The tenth anniversary of 9/11 has compelled many Americans to reflect upon the past decade, to make sense of how the country has shifted so radically both politically and culturally. An on-going conversation which has engaged both the Muslim American community and population at large, is what American Islam looks like, in a time when these two words are interpreted in such varying ways and often positioned against each other.
This month on XFINITY On-Demand, Cinema Asian America features Brittany Huckabee’s nuanced and revealing documentary “The Mosque In Morgantown” examines the complex politics of contemporary Islam in America, through the lens of activist and writer, Asra Nomani, who unleashes a national debate when she begins to advocate for reform in her local mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia. Huckabee sat down with us to discuss the film, and its significance this September.
Why did you decide to make a film about Asra Nomani? What did she represent to you?
A colleague of mine in Washington, DC, knew Asra and told me about her story: Fresh from the trauma of her friend Daniel Pearl’s murder in Pakistan, Asra had returned to her hometown in West Virginia and believed she saw signs of trouble at the local mosque. Its male leadership was excluding women and families, and their sermons lashed out against the West and non-believers. Soon Asra, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, was writing high-profile Op-Eds accusing them of extremism.
It all sounded familiar to me. I grew up in a conservative church in rural Colorado, and I remember sitting in the pew with wide eyes listening to sermons about the evils of American culture, the inferior status of women and the irredeemability of non-believers. We had our own showdown when a liberal young preacher came and tried to change things, leading to a split in the congregation. So first and foremost I was curious: were these Muslims in Morgantown really any more exotic – or dangerous – than the men who controlled my childhood church? I was also interested in Asra as a modern feminist activist operating in the very traditional space of a religious community. As I began filming, I noticed a fundamental disconnect between her and the other community members. What she saw as issues with huge ideological and geopolitical stakes they often saw as matters of daily life and worship. They were caught in the clash between modernity and tradition that plays out in so many religious communities today, including my childhood church. The idea of exploring that clash fascinated me as a filmmaker.
While “The Mosque In Morgantown” primarily follows Nomani’s actions to reform her local mosque, the film is not uncritical of her. How did you balance the many competing and contradictory interests and perspectives on all sides of the conflict which arose in Morgantown?
That was difficult! When I first arrived in Morgantown – a young female filmmaker from the big city – people at the mosque assumed I was simply out to confirm Asra’s point of view. But I hung around long enough to convince them otherwise, immersing myself in community events, taking Arabic classes, studying the Quran. The mosque was in an incredibly complex predicament with high emotions invested on all sides, and I quickly found that I could relate to most mosque members in one way or another. As a modern American woman I chafed at what seemed like unequal treatment, and Asra’s framing her activism in terms of civil rights resonated with me. But coming from a religious background myself, I also understood the power of tradition and the desire to anchor oneself to absolute standards. And I saw that two sets of core American values seemed to be in conflict in Morgantown: equality and justice on the one hand and diversity and tolerance on the other. One could make a pretty convincing argument for either gender rights or religious freedom. Most of all, I imagined what it would feel like to be called an extremist in the national press and lack the resources and connections to fight back. In the end I set out to tell the story with as much balance as my access allowed, and to represent the views of every individual depicted as fully and humanely as possible. The resulting film raises uncomfortable questions for all of us, regardless of how we feel about Asra Nomani and her activism.
As we mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Park 51, the planned Muslim community center in lower Manhattan has become a site of conflict and contestation. Can you comment on the complex place the mosque itself, as a charged symbolic space, holds in the American imagination?
You’re right. The mosque is a site of conflict between two impulses that are as old as America itself. When it comes to accepting outsiders and newcomers, we tend to be alternately welcoming and self-protective. Since 9/11, and especially amidst the controversies of the past year, the latter impulse has been on the upswing. Many of us imagine the mosque as a foreign and forbidding place. What happens inside seems unknowable and, most importantly, out of our control. So it’s easy to project onto it our worst fears and suspicions about a group of people we don’t really understand. The truth is, mosques aren’t nearly as exotic as many of us imagine. That’s one insight I hope viewers will take away from this film. In the end, the conflict in the Morgantown mosque was less about extremism than it was about more familiar issues of identity, tradition and tactics. Who gets to be a member of our group? Do we follow the set rules or negotiate our own? How do we go about pushing for change? The same kind of arguments play out in communities across the country – from churches and synagogues to secular volunteer organizations. I also hope viewers will get a sense that the mosque really can be a symbol of the classic American melting pot. This is the first time in the history of Islam that so many strands of culture and practice have come together one place. As in the Morgantown mosque, there will be growing pains. But I’ve heard some very convincing arguments for an inherent flexibility in Islam that makes it quite compatible with American life. Out of the current chaos a truly modern and dynamic expression of Islam is likely to emerge. So I believe it befits us to move past this self-protective impulse and welcome Muslim institutions onto the national landscape.
Nomani is a journalist and writer; can you tell us a bit about what she is working on today? Is she working with ideas of religion and gender in other ways?
Shortly after filming wrapped, Asra left Morgantown to co-direct the Pearl Project at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. She taught investigative journalism while working with students to uncover the full truth behind her friend Daniel Pearl’s murder. The project published its findings in January 2011. Since then, she has been busy writing a column for The Daily Beast-Newsweek and teaching on various aspects of culture in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the U.S. military. She took a break from activism for a while but was drawn back in by a small group of local women behind a movement they called “Pray In.” In early 2010, she joined them in attempts to pray in the main halls of the Islamic Center of Washington and the Northern Virginia Dar Al-Hijra mosque. In both places, mosque leaders called the police, who eventually reversed their policy of removing the women from mosque premises. The protest movement was still active as of earlier this year and organizes pray-in events via Facebook.
What are you working on next?
My main project right now, which I’m producing and editing, is a documentary about today’s technology-enabled, sex-obsessed culture and how it filters into the lives of ordinary people. More directly related to the subject matter of MOSQUE, I’m in the development phase for a series of short films that aim to dispel stereotypes about American Muslims. I’m also planning to return to school for graduate studies in anthropology soon, so I’m working through the application process. My research will focus on American Islam, and its insights will inform ongoing filmmaking work.