Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Muslim community here.
By Laila Alawa
I am unmosqued. The decision came after years of struggle, gendered micro-aggressions and a lack of understanding for personal authenticity on the part of mosque leadership. I had fought long and hard to fit within the mosque I chose, to bring relevancy to the conversations being had within scheduled programming for youth and adults. But two years ago, I gave up, and walked out of the mosque, defeated and worn out.
I had had enough with the lack of relevancy in the halaqa topics being discussed, and I was tired of the malicious hyperfocus on dress code, while topics like sexual assault, substance abuse and domestic violence were the norm of hushed conversations at the end of the night. It has become far too easy for communities to focus on the irrelevant, while deeming topics of stark relevance to be “un-Islamic” or “simply not happening here.”
In burying those conversations under talk of hijri calendars and women’s dress code, we’ve lost sight of the Prophetic tradition — and it’s harming the individuals that need to be at the forefront of our communities today: The youth.
The fact of the matter is, we refuse to have uncomfortable conversations in our mosques and Muslim communities. These are not your ordinary uncomfortable conversations. They’re discussions surrounding the community’s prevalent rape culture and gender-based violence, rates of substance abuse and alcohol usage among youth, and issues of domestic violence and abuse within the home. They are open back-and-forths about safe sex and the reality of relationships today, activism what it means to have community support and the continued racism and ethnocentrism present in many mosques.
They are frank talks about gender and sexuality in Islam, the issue of class and income, and what it means to be a woman at the mosque. Frankly, these are dialogues that the Muslim American community needs to have, and they need to be happening inside our mosques. With the advent of third spaces, young Muslim Americans are no longer feeling the need to return to mosque spaces that lack both spiritual and emotional safety.
Instead, we are left with neutered mosques that serve simply as mildly crowded jummah and Eid prayer locations, multi-million dollar buildings that have served to push out the very people they were created to serve.
The question begs to be asked this: Why can’t we pull ourselves together and engage critically on topics and realities that the community would rather hide under the carpet? It’s quite simple: We are wrapped up in our discomfort in having uncomfortable conversations, and that reflects in a lack of relevancy in the topics being confronted within our conventional community centers and mosques.
This observation is one I can illustrate quite acutely. Years ago, Hurricane Katrina sent most of America into a tailspin. The ruin following the natural disaster was on everyone’s mind later that same week, and my family attended jummah with the belief that the khutbah would focus on how to raise funds to support the survivors following the natural disaster. Imagine the surprise we all felt when the khateeb decided the most relevant topic of conversation wasn’t a hurricane that had affected millions of people, but instead an unfocused sermon on the best ways to slaughter goats in a halal fashion. Growing up, those topics of irrelevancy might have been topics I couldn’t avoid. But now, many young Muslim Americans have simply chosen to stop listening to irrelevant lectures.
The repercussions are reflected then in empty halls, lacking donations, weak programming and increasingly better-populated third spaces. No longer is the American mosque a model of prophetic vision. But then again, given that the topics being confronted within weren’t prophetic either, how much blame should be put on the shoulders of the congregation that no longer wants to sit and listen to sermons ignoring relevant issues and concerns?
By not having conversations the Muslim American community needs to have, we are robbing our communities of a chance to grow, learn and develop as a mature, pluralistic entity. We are losing our youth, who are choosing instead to put in their time, efforts and resources into spaces that better serve them. And quite honestly, I don’t blame them.
If we want to bring our mosques back into relevancy, we need to stop pretending that they are simply places of worship. Communities must begin critically examining mosque leadership, demanding that these members either serve the entire community for whom they’ve been elected or step down to allow for more qualified individuals to take control.
We must also eradicate the misguided, ridiculous notion that if you don’t confront an issue, it isn’t happening. Just because alcohol abuse and domestic violence aren’t being talked about at the mosque doesn’t mean they aren’t a reality for many in the Muslim American community. There’s a need for us as a growing community to rebuild our relationships between each other as community members before trying to lure individuals back to the mosque.
Ultimately, the issue isn’t with the mosque. It’s with the people within the mosque, individuals who have taken it upon themselves to police the practice of Islam under the guise of prophetic example or tradition. Until we begin remembering just how relevant the mosque used to be in the time of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) as a gathering place, civic engagement center, place of worship and a safe space, we are doing our own communities a disservice by not truly following the prophetic example.
One day, I hope we can return to our mosques with the understanding that our differences, good and bad, are welcome there. For now, that’s not the case.
Laila Alawa is as digital strategist, writer and cultural critic based in Washington, D.C. She is the founder and president of Coming of Faith LLC, associate editor for The Islamic Monthly and columnist for The Huffington Post, PolicyMic and Altmuslim at Patheos. She works for KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights. Follow her on Twitter @lulainlife.