Journalist and Morgantown native Asra Nomani saw Islamic extremism up close when her friend and former Wall Street Journal colleague Daniel Pearl was murdered in Pakistan.
So when she returned home to West Virginia to raise her son, she saw warning signs at the local mosque: exclusion of women, intolerance toward non-believers, and suspicion of the West.
She decided to walk through the front door of the mosque -- something women were not allowed to do -- and her resulting campaign brought a storm of media attention, pitting her against the mosque's moderates.
Nomani's story is now a PBS documentary called "The Mosque in Morgantown." The documentary will premier in Morgantown Wednesday, and be shown on West Virginia PBS and across the nation Monday night.
Reporter Cecelia Mason interviewed Nomani about the documentary. She says her campaign started with Pearl's beheading by terrorists.
Q:You mention Danny Pearl in the documentary several times. Is there any connection at all to what happened to him in your actions at Morgantown?
A: My actions in Morgantown were directly connected to my experience in seeing my friend Danny kidnapped and then murdered. In the search to find Danny, we discovered that the photos that had been dropped off of him had been left at a mosque.
And I knew from my studies in communication and media that mosques are repositories for information, political activism. They’re our town square. I mean, they are where policy and ideology and theology are defined for the community. I knew that we have to take back our mosques. We have to basically assert what kind of Islam is expressed in our community mosques.
Q: There’s a scene in the documentary where you and your father are looking at pictures of a slate of people running for the election, and he points out that people are Arabs. Is there a cultural difference within the Muslim religion?
A: There’s definitely a cultural difference within the Muslim world. There’s revolutionaries in every community, but what becomes problematic is when bullies of any culture want to then say this is the way we’re going to do it for everyone else. In our American Muslim identity, we’re more expansive.
There is room at the table for everyone, just don’t force your way on everyone else. But when you come from a cultural norm where your narrow definition is how everybody should live, then it becomes suffocating for the rest of the community, and that’s the clash that we got into.
Q: Is it because there are people from different countries at that particular mosque?
A: Our mosque in Morgantown is emblematic of our Muslim community. The hard liners; the crazy feminist chick; the moderates who sit on the fence and don’t take any action; the little kids who are disenfranchised. These are all of the dynamics of our Muslim community, and that’s really to me, the challenge.
If we can’t make it work in this community, and figure out how to coexist, then I don’t know how we’re going to do it in the rest of the world.
Q: Some of the mosque seemed to be in agreement with what you wanted to do, but didn’t like your tactics. Is there anything you would have done differently, looking in hindsight?
A: I really tried as much as I could bear to try without walking away, to have conversations with leaders at our mosque. Before the cameras started rolling, for months I had been begging them for meetings, and sending them the kind of e-mails that we are taught to send to start conversations.
Every time, I kept hearing I’m sorry sister I don’t have time. I’m sorry sister we’re very busy. I’m sorry sister this isn’t very important to us. It never mattered to them, and so when I finally decided to do what I know how to do, to write about this issue, it was after realizing nobody was ever going to have a conversation with me.
Q: Do you think your actions in any way changed the mosque in Morgantown?
A: From what I understand there is an effort to integrate women into the leadership roles. Honestly, it’s not as far as I would wish. You can create a sister’s committee. You can have an open house with a few women as spokespeople. But really, I believe it’s still a men’s club. The pressure is so on women to remain subordinate and in order to be good girls, because I’m the bad girl so look how popular I am, right. Nobody wants that for themselves.
The reason I started writing about what happened in Morgantown initially was because I wanted this story to come to life as an issue. That’s what I learned as a journalist, bring it to life, show don’t tell. What’s happened is with this case study, with this situation, people have been able to say yes, that happens in my community, and it shouldn’t. I don’t want it to happen in my community.
The National Muslim organizations have created new policies that affirm the right of women to the main halls of mosques. Women around the world are challenging these man made rules that they are not welcome at the mosques.
That's Asra Nomani, the main subject of the upcoming documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown. Tomorrow, we'll interview a local imam for his views on this story.
You can see more of the documentary and extended interviews with both Nomani and others on our television show "Outlook," Thursday night at 9 on West Virginia PBS.
The public is invited to attend the documentary premier and a round-table discussion at the Metropolitan Theater, Wednesday night in Morgantown. For more information, go to our Web site.