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Unmosqued a mostly pleasant surprise

Unmosqued a mostly pleasant surprise

Author Edward Mitchell by

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Breathe easy, fellow Muslims.

Unmosqued, a newly released documentary that laments the state of American masjids, is not nearly as controversial as you might have expected.

The film screened at Georgia Tech on April 24th, drawing an audience of imams, masjid leaders, and—most abundantly—young Muslims. Their reaction was largely positive, laughing at some scenes, groaning at others, and applauding when the credits rolled.

But when Unmosqued's trailer went public back in 2013, online reaction was swift and negative. Critics feared that the documentary would unfairly malign the bedrock of Islamic society and hand anti-Muslim activists a new hammer with which to bash the faith.

Producer Atif Mahmud addressed those concerns in a question-and-answer session following the screening. He said that his sole purpose in making Unmosqued was to start a conversation among Muslims.

Indeed, Unmosqued consists almost entirely of interviews with devout Muslims, some of whom were nonetheless estranged from their local mosques.

'The film highlighted the need to ensure our masjids are warm and welcoming environments for all,' said Hamna Butt, a college student who helped organize the screening. 'The fact that converts, youth, and women are being treated in an unwelcoming manner is absolutely astounding.'

Several interview subjects complained that their masjids are driving women away by imposing separate and unequal conditions on their ability to worship. Video footage from one mosque showed a female prayer room the size of a jail cell. Mold coated its ceiling and paint peeled from its walls.

The barriers that physically separate women from men in the masjid also came under scrutiny. Unmosqued criticized such strict segregation as a cultural practice that prevents women from fully participating in masjid activities. Other interviewees complained that too many imams are recent immigrants who cannot separate Islam from their native cultures, much less make Islam relevant to the American Muslim experience.

'The knowledge that imams should acquire is not only the knowledge of the Quran and the Sunnah, but…how to apply [them] in our own society,' said Imam Shamsi Ali of the Jamaica Muslim Center in New York. Although Unmosqued praised the elder generation for building so many American masjids in such a short amount of time, the documentary also argued that many boards of directors are now dictatorial fiefdoms in desperate need of new blood.

The film's main protagonists were a group of young Muslims in Ohio campaigning for open seats on their mosque's board of directors. They pledged to work towards increasing youth attendance, catering to converts, and improving financial transparency.

Behind-the-scenes footage showed the candidates—both men and women, all young and reform-minded—plotting strategy, corralling votes, and praying for victory.

Unmosqued followed other American Muslims, including an African-American imam who was abruptly fired by his majority-Arab mosque, and a convert who briefly turned away from Islam because of the cold reception he received at a mosque.

But in other scenes, Unmosqued grasped at straws, finding fault where there was none. During the opening segment, a non-Muslim anthropology student visited a masjid, armed with a hidden video camera. After entering the sister's prayer area, the female student went back outside and asked nearby men for help locating the area that she had already found. She also asked if it would be acceptable for her to pray without a hijab, clearly hoping to capture a negative response on film. Spoiler alert: she did. Twice.

Another off-key scene showed a group of self-proclaimed 'Mipsters'—Muslim hipsters—attending their own Christmas party. As music boomed in the background, young men and women mingled in close quarters. Santa hats seemed more prevalent than hijabs.

It was unclear whether Mahmud was presenting this environment as a positive alternative to the segregated atmosphere of the mosque, or warning that such behavior could arise when mosques drive the youth away.

The film's biggest weakness? It never considers alternate explanations for the problem it diagnoses.

Unmosqued places the blame for dwindling masjid attendance squarely on the shoulders of ineffective masjid leadership. It never considers the possibility that parents are failing to foster proper Islamic development in their children or that the secularism affecting Jewish and Christian youth in America has taken a similar toll on young Muslims.

The film also neglects to spend much time highlighting America's many inclusive and welcoming masjids.

These quibbles aside, there is no denying that Unmosqued documents serious problems worthy of serious discussion. It can indeed start an important conversation, as producer Mahmud set out to do. Whether that conversation results in any positive change could depend on whether the broader Muslim-American public reacts to Unmosqued as positively as the audience at Georgia Tech did.

Edward Ahmed Mitchell, 27, is an attorney and former journalist who serves on the Board of Trustees of the Islamic Community Center of Atlanta.

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