Prem Geet reviews this brave, no-holds-barred documentary from 2009 that is currently broadcast on PBS in the USA. It is about Islam, feminism and change in a West Virginia Muslim community.
The documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown is a gut-wrenching look at how a well-meaning spiritual community fractures around power struggles over interpretations of Islam and the role of women. At the center is journalist and Islamic feminist Asra Nomani whose former Wall Street Journal colleague Daniel Pearl was murdered in Pakistan. She is alarmed to discover how extremism begins seeping in, unchallenged, at her local West Virginia mosque where she is not allowed to enter through the front door. Ultimately, she births the ‘Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Bedroom’ as well as the ‘Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Mosque’. The film is now airing in the USA as a national primetime PBS TV broadcast after its 2009 debut.
Like a modern day Cassandra who foresaw the destruction of ancient Troy, Nomani repeatedly warns her spiritual community that intolerance against women is the “slippery slope” that leads to violence. She protests the mosque’s treatment of women (which includes beating) and their attitude toward non-believers. Unfortunately, the community can’t hear her. Like any woman who confronts unhealthy leadership, she is marginalized, silenced, sidelined, and expelled.
According to researcher and author Hadia Mubarak, PhD, who writes about feminism and Islam, “Muslims in the twenty-first century have become so disconnected from their own religious tradition that we are posing questions that have long been resolved and unraveling threads of consensus that have formed the basis of Muslim historic practice for centuries.”
Although unintended, the film’s most poignant takeaway is the futility of any organized religion, especially when led by leaders fast asleep.
Osho says, “Religion is moving from the mud to the lotus.“ But in this situation, the lotus moved quickly to mud fights and lethal politics. Throughout the film, you can’t help but wonder about Nomani’s safety, even in a small university town. She is strong, clear, and kind, and yet her singular voice remains a danger to the status quo. Nomani quietly fights to clarify her place within her own spiritual home revealed as a power-crazed organization.
The documentary captures the boiling turmoil of interpersonal wars. Petty tyrants are threatened. No one wants to examine the truth. Participants fight about how to pray before and after the prayers. At one point, we learn that men do not want women to pray in the front line because the men behind them would be stuck looking at the women’s rear ends in close proximity, and this would make the men lose their minds!
The board of directors segment was also difficult to watch as the leaders seemed to have no knowledge or awareness about the beautiful essence of their own religion. If the leaders had been mature, respectful, and open minded enough to see when they were overly attached to their own views, tolerance would have been possible. Instead, inclusiveness was sacrificed to maintain hardliner control for the sake of control.
To quote the film’s director Brittany Huckabee, “The story in Morgantown is really about the dilemma of moderate Muslims, and that’s a story we don’t often see covered in the media. But it’s an absolutely critical part of the evolving saga of Islam in America, and at the same time I think it’s a story to which people of all faiths can relate. Hopefully this film can open a window for non-Muslims to understand what goes on inside the local mosque — and hold up a mirror for Muslims to reflect on their own experiences.”
While grueling to watch, this film perfectly reveals the shadow side of any spiritual community. We can’t see our own blind spots, so it takes tremendous trust to be inclusive and respectful. Sadly, the film tracks how the mosque, only two years old at the time, is slowly self-destructing. When the leaders could not silence Nomani, they set about to shun her, the worst kind of social death.
Truth ultimately overcomes the film’s self-conscious approach. Journalist Nomani clearly knows how to dramatize details and work the media. She stages a well-planned protest and calls in the big cameras to capture the insanity. In the end, the local patriarchs are only humiliated and become more entrenched. The targets are too easy and her enemies are not deeply explored. Love does not win this one, but the local wound with global ramifications has been exposed.
Prior to airing as a primetime PBS TV broadcast, The Mosque in Morgantown was honored with the Best Documentary prize in 2009 at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, and later earned an Emmy nomination for its haunting original score in 2010.
By Prem Geet
Related discourse excerpt
An Organisation Is Not Needed