Pulpit Bullies

“And we have raised, from among them, leaders … ”

-- Koran, al-Sajdah, “The Prostration,” 32:24

Just before midnight one Friday last December, an Egyptian American professor of electrical engineering at West Virginia University, clad in a track suit and red-and-white checkered scarf, stepped through the green steel doors of our mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia. With a spring in his step, he took a breath of the cool night air and smiled widely as he triumphantly waved to a Muslim man by the door. Down the street, in front of the Friendship Motel, a crew for a PBS documentary quietly rolled its cameras on the gesture.

There was much for the professor to celebrate. In a year's time, he and a posse of extremist Muslims had successfully launched a takeover of our newly built mosque, driven moderate Muslims out of power, trash-talked women out of office, and entrenched the posse's members as leaders. Its latest win: a landslide victory that night in the mosque election.

Speaking in Urdu, the language of South-Asian Muslims, local Muslims who opposed the posse had taken to calling its members chumcha, or “spoons,” a cultural concept akin to being a lackey. For an American Muslim like me, born in India but raised in Morgantown, the shorthand was obvious: chumps. And the Chump Gang represented something much more than small-town politics.

The problems in the Morgantown Muslim community are symbolic of the crisis in leadership facing the American Muslim world. They underscore the challenges that the emerging progressive Muslim community faces in trying to create a new reality of inclusion, tolerance, and balance. While seemingly far removed from the issues of corruption and intimidation that define the political process from Iraq to Afghanistan, the problems facing the American Muslim community, sitting in the bastion of democracy, are driven by some of the same impulses. Questions about democracy in Islam are not restricted to faraway lands but also echo in Muslim communities in America. The anatomy of a mosque in Morgantown also reflects the peculiar challenges America faces with some Muslims who wear the laurels of success in the United States. The professor has led National Science Foundation (NSF) dental forensic research as a close collaborator with the FBI, and he has done NASA computer-security research -- while railing against America from the pulpit.

In an effort not to lose conservative Muslim donors who fund the building of mosques, traditional leaders in the American Muslim community are ignoring constituencies that are banging at the door for entry. They are ignoring women, young people, and moderate men who eschew interpretations of Islam that are bigoted, sexist, and intolerant. “American Muslim leaders act as if they are playing a game of Monopoly, buying and collecting property, instead of leading the community with vision,” says Khalid Abou El Fadl, an Islamic scholar and professor at the UCLA School of Law.

After more than a year of immersion in the local and national American Muslim community, and a lifetime growing up in both, I've come to see that a revolution -- not an evolution -- of values must occur in order to fix a system that is betraying the best interests of not only the majority of Muslims but of the world. The civil-rights leaders of the 1960s were fighting intimidation, corruption, and distortions in theology. While moderate Muslims for the most part do not face direct threats of violence in the way civil rights leaders did, we still face similar challenges (I have received one death threat, a posting on an Internet bulletin board with the subject heading, “Death to Asra,” which I traced to a university student and referred to the FBI). Ultimately, moderate Muslims have only ourselves to blame if we don't become the leaders we want to see in the world. If new, moderate leadership doesn't persevere, we will see growing Muslim fundamentalism in America. The neoconservatives have recognized this, but their frightening solutions thwart progressive Muslims and empower extremists who argue that Westerners are intent on destroying Islam. Indeed, American liberal values are so in sync with spiritual Islam's values of social justice, economic equity, and gender equality that it's incumbent upon American liberals to recognize the struggle here at home by progressive Muslims -- and have a stake in supporting it. “Islam in America is in the early stages of organizing a grass-roots movement similar to the reform movements that have defined other faith traditions,” says Ahmed Nassef, editor of Muslim WakeUp!, a popular progressive Muslim e-magazine. “Moderate and liberal Muslims share the same values as American liberals, and they are in a position to help … develop a distinct and effective national security strategy.”

* * *

Like so many moderate Muslims, I was a disengaged spectator of my Muslim community for most of my life. I never felt as if I belonged. It was easier for me to practice my faith in my private space and pursue my dreams in the secular world. As a senior at Morgantown High School, I was a normal American teen: breaking into journalism as editor of our high-school newspaper, the Red and Blue Journal; lettering in volleyball and track as a Morgantown High Mohigan.

Starting in 1988, I was based in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and then New York, writing about corporate America, politics, and popular culture as a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal. I saw fundamentalism emerging in the Muslim community, both in Morgantown and nationally, but I never challenged it. I just avoided it. Like a lot of people, I experienced September 11 as a dramatic wake-up call. On book leave, I flew to Pakistan to report on the war in Afghanistan for Salon. In Karachi, I rented a sun-drenched villa to finish writing my first book. On assignment in Islamabad, my dear friend and Journal colleague Daniel Pearl jetted into town with his wife, Mariane, to visit me. With Mariane, I waved goodbye to Danny as he slipped away in a yellow taxi for a scheduled interview with a Muslim sheikh. It was the last time that either of us saw him.

Unknown to us, a young London School of Economics dropout and Muslim radical had laid a careful kidnapping trap for Danny. In the desperate hope that Danny had his cell phone, Mariane and I tapped a text message from mine, three simple words capturing the philosophy my parents had taught me as a Muslim to embrace for friends of all faiths: “We love you.” Five weeks later, after a desperate search that Mariane and I spearheaded out of the dining room in my house, counterterrorism specialists discovered the videotape that confirmed Danny's fate.

I returned to Morgantown, not only reeling from the shock of my friend's murder but also carrying a baby conceived in Karachi before Danny was kidnapped. My Muslim boyfriend, for fear of getting involved, had abandoned Mariane and me as soon as Danny had disappeared. I had my baby boy in October 2002, and for a year I struggled with questions about my faith, even taking my son with me to Mecca. I was trying to discover whether there was a place for a person like me in my religion. The pilgrimage became my introduction to beautiful Muslims who practice the compassion, love, and kindness of spiritual Islam, not the division, hatred, and ugliness of political Islam. Over the year, I found a spiritual community of like-minded Muslims who buoyed my faith in my religion.

I marked Shibli's first birthday in October 2003 with a naming ceremony that symbolizes a baby's birth as a Muslim. I had chosen to raise him in the religion of my ancestors. Days later, my father, a founder of the first mosque in Morgantown in 1981, told me that he and other men had successfully completed construction of a new mosque that would be opened for the holy month of Ramadan. Danny's murder told me that, as moderate Muslims, we had a critical role to play in how Islam was expressed in the world. I was ready to accept my responsibilities.

When I first stepped up to the green doors of our mosque for its grand opening on the eve of Ramadan, I had no clue about the drama that was to unfold, and the struggle for the soul of Islam hanging in the balance. I was just a mother excited about taking her son to the mosque. But at the front door, the loud voice of the mosque board chairman splintered my joy. “Sister! Take the back entrance!” yelled the Egyptian American man, an educated fellow with a Ph.D. who was a longtime resident of the United States. I stared at him, stunned, and proceeded through the front door. I turned quickly to the left and didn't dare go up the front staircase. Unknown to me, it led to a main hall, but somehow I knew it was forbidden.

For 10 seething days, I kept returning to an isolated balcony where other women and I sat staring at a hip-high solid wall, barely able to follow the voice of the disembodied preacher below. When a woman wanted the microphone so that a convert could recite her proclamation of faith aloud to the congregation, the mosque manager, a staff employee at the university, refused to hand it over, declaring, “A woman's voice is not to be heard in the mosque.” Nobody protested. No leader emerged. When the Muslim Students' Association distributed a collection of books including a Saudi-published primer, Women in the Shade of Islam, with a section called “Women Beating,” instructing men how to beat their wives and identifying the types of women who “enjoy being beaten,” nobody protested. No leader emerged.

For my part, I couldn't accept the third-class status of the balcony. On the 11th day of Ramadan, in November 2003, I woke in the pre-dawn to step through the front door with my mother and family and climb into the main hall. We settled into place, accepting second-class status about 30 feet behind the men, to appease their fears. Then, the board president towered over us and yelled at us to leave: “Sister! It's better for you upstairs.” I knew my rights. Women didn't have to pray behind any partition in the prophet Muhammad's mosque in Medina in the 7th century, and I had prayed beside men in Mecca. At that moment, though, and later that evening when I returned to the mosque and prayed behind about a hundred men, nobody defended me from the band of men who surrounded me to try to intimidate me out of the main hall. The rest of the men watched passively. No leader emerged.

Instead, the mosque board turned around the next day and voted 4 to 1 to reserve the front door and main hall solely for the use of men. My father, a board member, was the lone dissenting vote. They didn't open a dialogue with me. The board president jetted out of town to his native Egypt for a six-month stay. The acting board president refused my entreaties for a meeting. They ruled by edict. I filed the first complaint of gender discrimination with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based Muslim group dedicated to defending Muslim civil rights. Its officials told me that this intra-Muslim issue fell out of its jurisdiction. Except for my father, I could not find support for my rights. Instead, when I tried to attend a study session one evening, a board member, a local cardiologist, threatened me with a restraining order. Another man, a research-assistant professor, verbally assaulted my father and me. His boss at the university: the professor who was to later tighten his grip on the mosque. The mosque board member blamed me for causing the problem. Nobody protested. No leader emerged.

* * *

My situation is not unique. And while one small mosque in one small town may not sound that important, what's going on in Morgantown is all too representative of a national trend of extremist belligerence and moderate passivity in mosques across America.

This past November, the imam of a Boston mosque banned a young woman, Nakia Jackson, when she dared to leave the smelly room designated for women and pray in the main hall. Not long after, men in a Charlotte, North Carolina, mosque locked women out of the main hall when they received an edict from like-minded men in a Chicago organization, ruling that women must be separated from men in the mosque. It's true that most American Muslims don't even attend mosques on a regular basis -- as many as 75 percent, according to experts. But it's the 25 percent who do that matter, because that 25 percent is defined by men like the professor -- educated men in respected professions who get along with the neighbors from Saturday to Thursday but say things from the pulpit on Fridays that cast those neighbors as enemies of God. In a 2000 survey by national Muslim organizations, 67 percent of mosque leaders said they somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement that “America is an immoral, corrupt society.”

In our mosque, a board of trustees and a management committee called “the executive committee” is supposed to run the mosque, according to a constitution my father helped write. The board is handpicked. The executive committee is supposed to be elected every November. Because of infighting, the last executive committee disbanded the year before the new mosque opened. When my father tried to raise the question of running another election, other board members voted him down. They would rather live with the vacuum of elected leaders than the nuisance. But most came to the mosque only once a week for the Friday service, akin to a church's Sunday service. Many matters went unattended. Most of the congregation didn't notice, but the vacuum was noticed by a band of men who attended the mosque regularly for the five daily prayers that are a part of Muslim ritual. Piety doesn't make for extremism, but the five daily prayers serve as a convenient meeting time for Muslims inclined to narrow interpretations of the religion.

On March 1, 2004, the professor and his followers posted a memo on the wall of the main hall. They had named themselves the “temporary executive committee.” The man spearheading the coup: the professor, who was named president. No elections. No community meeting. No board approval. They took to the microphone to announce their band of brothers. They added a note of intimidation: They deserved to be the leaders of the mosque because they prayed there the most. Two board members, moderate Muslims, sat in the congregation. No leader emerged. I tried to ask them about their legitimacy. The “maintenance director” of the coup snapped at me. “Go organize the sisters,” he said.

For two and a half months, the men held weekly Sunday meetings in the community room of the mosque with a rule typed into their agenda: “Sisters must sit in a designated space in the back.” They took passionately to the task of running the mosque with new bulletin boards, mailboxes, and locks among their agenda items. My father boldly stood at the pulpit and read a statement: “The board of trustees does not recognize any executive committee that is not elected.” That night, the acting president, a Pakistani man who seemed like a moderate Muslim psychiatrist, yelled at my father. He didn't want to start a fight with the takeover group. He didn't want to involve the police. Shouting, the psychiatrist threatened to take action against my father to strip him of his post.

My father's response: “Go ahead.”

The psychiatrist backed off the threat, but there would be no challenge of the takeover group. My father quit his position in protest. He was an elderly man; he didn't have the energy to fight the corruption of power. With my mother, I went Sunday after Sunday to the group's meetings, sitting at a table facing the members' tables, arranged horseshoe-style. I challenged their legitimacy to change the locks on the mosque door. They reprimanded me. No leader emerged.

At the pulpit one week, a Saudi student derided man-made law as the work of “enemies of Islam” and called on the congregation to “contemporary enemies of the Prophet” and told the congregation, “Among the most important indicators of one's sincere love of the Prophet is to hate those who hate him.” This was the Wahhabist interpretation of Islam. As a congregation, we were expected to sit silently. “Like sheep,” I whispered to my mother, sitting beside me, during one offensive sermon.

I went to that Sunday's meeting to protest the sermons. A woman convert sat beside me, an ally in my effort to open the doors of our mosque. She and I had joined forces to run for office in an election the board was finally holding. The men of the takeover were voting on their own slate. In the bat of an eye, they voted on whether to include the convert and me. They voted no. I wouldn't have accepted anyway. Then, the Saudi student who had preached the hate sermon introduced a motion: Vote on our names separately. They rejected me. They accepted her. She accepted their nomination. My mother sat beside us, stunned. The convert's rationalization: She wanted to try to work from within. The meeting broke for prayer. The men assembled into lines, standing shoulder to shoulder. My mother and I stood in our usual spot toward the rear of the main hall. The convert wouldn't join us.

Two weeks later, the professor stood at the pulpit, coming from his job doing critical research for the NSF, the FBI, and NASA. He slammed the West: “What a dark path theirs is.”

* * *

Muslim extremists engage in a calculated strategy to discredit moderate leaders and sabotage their efforts. Sadly, progressives allow the extremists to institute this strategy. With my one ally gone, I withdrew from the race. The convert dutifully created campaign fliers for her newly adopted slate, the “temporary executive committee” (which is like a junta declaring itself “the temporary parliament” in a parliamentary election). The “maintenance director” stared at the flier with mug shots of the nine-member slate, including his own, and spoke everyone's mind. “Looks like a ‘Most Wanted' poster,” he said.

The day of the election, the members of the coup smiled widely and passed out sweets, a symbol of a victory of which they were so certain that they didn't wait until after the results to distribute them. I surveyed the scene and, for the first time, understood why reform candidates in Iran had boycotted their national election months earlier: conscience. To vote in a flawed election process is to accept corruption.

I filed a protest with the acting board president. It went unanswered. That night the results went up on the wall of the mosque: Seven of the takeover group's slate had won office, including the professor and the American convert. In addition, two American-raised men, for the most part progressive, won office. Of the nine newly elected members, four, including the professor, were radical conservative; two were conservative moderate; three were progressive moderate. The extremists hadn't won all the seats, but the coup was successful enough. And it had won leadership: The professor who led the coup became the elected president. The question was whether the moderates could stand up to the extremists. “It's a jump ball,” I told my mother.

It wasn't for long, though. Shortly thereafter, I asked the executive committee to announce a literary reading by American Muslim women writers who were jetting into Morgantown to march in support of women's rights at mosques. After much struggle and debate, the imam agreed to announce the event. But some felt that I had shamed the community by publicly standing up against gender discrimination. A petition was drawn up to have me banned. Thirty-five members of the mosque supposedly signed it. I got word of it when the president -- the professor -- sent me a missive, calling me to a 9:15 p.m. meeting to draw names out of a plastic bag for my jury. I sought the names of my accusers. Denied. I sought the charges against me. Denied. I sought legal representation. Denied. The professor barreled the petition through the process. No leader emerged. And the professor got on a jet plane for a visit to his native Egypt.

Then, on the last Friday of July 2004, a dramatic moment occurred. An Egyptian doctoral student of the professor's stood at the pulpit in a robe and head covering. “One of the most important fundamentals of our religion,” he said, “is to love and be loyal to Islam and the Muslims and to hate and renounce the disbelievers.” He had twisted the first chapter of the Koran, adopting a translation commonly used by Wahhabist clerics, to proclaim that Jews and Christians have strayed from “the straight path.” Most often, I protested alone against the intolerant sermons coming from the pulpit just about every month. This time, fortunately, so, too, did others. The elected committee had an emergency meeting and did the right thing: It fired the student from his post as a voluntary imam. Missing from the meeting was the professor; he was still in Egypt.

That weekend, the student wrote his defense to the congregation and provided a startling revelation: He had gotten the sermon from a Web site called al-Minbar (“the Pulpit”). At my desk at home I plugged the site's name into my Web browser. What I found stunned me. The site was a slick one that disseminated prefab speeches of hate written by Wahhabist clerics in Saudi Arabia. It was the source of at least three other sermons preached from our pulpit by the Chump Gang.

* * *

We are in desperate need of muslim leaders who will galvanize and energize moderates to build communities that are inclusive, tolerant, and compassionate, with social values that are as progressive as Islam itself, and who would not let radicalism define our communities. Many are trying. At the Islamic Center of Long Island, board President Faroque Khan and other leaders -- both women and men -- inspire their community to sponsor interfaith events, promote women's involvement, and encourage activities for American Muslim youth. In Chicago, pediatrician Jihad Shoshara and others have organized a progressive Muslim group that meets monthly. In Plainfield, Indiana, Louay Safi, former director of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, took the helm of the Leadership Development Center for the Islamic Society of North America, the largest Muslim organization in North America. Our mosque fell under its umbrella as an affiliate, getting nonprofit status through the association. Safi believes in the same ideals as I do: inclusion and tolerance. At a mosque in Salt Lake City, Utah, he reprimanded mosque leaders for demanding that women sit in a balcony, only their blurry silhouettes visible behind a wall of glass blocks. Earlier in the year, I had sought help from him for the debacle that was leadership in our local community. He mediated to make certain the election was held, but when the issue of the hate sermon emerged, he told me that his organization preferred that such issues be settled locally.

Over the summer, another female convert had joined the mosque's leadership as one of its activity coordinators. Her first project had been simple: a forum with the title “The Place of Women in the Masjid and the Community.” She worked closely with Safi to coordinate the event. Like the other convert, she repeatedly got brushed aside locally, despite the approval of the mosque leadership for the event. Finally, she quit in frustration. In October 2004, Safi arrived alone, and his visit exemplified the challenges facing the Muslim world. At a Friday-night community meeting, my mother, the convert, and I sat to one side of the spacious hall. The meeting seemed to be going as well as could be expected. From a report Safi had written called “Future Directions,” I read from the section about “reforming Muslim practices and speaking against deformed, corrupt, and excessive actions within the Muslim community.”

American Muslims must not be complacent and remain silent when fellow Muslims violate Islamic values or are implicated in actions that distort the humane and noble principles of Islam. Religious solidarity must not be allowed to trump our moral and legal commitments. Justice and good judgment rather than sympathy must guide Muslim positions and actions.

Safi nodded his head in agreement. But in a moment, we were all to realize just how much of a challenge that represented. The convert slipped forward to listen better, and the research-assistant professor who had led a tirade against my father and me exploded. “How can you let a woman sit in the front?” he demanded. When Safi tried to respond, the research assistant snapped back: “Shut your mouth. I don't like the sound of your voice.” When Safi asked him on whose behalf he was speaking, his answer was quick: the professor -- his boss and the man who had led the takeover.

The problems were clear to Safi in his three days there: sharply divided constituencies without leadership guiding them to coexistence. He offered six solid recommendations for improvement, including conflict-resolution training, adherence to the democratic process, and leadership training. The report was sent to all of the members of the executive committee. To this date, Safi hasn't received any follow-up on his recommendations. No leader emerged.

* * *

Just recently, the conservatives have allowed some of the moderate men who lost in the election to preach from the pulpit. One of them told us that Islam mandates that Muslims live with wisdom in “an atmosphere of kindness and gentleness.” He ended with an inspiring prayer: “O, Allah, you alone can help us to transform suspicion, jealousy, and hatred to admiration and affection. We pray that you will give us the wisdom and courage to improve our character … .” Another, communicating a barely veiled message, extolled the congregation to remember that Islam allows for differences among people. Speaking softly, he said, “Work for the good of humanity.”

I hope these gestures bear more fruit. But whatever the posture of the conservatives, it's incumbent upon progressive and moderate Muslims to organize to create a new reality. That is, after all, the model of the prophet Muhammad when he moved to Medina to create a new Muslim political state and to escape the persecution in Mecca, where most of the residents didn't accept his message of monotheism and social justice. He took with him companions who believed in him; after several years of proselytizing, his followers only numbered in the several dozen.

Organization, as with all movements, is key. My family and I created Morgantown Muslims & Friends; the convert who had tried to work from within joined forces with us after quitting as a mosque leader when the hard-liners, particularly the professor, wouldn't budge on the professor's extremist ideas. “You're brave,” my mother told her.

But our detractors in even the moderate world have regularly undermined our efforts. In New York City, three men, including Muslim WakeUp!'s Nassef, and one woman announced the founding of the Progressive Muslim Union of North America, a bold new venture dedicated to Islamic principles of social, economic, and political equity. Immediately, some moderates became fearful and signaled their intention not to participate.

Desperate for inspiration, I drove with my father to a retreat at a monastery in upstate New York on the banks of the Hudson River. Organized by a visionary leader, Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf, and his wife, Daisy Khan, executive director of an American Muslim group called the ASMA (American Sufi Muslim Association) Society, it carried an inspiring name: Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow. In the cavernous main prayer hall, we assembled into teams to answer three questions: As an American Muslim, what are you tired of? What are you worried about? What are you upset about? One answer, expressed many ways, echoed in the hall: the failure of leadership in our American Muslim community to draw the marginalized and alienated into the tent. “We're tired of immature, confrontational leadership,” said one participant. “Who are the Muslim leaders speaking for?” asked another. Out of that weekend, several dozen leaders emerged. And, in a routine for the retreat, a comedian from Chicago, Azhar Usman, drew laughs with his characterization of the “uncles” who ran our American Muslim community: “Muslim Leaders of Yesterday.”

The challenge to moderates is how to spark reform amid corruption, intimidation, and outmaneuvering by the extremists. We must be the leaders we want to see in the world. We must make room for a host of progressive Muslim leaders so that we can move forward our agenda of social justice, women's rights, and tolerance. Moderates need to stop ripping one another apart and, instead, encourage one another to succeed. In his report on the future of leadership in the American Muslim world, Safi said, “Developing Muslim leadership is a must at this critical juncture in the growth of Islam in North America, and could literally spell the difference between creating another success story for Islam, America, and the Muslim world, or bringing about a tragic end to developing a vibrant Islamic presence in North America.”

There are many paths to progress, and we must allow one another the room to walk them with grace and respect. For my part, I will start a Muslim Women's Freedom Tour on March 1 with an Islamic bill of rights for women, from the mosque to the bedroom. I will create 99 precepts for reform in the Muslim world, much as Martin Luther tacked 95 precepts for change on the doors of a church in Wittenberg, Germany -- only each of our Muslim world's precepts will invoke one of the 99 names traditionally accorded to Allah. Among them: compassion, justice, truth, fairness, and love -- all concepts that represent a revolution of values because our leaders and communities have strayed so far from them in our Muslim world. The alternative is unacceptable.

The first mosque doors on which I will post the 99 precepts: my mosque in Morgantown.

Asra Q. Nomani is former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam, which will be published in March. She lives in Morgantown, West Virginia, with her son and family. Follow the Muslim Women's Freedom Tour at www.asranomani.com.