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Will the Real Islam Please Stand Up?

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I've been asking devout Muslim American women how they feel about the status of women in Islam. Over and over, they give me the romantic apologist point of view: "Islam is a feminist paradise! I wouldn't change a thing."

But then again, many others offer me -- a Jewish woman -- a vastly different, historical perspective: "I love Islam, but I'm sick of the way the men have taken over this religion to control women, and I want to do something about it."

The romantic apologists claim that the beheading several months ago of Aasiya Hassan in upstate New York was not connected with Islam. (Aasiya Hassan was murdered by her husband, Muzzammil Hassan, founder of a Muslim television station in Buffalo, after she filed for divorce.) They are invested in defending their faith as flawlessly realized, and thus are blind to the reality that the typical non-Muslim American murderer does not saw off his victim's head. And the often horrific treatment of women in Pakistan, Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan? Well, that doesn't have anything to do with Islam either! That's just tribal custom! Muhammad the prophet, peace be upon him, worshiped women, saying that they were the gatekeepers of paradise!

At its roots, yes, Islam truly is feminist. Islam regards women and men as coequals before God. In seventh-century Arabia, Islam gave women rights within marriage (including the right to sexual satisfaction), the right to divorce, and inheritance law centuries before women in the West were granted these rights. The pre-Islamic custom of female infanticide was prohibited. And yes, Muhammad the prophet repeatedly declared that women must be treated with respect. On many fronts, Muhammad improved the status of women.

But men have long interpreted Islam from their own point of view and declared that point of view universal for all believers--just as male Christian and Jewish theologians and religious leaders have done throughout history. This point of view has permitted Muslim men in some cultures through the centuries to take multiple wives and to physically abuse or even murder the women in their lives. More broadly, this point of view has facilitated a general attitude that women have less value than men.

The conflict between opposing interpretations of Islam is played out here in the United States, just as it is wherever there is a Muslim population. A fascinating PBS documentary, "The Mosque in Morgantown," covers one case study. The documentary will air June 15 on PBS stations nationwide at 10pm (check local listings).

"The Mosque in Morgantown" follows journalist Asra Nomani as she challenges the mosque in her West Virginia community to back away from extremism. Formerly of the Wall Street Journal, Nomani currently leads the Pearl Project at Georgetown University, seeking to answer who murdered her colleague and friend Daniel Pearl. After going on hajj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in 2003, Nomani returned to Morgantown with a renewed faith. She wanted to be part of her local Muslim community and was excited that a new mosque was being constructed.

On the eve of Ramadan, she reached the front door, but was not greeted with "Assalaam aleikum." Instead, the board president yelled at her, "Sister, take the back door!" Most mosques in the United States do not have separate doors for women, but the attitude toward women Nomani encountered was far from uncommon. Meanwhile, the men delivering sermons were intoning that wife-beating is permissible, that "a woman who loses her chastity is worthless," and, for good measure, that "Jews are the descendents of apes and pigs."

Nomani initiated a series of events intended to force her mosque to retreat from its extremist direction. She walked through the front door and insisted on praying in the men's section (the small women's section is located in another space upstairs); she wrote about the gender inequality in an op-ed in The New York Times; she organized a protest outside the mosque and invited the media, including CNN, to cover it. Soon enough, the mosque leadership voted to expel Nomani, the feminist troublemaker, from the mosque.

Nomani eloquently related these events in her 2005 book, Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. Even if you've read the book (which I recommend: it's beautifully written and a moving story), you should watch the documentary. It broadens the picture by including the voices of Nomani's opponents. Brittany Huckabee, the film's director and producer, persuaded several of them to explain their side.

The wife of the mosque president defends the mosque's separate door and prayer space. "You can't bend the rules," she explains, because the rules are from God. Another woman says accusingly to Nomani, "You do not show respect to yourself," to which Nomani replies, "I show respect to God."

More than anything else, "The Mosque in Morgantown" reveals that Islam is understood in widely divergent ways, even within the same community. It is impossible to give everyone the Islam they want. As one mosque member says with some exasperation, there are just so many strands of thought and they have just one mosque trying to accommodate everyone.

Yes, but there is a false and dangerous belief that the extremist way is most authentic. Alternate interpretations may be even more true to the spirit of the religion. (This applies to Christianity and Judaism as well.) The Qur'anic verse long understood to permit wife beating, 4:34, is now being revisited by scholars and translators who argue that the word translated as "beat" in fact means "to go away." Thus, the Qur'an does not advocate violence against women but rather the opposite: a non-violent separation between husband and wife when their relationship is heated.

Who gets to define Islam--or any religion? Which interpretation is more "real"? And why does unequal treatment of women always become the litmus test of authenticity? It makes you wonder who is the ultimate power--God, or men invested in protecting their own turf?

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