Freedom of worship is one of our most invaluable rights. It means that I have the complete freedom and the human right to worship God the way I see fit or to not worship, provided that I uphold the standards of civil law. Thomas Jefferson so eloquently wrote:
That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
[The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom]
This human right is the cornerstone of our democracy. It keeps the political conversation rational, among other things, and prevents our nation from degenerating further into partisan religious delinquency. So, naturally, I am dismayed when I see this most basic and cherished freedom become a casualty in our national discourse on Islam and Muslims.
Observe Asra Nomani, whom we’ve criticized before for supporting racial profiling, in her latest draconian suggestion; if mosques do not bow to the demands of her ideology, they should be denied tax exempt status (i.e. forced to shutdown from crippling taxes). How did she arrive at such a conclusion?
Nomani says she is fighting Gender Apartheid:
Our goal was to walk through the front double doors designated for “brothers” and pray in the forbidden space of the opulent musallah, or main hall, of the mosque.
She paints herself as a freedom fighter, a successor to Martin Luther King Jr. But the question is: why do Muslim men and women pray in separate spaces? Is it sexism?
Until a point in time when we live in a “genderless” society (maybe something Asra advocates?), men and women are generally considered distinguished entities and traditional religions tend to take this into account. In the case of the majority of Muslims, men and women pray in separate places for the five congregational prayers because the Quran says:
Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them… And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof… (24:30-31)
Pious Muslims are not supposed to gawk with lust at members of the other sex. This applies in daily life and even more so in the ritual prayer in which concentration and focus should be directed towards God and not the opposite sex. Separating men and women in the Muslim prayer is therefore considered a matter of modesty; not that women are inferior or have less rights. Thus, separate prayer halls in themselves are not an indication that women are being mistreated or denied access to the mosque.
But perhaps the issue is that women have a less nice area to pray in or are being denied access to the mosque altogether. On this issue Nomani has a point, and she produces some statistics and studies, although mired by her sweeping generalizations:
In a 2005 publication, “Women Friendly Mosques and Community Centers,” written by two American-Muslim groups — the Islamic Social Services Associations and Women In Islam — the authors confirmed that “many mosques relegate women to small, dingy, secluded, airless and segregated quarters with their children,” some mosques “actually prevent women from entering,”…
It is true that some mosques have less than adequate facilities to accommodate female worshippers, but is it always a case of sexism? If you haven’t noticed, opening or expanding a mosque is not the easiest thing to do in America right now. There are other factors involved other than an alleged omnipresent sexism dominating the Muslim community. Some of these mosques do not have the funding to give women a bigger space; and perhaps, it may be the conservative culture of a particular mosque for women to normally pray at home with their children, usually coming to the mosque only on special occasions, and thus a bigger space is unnecessary.
Nomani could draw from Islamic tradition to support her legitimate goal of helping women increase their presence and participation in the mosque. She could, for example, mention how numerous authentic traditions record that the Prophet Muhammad gave women universal support to go to the mosque:
Do not prevent the maid-servants of Allah from going to the mosque.
[Sahih Muslim, Book 004, Number 0886]
She could engage in a respectful dialogue with notable Imams, scholars and activists, work for grassroots change in her local community, and help establish the model mosque she seeks with their help or of her own volition. Unfortunately, Nomani thinks strong-arm bully tactics and shouting matches in the mosque are the way to go.
First, she travels to different communities to whom she does not belong and demands to violate their sacred spaces. Then, she makes a ruckus in the media to bring pressure on Muslim communities from society at large. That hasn’t worked, so now she wants the government to step in and tell Muslims how they should organize their prayer halls:
I understand the difficulties in having the state intervene in worship issues. I believe in a separation of church and state, but I’ve come to the difficult decision that women must use the legal system to restore rights in places of worship, particularly when intimidation is used to enforce unfair rules.
Unbelievable! One Christian author took the words right out of my mouth:
That is an almost comically irrational paragraph, and yet it ran in a column published in none other than USA Today. Nomani says that she “understand[s] the difficulties in having the state intervene in worship issues,” but shows no such understanding at all. Then, she writes that she “believe[s] in a separation of church and state,” but then she calls upon the coercive power of the state to force doctrinal change in places of worship. She cannot have it both ways…
I am not worried that IRS agents are about to descend on the nation’s churches, mosques, and synagogues to force a new government-endorsed theology on our places of worship. I am very concerned, however, that this kind of argument, left unaddressed, implies a power that the government does not and should not possess.
Undoubtedly what Nomani is asking for is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution’s, First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” She would open the floodgates of government intervention into the most private area of our lives, our places of worship, our sacred spaces, and threaten to raise our taxes if we didn’t worship in a manner consistent with her ideology (a curious double-violation of Tea Party ideology but nonetheless will probably receive a free pass from many on the Right because of the fact that Muslims are Nomani’s target).
She warns us that in mosques “intimidation is used to enforce unfair rules” but she has no problem using the long arm of the law to intimidate Muslims and force them to construct their prayer halls in line with Nomani’s ideology or else be crushed by burdening taxes. So, Asra, how are you not also using intimidation “to enforce unfair rules?” Can anyone else see the double standard?
Don’t get me wrong. Freedom and women’s rights are very vital issues for Muslims to tackle, but not so much for Nomani. She seems far more interested in getting her uninformed and sensational views published than in helping the Muslim community from within.
How else can we understand her aggressive assault on our most basic American freedom?