From the outside, the Westbury branch of the Islamic Society of North America is indistinguishable from other religious structures on New York's Long Island. True, there's no cross, and the directory board at the entrance lists the times for zuhr, 'asr and maghrib--and bumper stickers affixed to the backboards of nearby basketball hoops read "NO PRAY, NO PLAY"--but in all other respects, the mosque is as much a part of the community as the Church of God Kingdom Hall down the road.
Inside, the people are no different, either. Well, not quite: there's nothing like Muslim hospitality to make a stranger feel at home. And indeed, my visit January 1 to the 20-year old mosque was made even more enjoyable by the graciousness and assistance of the director, Dr. Faroque Khan. In addition, I was also able to meet and converse at length with the day's main speaker, Feisal Abdul Rauf, imam of New York City's al-Farah Mosque and author of What's Right with Islam. Surrounded by this genial company, I found it hard to believe several observers, including Stephen Schwartz and Long Island Congressman Peter King have accused the mosque of serving as a hotbed of Islamic extremism.
I'd gone to the ISNA to attend the middle day of a three-day conference dedicated to exploring issues of "moderate" or "liberal" Islam. And indeed, the general tone of the speakers was upbeat, patriotic--a lot of talk about Muslims' "working with America" to bridge the gap between the U.S. and the Islamic world (Dr. Khan even wore an American flag lapel pin)--and ecumenical. Criticisms of the Bush Administration were muted--even when the subject of the Patriotic Act came up--and issues involving Israel and Iraq seemed, at least on Saturday, left blessedly outside the door.
In fact, speakers directed their harshest comments at Islam itself. Or rather, the treatment of women in mosques. Many women and men questioned why the "female" section of so many masjids are cramped and uncomfortable, compared to the more spacious room given to men. Others complained about increasing instances of domestic violence in the Muslim community, and general issues involving elitism, sexism and racism. Still more wondered why many mosques feel the need to erect a wall that separates male and female worshipers and prevents them from seeing each other during services.
The Westbury center has no such wall. Still, women and men sit in segregated areas. This gender division extends to prayers--women pray behind men (to protect their dignity, I am told, since Muslim salat calls for much prostration)--and, during lunch and dinner, eat in separate rooms. The sisters also dress shawls, scarves, robes or loose clothing. It struck me as peculiar that so many Muslims stressed the need for Islam to do more to accommodate female needs--yet none criticized the concept of segregation (indeed, some women actually praised it), or addressed the demand that females must cover themselves in head-to-foot clothing. Especially since many younger sisters ditched the hejab during breaks when they went outside to chat or call up friends on cell phones. How Islam can seriously consider reforming its doctrines when it insists on two different standards for men and women is beyond this poor kafr's powers of comprehension, at least at this point.
Still, I found it refreshing to hear Muslims take a hard look at their religion's traditions, without lapsing into the all-too-common rhetoric of victimization or blame. It put at odds the controversial reputation of the Westbury mosque. The fact that Imam Rauf--a man whose kind and generous spirit touched every heart in the room--agreed to speak at the center also seemed to dispel suspicious that had collected around the center.
"We have no problems with Wahabbis in our mosque," Dr. Khan assured me. "We do not rely on Saudi money to fund our operations." Still, I found it interesting that the mosque's literature no longer lists the name of one of its most controversial members--Ghazi Khankan, head of the New York chapter of the Council for American-Islamic Relations, and a man who once denied that Muslims were responsible for 9-11--although he continues to serve as the center's Interfaith Director.
Kindly people, warm outward sentiments, dignified piety, admiration and distrust of America, gender segregation, women wrapped in linen bags complaining about their Muslim brothers: Islam seems riven by contradictions. So too the Westbury mosque. Encouraged by the congregation's apparent struggle to formulate a new and more liberal theology--an effort no doubt duplicated in thousands of masjids throughout the world--I went downstairs to the men's room. There I discovered a sign: ACCORDING TO THE HADITH, WE SHOULD NOT URINATE WHILE STANDING. When a religion feels the need to determine even that aspect of human existence (and the hadith have much more to say about such intimacies), we must wonder: what chance does it really have to modernize?