I visited my friend Fatou’s mosque today — that of the Islamic Society of the Washington Area, or ISWA for short. Fatou is a dear friend of our family — she’s one of my wife and my best friends, she’s taught my daughter French and other subjects, her daughter and mine went to elementary school and now middle school together. She’s also a practicing Muslim from West Africa who holds an anthropology doctorate from a major European university.
Fatou and me in her mosque, 9/11/2010
Visiting the mosque with her was my idea, but one she was immediately enthusiastic about. The 9/11 date was important to me — I wanted to show a little solidarity with her and other Muslims here in the U.S., after what I think was a notably ugly, disgraceful summer of anti-Muslim bigotry in this country.
This summer has been a season that nearly culminated in Koran-burnings in Gainesville — and that still might. It is still a season that threatens to pressure Muslims wishing to build an Islamic community center near the site of the fallen World Trade Center towers into waiving their equal rights, their freedom of speech, and their freedom of association and religion, all just to appease the unfounded, bigoted sensitivities of far too many Americans.
And far too many more Americans are trying to have it both ways, essentially saying “I’m not for bigotry, but so many others are against the ‘mosque at Ground Zero’ that, well… those Park51 people ought to back down.”* Don’t people understand how fast this could get dangerous, I’ve wondered — sure, it’s not 1 minute to an anti-Muslim Kristallnacht midnight, not yet, but it’s 20 minutes or so too close, and people like Jones and Gingrich are doing their best to get us to 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…
So I got in touch with Fatou. It was too late to try to organize some of my more extravagant initial ideas — interfaith service, local political leaders, press releases, whatever could be done.
But the visit I had was better than that.
It let me see a mosque on a quiet day — the way it probably usually is. It let me realize many of my own concerns about what was OK and what wasn’t were overblown — sure, I could take some pictures; sure, I could sit in back while they prayed; sure, I was welcome even as an agnostic nonbeliever.
It let me realize how ordinary mosques can be — balloons hanging from the rafters to celebrate the latest holiday, instant coffee, sugar, and a hot water urn at a table, posters for a special “Muslim-American Day” (or something like that) at a nearby Six Flags theme park, people setting tables and preparing food in the kitchen for a memorial service, announcements posted in the foyer. In most ways, it was like any local church I’ve ever walked into.
One of those evocative, wavering calls to prayer happened while I was there. Some men were already in the room with the muezzin who had performed the call, others filed in shortly after; Fatou went to the women’s prayer room. Learning I could sit in the back and observe the prayers, I did. And I found it actually helped me to be in a quiet room, with alternating chants by a prayer leader alternating with the row of five or six congregants kneeling, prostrating, standing, silently praying or quietly echoing the prayer leader’s words — I’ve gotten into somewhat tense exchanges with friends and family about Park51 and related issues, and I’ve been a little upset by them.
I met the imam on our way out — a very nice man named Faizul Khan who asked us back inside. He took me to his office. “People ask why Muslims didn’t condemn the attacks, ” he said. “We did.” He pointed to a framed Washington Times op-ed, dated early October 2001:**
In the midst of the catastrophic events that have hit America, questions have been raised as to how such [terrorist] acts are judged and interpreted by Islamic shariah [law]. Any calamity that affects humans has its ruling in Islamic shariah.
Killing the weak, infants, women and the elderly and destroying property are considered serious crimes in Islam. Acts of corruption and even laying waste to the land are forbidden by God and by His prophet. Viewing on the TV networks what happened to the Word Trade Center and the Pentagon was like watching Doomsday.
Those who commit such crimes are the worst people. Anyone who thinks that any Islamic scholar will condone such acts is totally wrong. Aggression, injustice and gloating over the kind of crime that we have seen, are totally unacceptable, and forbidden in Islam.
Mr. Khan did the same thing again last year when Nidal Hasan committed his murder rampage at Fort Hood, writing,
Since September 11, 2001, the peaceful community [of] American Muslims has been subject to all kinds of accusations and persecutions. This is happening despite the fact that — since 9/11 — Muslims have organized more than 3,500 interfaith forums denouncing terrorism and loudly condemning groups such as Al-Qaeda. I condemn the actions allegedly taken by the Muslim soldier at Fort Hood and would condemn any action by any Muslim who uses violence in the name of Islam. Perhaps the best investment at this time is to engage in projects and programs that are people oriented and that will project the humanitarian faith of Islam. (emphasis added)
Just as the mosque seemed very much like any church I’d ever been to, Imam Khan — in manner if not dress — seemed to have arrived straight from Central Casting for a pastor or priest: soft spoken, friendly, a little harried by his schedule. His congregation is lucky to have him, I think; you need a good man with patience of Job for patiently, repeatedly explaining, year after year, that he condemns violence in the name of his religion.
* The biggest disappointment in this regard: Howard Dean.
** I can’t locate the October 2001 op-ed online yet [UPDATE, EDIT, 10/28: not the Washington Post -- the Washington Times; link and excerpt added], but have found other examples of Mr. Khan condemning extremist violence here and here.