell my daughter this.

Many Muslims have come out shaking their heads and muttering solemnly about the legality of this prayer. At this time of my life, I really could not care less. I have heard people express themselves with anguish and anger on this subject on both sides, and I am mostly silent.

At the same time, I’ve heard Muslims say they are profoundly upset about Shia and Sunni mosques, about Pakistani, Arab, Persian, Somali, Albanian mosques. Why must we separate? Why, they say, can’t we all pray together?

Why the hell can’t we all take a chill pill and pray separately?

I remember the same Battle of the Salafi-Gulfies vs. the Sorta-Feminists at Bloomington Islamic Center in the mid to late 1990s. Women’s participation in the “MSA” (which was a community organization, really) was abysmal. Somewhere down the line, the community had changed in its demographics, and second generation Muslim Americans as well as the undergrad Muslim population had started attending the mosque. When we, as a newly elected executive committee, raised the issue of splitting into an MSA and a community organization, I heard similar cries of grief and anger. Why are you calling for disunity? Why must be split into two? We have worked this way for so long (“we” was the Salafis and the Gulfies, the male students and the wives, and everyone else just made themselves scarce). Why can’t we continue? Why are you bringing disunity to our ranks?

Guess what. We are not ranks. And praying in different spaces is not a big deal. Ironically, it was the Soldiers of Unity who also called for a complete division of the community down gender lines. The ummah had to be divided into two – the men’s ummah and the women’s ummah. It only intersected when the men needed to eat and to leave a big mess in the mosque.

islamic-sects1When my Shia friend goes for Muharram majalis and my Salafi friend goes to attend al-Maghreb Institute classes, I am very happy to go to a mawlid. We can get together for coffee afterwards. I don’t have to go to Al-Maghreb in order to re-establish unity in the community. It’s really not a big deal.

Plus, folks, have you noticed? – we are a bigger community now. The numbers are so large that in our Champaign-Urbana community, at the historic CIMIC, we have two Friday prayer congregations now. Is that division and disunity? Guess what – when I attend the Friday prayer, I make choices as to which one I attend. Which khateeb is sane and inspiring? Which khateeb makes me furious about his gender-related views?

Denominationalism is right here, folks. Let’s embrace it explicitly.

There is a women’s prayer. You don’t like it? Don’t attend it. You have many choices. The Brelvis in Chicago make you mad? Don’t go to their madrassahs. Go to the Salafi mosque, or the Deobandi mosque, or the Pakistani mosque, or wherever the spirit moves you. It’s no big deal.

This is not tafarraqah or disunity. And we are not ranks arrayed for battle. We are diverse people. Unity is not uniformity. Wa la tafarraqu (and be not disunited) does not ask you to occupy the same spaces but to be united in your hearts. If we hate each other, we are disunited and divided from each other. Geography, workspaces, social class, gender, all divide us already. It’s not a big deal to pray in a different space.

Actually, I’ll go further and say I like you better if I don’t have to pray next to you every Friday and argue about how I’m dressed and how far apart our feet are. I can get along better with you if you find inspiration and comfort in your Friday khutbah and I find inspiration and comfort in mine. Look at it this way: we can be like a couple in a Sleep Number bed. Why do we have to kick and snore and make each other miserable? Why not have optimal spaces for each denomination?

And why not accept that we have denominations? This anxiety, this terror surrounding the words sect and sectarianism is so old. It prevents us from self-understanding and from deeper theological understanding. When I hear someone say “I’m neither Shia nor Sunni nor Wahhabi nor Sufi – I’m just a Muslim,” I roll my eyes with a great rolling. What I hear is not purity, but denial, not knowledge, but ignorance. Remember, we are nations and tribes (and religion and denominations are akin to tribes in many ways, or at least function like tribes), and God made this happen. Division and diversity are an attribute of life. In death, we are all the same.

At the mosque, I often see aunties who don’t really get what the English khutbah is all about. I also see high school kids rolling their eyes at the immigrant khateebs. Is it such a bad thing if the Pakistanis have a Friday prayer so they can listen to a khutbah in Urdu? Is it so terrible if they sell biryani plates afterwards?

Denominationalism allows for a plurality of free associations. It is already here.

I like the women’s prayer. You don’t? Don’t attend it. I don’t like your small, segregated women’s prayer rooms. I won’t be attending your mosque.