Renewed from the West?

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Where will change come from, if it comes at all?

The hundred year old Perth Mosque centrally located in the city of Perth, Western Australia, awoke one day to an interesting neon sign that flashed in garish letters from across the street: Girls! Girls! Girls! it screamed.

Appalled, the management raised the mosque walls to block out the offensive words.

We were particular about taking the children to the mosque on Eid but began questioning the exercise after the third year of my small son, daughter and I saying our prayers in a dingy basement among the Imam’s hastily discarded clothes, shoes and bedding. In that mosque that was the space reserved for women and children.

The following year we tried the Turkish mosque, a nicer place where women and children, although too close to the toilets, were much better provided for in a large hall well lit by a chandelier. It however was switched off by an arm that appeared through the dividing doors in the middle of Eid prayers. The lights remained on in the men’s section.

It is a theory close to many pious hearts here in Pakistan that all evil stems from the West. The other school of thought reckons that Islam, distorted beyond all recognition in today’s Muslim world, will be renewed from the West despite the policies of Western governments. Which of these opinions proves correct, it remains to be seen. Certainly neither of the two mosques above disproves the first theory.

Living in the USA on and after 9/11 was a traumatic if interesting experience. It was traumatic when the FBI came knocking with questions about Arab neighbours, a group of young boys sharing an apartment. The two men walked past the living room right into the bedroom before they spoke. Eid prayers at the DC Armory Washington DC following 9/11 were especially unpleasant with sharp shooters stationed above worshippers’ heads, guns at the ready; it was unsettlingly uncertain whether we were being protected or being protected against. Distrust of Muslims was like a crackling in the air, but in most cases it did not exceed a certain limit, and in time it dissipated to near usual levels, at least for the most part. This was better than in Western Australia even prior to 9/11. There were heart warming stories in the USA such as of the pastor who gave his Muslim neighbours the keys to his church after their mosque was bombed by zealots (there is never a shortage of these), and the non Muslims who formed a human chain around a local mosque in a symbolic gesture of protection of their Muslim neighbours.

It isn’t until a visit to the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) mosque in Northern Virginia though that one is reminded of the expectation of renewal from this quarter.

ADAMS supports a community of some five thousand Muslim families in a large building in a pleasant neighbourhood. Probably the most striking feature of the ADAMS mosque is a prayer hall that doubles as a badminton/basketball court when not in use for worship. In addition there is a bookshop, and rooms where language, computer and vocational courses are held, and drug and marriage counselling offered. There is a fair sized pleasant library, scouts and martial arts groups, a community medical clinic, and plenty of inter-faith dialogue.

Mohamed Magid, the Imam of the mosque is also President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). At no time while encountering the man or his mosque does one feel censured, either as to appearance or gender, which explains the busy, friendly atmosphere of the mosque Imam Magid leads, frequented by men, women and young people alike.

It couldn’t be easy being an Imam in a country so sensitive to the mere existence of mosques, and Imam Magid admits that it isn’t. “Islamic scholars, centuries ago, never faced these issues,” he says in an article about him in the Huffington Post, referring particularly to the time he had to research and determine his stance on the issue of surrogate motherhood in Islam.

The success of the ADAMS mosque and its Imam underlines the importance of both an educated leader and community as a prerequisite for a healthy approach to religion. The Muslim community in Perth at the time consisted of a majority of less educated persons. Virginia and particularly its county of Fairfax where the mosque is located, is home to some of the best high schools in the country and the Muslims of that area chose it as their home for this reason.

Surely it is more possible for the real enlightened Islam, quite different to today’s version, one more attuned to the times, to re-emerge from such a background?