When journalist Asra Nomani returned to Morgantown, W. Va., she was hoping to find a calm, welcoming place to recover from turbulent life events. An unplanned pregnancy, a partner who was not willing to be the child's father, and the murder of her good friend and colleague, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, had left her reeling with confusion and pain. She left Pakistan, where she had been working as a correspondent for Salon.com, and sought to regain her balance in the peaceful university town in the Appalachian Mountains where she had grown up.
A Muslim born in Bombay, Nomani was naturally drawn to join the community of her local mosque. But, she says, the place of worship that her father had helped build was now heavily influenced by the attitudes of men she saw as extremists, men who discriminated against women and were intolerant toward non-believers. Believing that intolerance within a religion often leads to violence and must therefore be confronted, Nomani opted to fight for the rights of women within that mosque and, by extension, in Islam. Her story is explored in a new documentary, "The Mosque in Morgantown," which airs June 22 on KQED.
The documentary, unsurprisingly, has stirred up some raw feelings. In the forum section of the film's website, some members of the Morgantown mosque, along with other posters, say they believe Nomani's methods were overly confrontational and that she was primarily interested in promoting herself and her books. For its part, the mosque's website states that the "various issues such as gender roles, cultural divisions and interpretation of our beautiful religion" documented in the film have since been addressed, noting that "The Mosque In Morgantown was made in 2003-04."
Nomani, author of "Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam" and "Tantrika: Traveling the Road of Divine Love" is now a visiting journalism scholar at Georgetown University, leading the Pearl Project, a faculty-student investigation into the journalist's murder at the hands of Muslim extremists. She is no longer a member of the Morgantown mosque. I spoke with her by phone about current affairs, disturbing the peace, feminism in Islam and new ways of building religious communities.