UnMosqued: One of the strangest new words in the Muslim vernacular. How do you “unmosque” somebody? How many times do you have to go to the mosque before you are “remosqued”? Is it something you feel? When you're being unmosqued do you know that it's happening? Does it tingle? I am just curious!
In the last few weeks, there has been a lot of hype over the social networks about a presentation entitled “UnMosqued,” which resulted in a trailer for a documentary of the same name. If you haven't watched the trailer, let me summarize it for you: Mosques, and in particular the people who built and run them, are the reason why people have left them.
The unmosqued are Muslims who never really became attached to the mosque, or Muslims who stopped participating in the mosque but still affiliate with Islam. They grew disappointed with the mosque for one reason or another. The trailer for “UnMosqued” 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.
A Misleading Trailer
Let me first say that I have not watched the documentary (as yet unreleased) and this article is not about the documentary. It is about the trailer. A trailer that has become a catalyst unleashing a plethora of comments and statuses on social media and, therefore, warrants some critique.
Interestingly, the trailer only shows interviews from one geographical location (East Coast), which is statistically misleading and not representative of Muslims or mosques throughout the US. Although scientifically one cannot extrapolate conclusions from testimonies such as those who went as far as to say that mosques [in general] lack warmth (which is utterly untrue!),the trailer did create a frenzy of responses throughout social media outlets.
The questionable ethics of this 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. The portion quoted in the trailer states, “We do not give legitimacy to their calendar. We need to teach our children this, to structure our days and months on only the Hijri calendar. This is the Muslim's responsibility.”
The complete khutbah can be seen here. The imām is talking about an event the center is having on New Year's Eve and says, “We are having this event on New Year's Eve not to the new year, but because it is a holiday. We don't celebrate the New Year's eve as Muslims and, as a matter of fact, we need to teach our children the Hijri calendar as the default calendar, and not the Gregorian one.”
This is tactic of “news-like” media such as FOX and is neither sound journalism nor ethical, in my opinion. I am told by the Center officials that the mosque is taking legal action against the documentary makers.
If the intent of this trailer is to start a constructive conversation about the state of our mosques, I would give it an F.
It makes a one-sided argument, placing all the blame of disconnected Muslims on the leadership of the mosques (i.e. boards and Imams) and no blame on the individuals themselves, which is flawed. Correlation does not necessitate causation. Namely, there is no data presented to show that the rise of the so-called “unmosqued” is exclusively the mosque's fault. There could be personal, social, financial, emotional, and intellectual reasons that may cause any mosque-goer to stop attending. I wonder if the documentary is going to highlight any such factors – from the looks of it, I doubt it. And if it does, then this trailer is a misrepresentation of the documentary and 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?
Are Muslims really unwelcome at the mosque?
Across the board, recent surveys indicate more people are leaving organized religion altogether. A recent Pew Research Center poll concluded that the percentage of those unaffiliated with any religion has risen from 15.3% in 2007 to 19.6% in 2012. The Daily Beast said, “The diminishing number of Christians [in Britain] is mirrored by a rapid growth in those who profess no religious affiliation. A quarter of the population, 14.1 million, now [in 2012] say they have no religion, nearly double the 7.7 million who said the same thing in the 2001 census.”
Clearly this trend is not unique to Muslims, should we now start blaming the churches, temples, and synagogues that are also losing their congregations worldwide?
I believe this three-minute trailer threw our mosques under the bus. It opened the door for its audience to blame all of their problems on the mosque, and take no responsibility for their own actions. A twitter search of #unmosqued reveals some ridiculous tweets.
“I would rather make wuḍūʼ at a truck stop than at our mosque.” #unmosqued
“Khutbah for 30 min in Arabic, translation given = “Do ze goot, don't do ze baid, be ze goot moslems, sanks you.” #unmosqued
Is this how we start a conversation about improving our mosques?
Let me be clear, I am not arguing that our mosques are perfect. I actually think that this is an essential conversation to have within our communities. I am simply advocating a less contemptuous and more realistic and respectful way of addressing this issue.
Vilification of Immigrant Imams
The denigration of an entire generation of Muslims, and especially the vilification of our imams is unacceptable. Islamically they are the carriers of the Qurʾān; ethically they have invested everything in their communities and most organizations were built around their existence. These imams have sacrificed their lives and left their homes, their families and their friends to fly to an unfamiliar land to teach you and your parents your religion. Yes, they are not perfect but they have earned our respect, love and honor.
This trailer has made it a point to highlight immigrant imams as the main problem. It is easy to blame the imām for speaking with an accent, forgetting the fact that, indeed, he may speak two or three languages, while most of us who are the children of immigrants don't speak much more than English!
Let us be more humble and recognize what they have done with the opportunities and challenges they faced, and look inwardly at what we have done with the opportunities and challenges that we face. Any objective observer would find that they have done much more.
How many of 'us' who have been born and brought up in this country, have the capability to go to a completely foreign country where we don't speak the language, don't know anyone, don't know the system, and don't have access to anything affiliated with our own religion, and turn that into a country where every major, and most minor, cities have a mosque where regular prayers are held, where Sunday schools take place every week, where full-time schools are blossoming….and the list goes on. Let us give credit where credit is due. Instead I see this trailer demeaning that generation of Muslims as we step on them to make ourselves seem higher.
A Generation of Entitlement
We are a generation of immediate gratification and entitlement. Our elders came to a foreign land, learned the language, studied the rules and policies of their states and rebuilt their lives here. Meanwhile, we have been waiting for years on end for the elder generation to “give up the reigns.” It's as if we are children waiting on our inheritance.
We can hypothesize as much as we want, but in comparison to our parents, we haven't done much to prove ourselves as capable of running communities and mosques. Besides, if we can “do it better,” as so many young people claim, then nothing is stopping us other than our own lack of resolve. It is very easy to start an organization in this country; go ahead and start your own and show the world what you can do!
In fact some very successful organizations have done so – the Islamic Center at NYU was an initiative of young people that fulfilled their vision for what an Islamic Center should be; Al-Maghrib Institute was an initiative of Muḥammad Al Shareef, at the time in his twenties, that fulfilled his vision of what Islamic education could become; and Al Amaanah Refugee Services in Houston fulfills their vision of what social service can be.
Yes, many times our generation gets things right, but most of the time we don't get anything at all. Although we have grown up in a country of entrepreneurship, we have also grown up in a generation of entitlement. Hence, we demand and expect, again and again, before we take any action ourselves.
Structure vs Culture
When you dine at a 5-star restaurant, regardless of the beauty of the decor or the quality of the food, if your server is rude, it completely ruins your experience. In the same way, regardless of the architecture, the size, or even the services of any given mosque, it is the people found within the mosque that define our experience and attachment.
It's the culture that is created within the mosque that makes us love the mosque. The problem, however, is that some of us go to the mosque with a set of expectations, often unrealistic, and when we are disappointed we blame the mosque members' immigration status, ethnic background and sometimes even social class. This is wrong, and in and of itself judgmental.
Sure we have problems in our mosques, but the problems aren't just the leadership – the problems are the people, including you. How many of the complainers or youth or “unmosqued” actually make the effort to change the system? How many run for seats on the board when elections roll around? 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 you practice your religion? We tell non-Muslims this all the time…don't judge Islam by its followers, judge it by its teachings… yet we are judging our mosques by the people that are running them rather than what the mosque itself stands for in Islam. Change that culture and you will have Muslims flocking back to the mosque.
To the documentary makers and their supporters
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 don't deny you the right to express your views, but condemn the route you have chosen. 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.
I hope the documentary articulates 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. If they do, I will be the first to promote it and write a positive review, inshā'Allāh.