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March 21, 2014

"UnMosqued" - Cutting off one's nose to spite the face!

My comments on the "Unmosqued" video event at the London library.

This video has unleashed a maelstrom of comments, criticism and praises on the social media, warranting an objective critique.

I believe the producers are sincere in drawing attention to long overdue problems at some mosques. But they turned off many Muslims by their ill-chosen word- 'Unmosqued'. It is a strange word sounding as ominous as 'unmasked' (e.g. bandit unmasked). Their well-intentioned journey has started on the wrong foot creating a controversy that they did not need.

They may have wanted a catchy word to attract attention, but failed to think through the hurt it would bring to Muslims. The Israelis, the Zionists and the Neocons (the pro-Israel American Jews and their 'think-tanks') have vandalized many Islamic words, and coined a long list of slander words such as jihadist, islamicist, radical-Islam and so on, to besmirch Muslims and Islam. 

Many cuss words and minced oaths have infested some cultures, involving the holy names of God, Jesus and Mary, much to the anguish of Christians and Muslims. The Latin word 'profane' means “desecrating what is holy”- a blasphemy.

Should Muslims also join this slippery slope? Are we next going to coin words such as 'un-Quran' (because some ignorants accuse it of anti-antisemitism and violent passages)?

As for the problems addressed in the film, some are legitimate, and others are trivial. Building walls between men and women and treating them second class is abominable. But focusing on a leaky mosque roof in a downtrodden area of the US is trivializing other important matters.

Doubts have been cast on the integrity of the film due to allegations of ethical misconduct. A blogger writes: “The questionable ethics of this (film) trailer are evident when it shows the blurred face of a New Jersey imām, taking a portion of his khutbah, out of context, as evidence of how irrelevant mosques have become. … This is tactic of “news-like” media such as FOX and is neither sound journalism nor ethical. I understand the mosque may take legal action against the producers... The trailer seems to have focused on the notion that it is the mosque's fault that people left or are leaving. This assumption is both incorrect and unfair. If the intent of this trailer is to start a constructive conversation about the state of our mosques, I would give it an F.”

'Unmosqued' apparently means 'Muslims turned off or alienated from Mosques'. The causes presented in the film for such an alleged phenomenon are superficial and need much deeper thinking, fact finding and analysis.

There is nothing to be alarmed about – Muslims are not leaving mosques in droves. It is just the opposite. While synagogues and churches are falling empty, mosques are bursting at the seams, and more mosques need to be built and or expanded to accommodate increasing number of worshipers. 

He writes: “The video does not present any data to show the rise of the so-called “unmosqued” is exclusively the mosque's fault. There could be personal, social and a myriad of other reasons that may cause any mosque-goer to stop attending. The video only serves to cast Muslims and Muslim places of worship in a negative light.... Sure there are some unpleasant incidents that we all face during our visits to the mosque, but is that enough to shift the blame solely onto the mosque?

“The film has opened the door for people to blame all of their problems on the mosque, and take no responsibility for their own actions. Some of us go to the mosque with a set of expectations, often unrealistic, and when we are disappointed, we blame others. This is wrong, and in and of itself judgmental. Although I might agree in principle on the need for a closer look at how our mosques are managed, we clearly disagree on the method by which this goal should be reached. If you want to start a conversation about the state of our mosques, focus your message and don't use hype and propaganda to provide additional fuel to the mosque-haters and Islamophobes... I decry all those who have negatively portrayed our mosques, their leadership, and their imams as this only serves to weaken the community further and offers no solutions”. 

“The denigration of an entire generation of Muslims, and especially the vilification of our imams is unacceptable. Let us be more humble and appreciate what they have done with the  challenges they faced ... The documentary must articulate the issues and solutions in a more balanced approach. An approach that will include the wisdom of our elders, the support of our parents, and the energy and creativity of our youth.

“Sure we have problems in our mosques, but the problems aren't just the leadership – the problems are the people. How many  “unmosqueds” have actually made the effort to change the system? How many run for seats on the board ? How many volunteer to clean up the mosque, to organize activities, and to be leaders in the mosque? Why let one or two or ten(!) unfortunate experiences drive the way one practices the religion?

“The new Muslims and the youth growing up in the West have certain social needs, and have expectations of the mosques to fulfill them, not realizing this is not the duty of the mosque. Then they are left feeling unmosqued.”

Negativity breeds more negativity. The video, while focusing on the negative aspects of some mosques, failed to give examples of  “successful” mosques,  so the 'failed' mosques could emulate those 'role models'. In fact, there are many inspirational mosques.

The majority of complaints are from three major groups  – new Muslims, youth, and women.

Complaints from Women: Often, it is the space. It's inadequate, unclean or in need of repairs,  separation (walls, curtains) and separate entrances. If there are two hungry groups of 3 and 5 people, and there is only one loaf of bread, can it be divided in two equal halves? That will not be fair – the smaller group should get a proportionate piece. The same goes for mosque space too. If the women's side is not clean, what prevents them from volunteering to clean up? If it is in need of repairs or, needs a separate entrance, or if the partition creates claustrophobia, why not urge the BOD to remedy the situation? 

The women must bring any other problems to the attention of the imam and the BOD and demand the matter is addressed. Women have immense power and they must put it to good use!

Women Discouraged from Attending the Mosque? I know of no mosque which discourages women from attending prayers. Prophet (sal) said: “Do not prevent the female servants of Allāh from going to the mosque…” and “If your women ask permission to go out to Salat, do not forbid them!” 

Crying babies unwelcome at mosques? The Prophet (saw) understood the agony that a mother goes through at such times as when the baby cries during prayers. That's why he (saw) said:

When I enter the prayer I intend to prolong it. Then I hear the crying of a child, so I shorten it knowing the difficulty his mother will have with him crying.”

Mothers of little babies may consider the fact that crying disturbs and distracts other worshipers, who have a right to peace and tranquility while they pray or listen to the sermons. They may pray at home or have a babysitter, if they must attend the mosque.

Are Women at No Fault? Many complaints come from women, but are they faultless? While most of the women are gentle, and hospitable, occasionally one may encounter an arrogant, or harsh person who may even not return salaam. Women whose feelings are hurt by other women, then think the mosque is 'unwelcoming'.

Youth Problems: Muslim youth turning to drugs, alcohol, fornication etc., is a troubling matter. Many are attracted to social media and feel mosques are a bore. The parents have failed in their duty and expect the mosque to correct them.

The solution to youth problems may come from the youth themselves, by having brainstorming discussions and looking for creative ideas they may offer to make them more attracted to the mosque. Concerned parents and the youth need to coordinate with the imam and  the BOD to form support groups.

Ethnic and Cultural Baggage Spoiling the atmosphere of mosques? As each immigrant community grew, there was a need to have a mosque to take care of their spiritual needs and sermons needed to be in their language so they could understand. English could not be the lingua franca of the mosque. However, they welcome all Muslims, regardless of ethnicity, and it is impertinent of us, who don't understand Urdu or Arabic or Turkish to demand they should speak only English. It is not unique to Muslims only - if one were to go the Chinese or Korean churches, one would find sermons and all discussions held in their vernacular. For ethnic cultures to fade away, it may take the 3rd or 4th generations, who will have lesser ties to the old country and the language.

“Begging-Mosques”. The movie blames mosques for asking donations repeatedly, but have they thought about what it costs the mosque for electricity, heating, air-conditioning, water, cleaning, salaries, maintenance etc.? Should the imam or the BOD pay from their pockets? Or does a cheque fall from the heavens every month? When the population increases and the mosque needs more space, how could expansions be avoided? Is parking not important? All these expenses recur all the time, so it is necessary to ask for donations. So, do we accuse them of “begging all the time”?

New Muslims: They often face complex problems, from their own families and friends who castigate them for abandoning their faith, and the Muslim community not being equipped to cater to their spiritual, emotional and even financial needs. They are also troubled by cultural shock, unsolicited 'advice', ethnic and language barriers. This is an area where the imam has his work cut out, and every effort must be taken to look after new Muslims.

Are Mosques guilty as charged? A public library has many users; a visitor may encounter one or two rude people there. Then, should one label that library 'unfriendly' and give up going there – get 'unlibraried'? The mosque is no different - almost everyone going there are 'users' and no one has the responsibility of welcoming other users.

Rather than blaming the mosque, we must work for a solution. Abandoning the mosque or 'unmosquing' - for any reason, is like cutting off the nose to spite one's own face! (a needlessly self-destructive over-reaction). Those with true belief will never turn their backs on mosques, despite any hardship.

How do we correct these problems? The film does not offer any creative or practical solutions. The Church has a hierarchy. When the Pope gives an order to remedy a problem, that edict reaches every church in every corner of the world instantly. There is no such Central Authority -the mosque has lost its Caliphate! We cannot expect a decree from the Caliph to solve our problems.

So, it boils down to each community at grassroots levels to remedy issues. If women and youth feel grievances, there is nothing to prevent them from agitating for change or even becoming Director. If the BOD is dysfunctional, the community has the power to elect better qualified individuals with vision, commitment and  zeal to serve.

The Board members are volunteers, spending their precious time to help the community. They have their own jobs and families. They serve for one or two years and are replaced, and hence some of their initiatives disappear before completion, creating a lack of continuity. To maintain continuity, the community needs to have a paid “Community Director” or select a long term “Steering Committee” of respected elders.

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M. Elmasry

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