I hate to admit it, but I don’t like going to mosques. Whether it’s the crudely written signs informing me I must cover myself, or the awkward way men and women avoid each other, or the Friday preaching that is just so irrelevant to my life, I usually feel happiest when I’m walking out the door.
I long for a Muslim environment that is spiritually fresher, deeper, and, perhaps most importantly, untainted by a Saudi-style conservatism or bitterness over the war on terror. With a small but growing number of “emergent Christians” – and now “emergent Jews” – reinventing the very idea of religious communities, I have also begun to hope for the emergence of a post-modern, post-9/11 Muslim faith life.
Emerging Christians struggle with stale ways of “doing church” they say are left over from the 1950s, or even the beginning of the Reformation, wrote Sam Crum, pastor of The River, a small emerging congregation in Florida, in a Facebook discussion with me. Emerging congregations – including a number of Jewish ones – emphasize authenticity and deemphasize hierarchy; both of these qualities, coincidentally or not, overlap with the values of the Web 2.0 world, where everyone – not just the anointed, institutional leaders – are content creators.
At The River’s MySpace blog, a husband-and-wife team describe their earlier life in a mainstream evangelical congregation. “We oddly enough began to learn some bad habits of a duty-driven life and became very religious, hypocritical, and hungry for something more,” they write. “Although we had both come to know Jesus Christ, we were still trying to unlearn and deconstruct some religious systems that were not only damaging to our ministries, but to our marriage.”
My journey isn’t about Jesus, but I sure can relate. My husband and I also lived through a “duty-driven” period of near-fundamentalism, when we were immersed in Muslim communities that emphasized conformity to a particular interpretation of Islam. That interpretation was largely inspired by Salafism, the fundamentalist version of Islam that hails from Saudi Arabia.
We weren’t alone in this experience. “Anyone who coverted to Islam in the 1990s came under the spell of Salafism,” Muslim blogger and ex-Salafi Tariq Nelson told me recently.
After ardor comes burnout, and many Muslims, and converts in particular, don’t survive the transition. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, now a Christian and conservative counter-terrorism expert, described his own journey out of a soul-numbing Salafism in his recent memoir, “My Year in Radical Islam.” Long-time convert Jeffery Lang has warned fellow Muslims for years that many converts and young people are leaving Islam; a recent report from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life suggests that for every person who joins the faith, another leaves – challenging the common assertion that Islam is the “fastest-growing religion” in the U.S.
For me, Islam has remained compelling for the same reasons that attracted me in the first place: the simplicity of God’s oneness, the effectiveness of daily prayer, the discipline of fasting, the compassion of charity, and the magnificence of pilgrimage – in short, the five pillars of Islam.
While fundamentalism was probably destined for a short stay in my own life, 9/11 made that transformation irreversible. Today I have an almost physical aversion to anything Muslim that smacks of Salafi fundamentalism. I am equally impatient with American Muslims’ insistence on their own victimhood at the hands of “the media,” as if suicide bombers and cartoon-rioters were somehow an invention of Fox News. The last time I attended Friday prayers at my mosque, I walked out half-way through when an Egyptian-born preacher lamented how hard it is to raise children with “Islamic values” instead of “Western values” – with the obvious implication that the former was good and the latter was bad.
So while emerging Christians gather around a narrative of dissatisfaction with status-quo church life, so I imagine American Muslims finally repudiating Salafism and all its trappings, realizing that fundamentalism can – and often has – lead down a dark road to hatred and violence. And while I’m re-imagining American Muslim life, I’d also like to order up a come-as-you-are, online-friendly, community experience where I can be myself and deepen my faith.
Yes, I know, it’s a too-tall order. Not because there aren’t other American Muslims dissatisfied with status-quo mosque life – in my experience there are many – but because, initially at least, the numbers may be small.
From my perch, however, I do see lights twinkling across the country, people like author Sumbul Ali-Karamali or media entrepreneur Shahed Amanullah or activist Saleemah Abdul Ghafur, and communal venues like TalkIslam.info or the Progressive Muslim Network in my own backyard of Washington D.C.
The emerging church movement came about because a bunch of regular folks got off their duffs and did something; that’s inspiring. The challenge for Muslims like myself is to create rather than just critique, and, hopefully, build a faith life we can live with.
Andrea Useem publishes the website www.ReligionWriter.com. A journalist, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, and a Muslim, she is currently writing a booklet on religious congregations and Web 2.0 technologies for the Alban Institute’s Congregational Resource Guide.