Reading the official synopsis of The Mosque in Morgantown, I quickly got the impression that it was a documentary film that revolved around the battle between journalist-activist Asra Nomani and “the extremists” in her hometown Morgantown, West Virginia. It is the kind of image that feeds into the Islamophobia that often conflates pious and conservative Muslims with the violent and deeply intolerant—this appeared to be the picture Nomani intended to paint.
If I could summarise a fairer synopsis, it would sound more like this: Asra Nomani fights a personal battle with an established mosque community in her hometown for the right to pray alongside men at congregations. But Nomani’s anti-extremist impetus for change is best described as misguided. Driven by the trauma of her friend Daniel Pearl’s death at the hands of Islamic extremists, Nomani takes it upon herself to expose the mosque as an anti-women and a potentially dangerous institution.
Far from embodying extremist fervour, the Morgantown mosque community is actually reflective of what Islam looks like in America—complex, pluralistic, conservative, liberal, and everything in between. There are individuals in the film who wouldn’t look out of place in a madrasa in Lahore, and there are also those whose images and stories remain under the mainstream media’s radar. Stories like Christine Arja’s conversion to Islam, and her going from Nomani’s critic to ally is one such example.
By the conclusion of the film, I ended up siding and cheering for the so-called “extremists” rather than Muslim feminist Nomani. Despite Nomani’s uncompromising ways, the Morgantown’s mosque community loosened their conservative grip as far as community events are concerned. Men and women freely mingle rather than coerced to segregate, and a male mosque-goer expressed regret over his sexist comments he made earlier in the film. Nomani’s refusal to properly engage with the members of the mosque is a case of a clash of personalities, and not because of intolerance and extremism. Further, she makes a mistake that many do: she throws labels like “extremist” around to suit her definition of Islam, which doesn’t agree with her code of liberalism and freedom.
The Mosque in Morgantown is an important film for our troubled times. As a Muslim feminist who supports her cause, but not her method, I would like to see this film making it across the world. Its narrative has a place in America’s message of change and in the feminist movement that is gaining momentum in many predominantly Muslim countries.