Last night, The Metropolitan Theater in Morgantown hosted the premier of a new PBS documentary about the mosque there and one woman’s campaign to change it.
“The Mosque in Morgantown” features Morgantown native Asra Nomani, who decided to walk through the front door and pray in the main hall where only men had been before.
That decision ignited a firestorm that had long-lasting effects on the Islamic Center of Morgantown, and mosques all across America.
Susan Sauter is a Morgantown resident and attended the screening Wednesday night.
“I’m a great fan of Asra Nomani and I want to support her in every way to bring equality to women’s issues wherever they are,” Sauter said. “If they’re here in Morgantown, I support that.”
After the premier, WVU School of Journalism Dean Mary Ann Reed moderated a panel that included Nomani, local Imam Sohail Chaudhry, and filmmaker Brittany Huckabee.
Huckabee spoke with us shortly before the premier. She compared the debates in the mosque in Morgantown to those in the fundamentalist church she attended growing up in small town Colorado.
Q: Why did you decide to take on this subject for your film?
A: In a lot of ways, the conflicts that were going on in that church were very similar to what I was hearing about in the mosque in Morgantown. I was very curious when I first heard about it just how different these quote unquote extremists at the mosque really were from the conservative guys at my church when I was growing up.
They were giving the same sort of sermons, and they were talking about the evils of American culture, they were talking about the place of women, which is below men, they were talking about not having anything to do with other Christians in town.
I thought a lot of the rhetoric coming out of the mosque was really just the rhetoric of religion, of conservative and traditional religion. I didn’t know whether that really meant that they were that dangerous; that they were more like us than they were different.
I was curious about that, in addition to being curious about Asra Nomani, who’s a terribly fascinating figure. What she’s doing for women’s rights in Islam is of course very important and very historic, and I wanted to document that as well.
Q: What do you want the audience to take away after they watch this film?
A: There’s a lot of nice similarities between our religions, but there’s also in our conflicts, intolerance, and a lot of things that go on in our communities that aren’t good. These are also pretty similar. I think that’s pretty important in a time when Americans are trying to engage with the larger Muslim world, to understand what’s going on here at home inside the often closed doors of mosques.
It’s really important to tap this resource of American Muslims, which I think is an untapped resource in our dealings with the wider Muslim world. I think this film and films like this one can help open people’s eyes to how we can engage with one another.
Q: We talked to the current imam of the mosque here in Morgantown. He said he thought the documentary gave a little bit too much credit to Asra for the changes being made there. What is your reaction to the critics who disagree with how the situation was portrayed in your film?
A: The people at the mosque are concerned that viewers might walk away from the film thinking that Asra deserves a lot of credit for the changes that happened in the mosque. I certainly think Asra would not claim credit for any changes in the mosque, in fact she doesn’t think the changes are more than cosmetic at the mosque.
The film does not ascribe those changes to Asra. It shows what happened, and it’s really a matter of interpretation on the part of the viewer as to who deserves credit for those changes. I’m not trying to provide an answer to that, and I don’t think the answer to that is clear cut.
I do think that there were changes in the mosque, I do think that it got more open to everyone: women, families, it became more engaged with the larger community. It’s a much more welcoming place that it was when I first came to Morgantown. But I also would like to address one of the things that the Imam, Sohail, who I have a very good relationship with and I think a lot of him.
He said that the film portrayed certain people in the community as extremists. I also would take issue with that in just saying that I don’t believe that anyone in the community is necessarily an extremist. I believe that there are religious traditionalists and conservatives in the community that say a lot of the same kinds of things that other religious people say. I think that the film allows Asra to make her point that she believes that some of the people in the community are extremists, but it also allows other people in the community to make their point that no, we don’t think that they are extremists. These are our brothers; these are our sisters in the faith. Again, that’s something that the audience is left to decide for themselves whether that is true or not.
Q: Looking back, now that the film is completed, is there anything you would have done differently?
A: I got a lot of access with a lot of people at the mosque. I wish they had given me more access, I wish they had given me access equal to the access Asra gave me. Then it would have made it a lot easier to make everyone seem as humane as possible.
Q: Do you think that the film has or will have any kind of impact on the role that women play in the Muslim world?
A: The film does not claim as its goal something as lofty as affecting the role of women in the Muslim world. The film is really a vehicle for dialogue. I want the film to be something that people can sit down and think about issues that they haven’t thought about in that way before perhaps, and leave the film and talk to other people about that.
One of those issues would be the role of women in the mosque. Not just in the mosque, but in other communities. I think that the actual goal of creating change in the Muslim community is more of a goal of Asra Nomani, more so than the film itself.
You can see more of the documentary and extended interviews with both Huckabee and others on our television show "Outlook," tonight at 9 and repeated Sunday at 6 on West Virginia PBS.
The documentary itself is scheduled to air nationwide Monday at 10 p.m. on PBS. For more information, go to our Web site.