Asra Nomani is an Indian-American journalist, author and activist known for her controversial work in the Islamic feminism and reform movements. Born in Bombay, India and raised in Morgantown, West Virginia, she graduated from West Virginia University with a degree in journalism. Her father helped to organize the first Muslim prayer services in Morgantown in the 1970s.
Asra worked for 15 years as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, where she was a close friend and colleague of Daniel Pearl. Pearl was staying at Nomani’s rented house in Karachi, Pakistan, with his wife Mariane when he was kidnapped and murdered —a story retold in the 2007 film A Mighty Heart, starring Angelina Jolie.
At the time of Pearl’s kidnapping in early 2002, Asra faced an additional shock: a surprise pregnancy and abandonment by the Muslim man she thought would be her husband. Still reeling from the murder of her friend and with a son to raise, she returned to her family in Morgantown.
Back in Morgantown, she discovered the local mosque had been taken over by men she saw as extremists. The film chronicles what happens when she decides to fight back against their exclusionism against women —unexpectedly pitting her against the mosque’s moderates.
Asra left Morgantown in 2007 to co-lead The Pearl Project at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. She teaches investigative journalism while working with students to uncover the full truth behind Pearl’s kidnapping and murder. The project’s findings will be published by The Center for Public Integrity in early 2010.
Asra is the author of two books, Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam, which is featured in the film, and Tantrika: Traveling the Road of Divine Love.She now prays at home but dreams of a day when women can pray in the front rows of mosques and preach from the pulpit. www.asranomani.com
Ihtishaam Qazi is a second-generation Pakistani-American MD-PhD student at West Virginia University. Ihtishaam was born and raised in Charleston, WV, and earned an undergraduate degree at Case Western Reserve University before returning to West Virginia for graduate work. He plans to work as a cancer researcher after finishing his studies.
In the film, Ihtishaam becomes Asra’s strongest opponent as he struggles to balance competing viewpoints in the community. He serves as vice president of the mosque’s Executive Committee as the film opens. He loses his bid for reelection in 2005 but allies himself with reform-minded members of the new committee and emerges as a leading voice for incremental change within the mosque. He opposes Asra’s tactics but gradually comes to accept the new committee’s determination that she should not be expelled from the mosque.
Ihtishaam served on the mosque’s Executive Committee in 2006 and 2007 and was instrumental in rewriting the mosque’s constitution to hold its leadership more accountable to members. During this time, the mosque began holding brown-bag lunches after Friday prayers, allowing families to sit together at the same table.
Christine Arja converted to Islam in her mid twenties, before she met her Lebanese husband Mohamad. She grew up in Southeast Michigan in a strict Christian family but came to know many Muslims in the area and was attracted by Islam’s message of unity and order. She met Mohamed, a family physician, through mutual friends, and they married soon afterward. The couple moved to Morgantown in 1999 and Christine earned her law degree at West Virginia University.
In the beginning of the film Christine is allied with the mosque’s leadership and opposes Asra’s tactics, attempting to work for change from within the community. She soon becomes frustrated in these efforts, however, and joins Asra to organize an alternative party for the holiday of Eid Al-Fitr. The two women, once at odds, become allies.
For Christine, carving out an American-Muslim identity for her children was of utmost importance. By the end of the film she finds herself completely alienated from the community and reveals plans to move away from Morgantown.
Christine moved back to Michigan, where she now practices law. She says she no longer considers herself a Muslim. Through her experiences in Morgantown, among others, she was unable to find the type of religious community that she believed was fundamental to her spiritual expression. She considers Asra a lifelong friend.
Christine and her husband were divorced in early 2009 and have two daughters.
Hany Ammar is an Egyptian immigrant and professor of computer science at West Virginia University. He has led a number of research projects in the software engineering field funded by the NASA IV&V Facility and National Science Foundation (NSF) and projects on Automated Identification Systems funded by National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and NSF. He met his wife, Mona, in Egypt and the couple moved to the U.S. in 1978 to complete their education; both earned PhD degrees at Notre Dame University. They settled in Morgantown in 1990 and raised five children.
Asra names Hany as the leader of a conservative group of men who took over the mosque in March 2004, and she speaks out against a sermon in which he warned that “the West is on a dark path.”
After serving on a self-appointed Temporary Executive Committee formed after the opening of the mosque, Hany won election as Executive Committee president, soon drawing the ire of moderates. He takes the lead in organizing the proceedings to expel Asra from the mosque. He earns a seat again in the next round of elections in December 2004 but accepts the position of maintenance director, effectively giving up much of his power. He declined requests to be interviewed for the film.
Hany has not served in an official position of leadership in the mosque since 2005. His wife, Mona, divorced him in 2007.
Hazem Bata was born in Egypt and moved to the United States when he was four years old. His family settled in Morgantown when he was in junior high. He earned undergraduate and law degrees at West Virginia University and married another member of the local Muslim community, Rayhana Rahim. The couple has two children.
As the film opens, Hazem has just resigned his position on the Executive Committee over the leadership’s unwillingness to accommodate women and children in the mosque. Like Christine Arja, he is vocal about the need to assert an American-Muslim identity rather than bow to cultural practices imported from overseas. He clashes with mosque president Hany Ammar over a CNN interview and subsequently loses his bid for election to the Executive Committee in 2004.
Hazem and his family moved to Florida before filming concluded. He currently runs his own real estate development firm and served as Executive Director of the Orlando chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) from June 2008 to February 2009. His writing has been published on the website alt-muslim.com
Mona Fahmy Ammar is an Egyptian immigrant who earned her PhD in electrical engineering from Notre Dame University while caring for three young children. Upon graduation, she served as a visiting professor at Clarkson University. After the family moved to Morgantown she made the transition to full-time motherhood.
In the film, Mona defends her husband’s position in the community, speculating that some mosque members may dislike him because he is “strict” and wears a traditional Islamic headcover and beard. She speaks out in support of a traditional view of women in Islam and strongly opposes Asra’s actions, especially her efforts to advance women-led prayer. She reiterates that extremism and terrorism have nothing to do with a traditionalist practice of Islam.
Mona remained in Morgantown after her separation from Hany. She has returned to school to study for a second PhD in computer engineering.
Tehseen Qazi is the wife of Ihtishaam Qazi. She grew up in Pakistan and earned a medical degree from Punjab Medical College in Faisalabad. Their marriage was arranged by family members. She joined Ihtishaam in the United States in 2001 and became a U.S. citizen in 2005.
Along with her husband, Tehseen served on the mosque’s Executive Committee in 2006 and 2007.
Tehseen and Ihtishaam have two children.
Gamal Fahmy is a British-born, Egyptian-raised research professor of electrical engineering. He earned his PhD at Arizona State University before moving to Morgantown in 2003 where he served as a professor and worked closely with Hany Ammar at West Virginia University.
In the film, Gamal explains that many Muslims believe women should be “isolated as much as possible” to minimize sexual temptation. When Christine Arja objects to the mosque’s handling of a CNN interview, Gamal sends her an email saying he is “praying for [her] punishment.” He later modifies his views on women in Islam, saying they should be allowed to pray in the main hall with men.
Gamal is now a lecturer at the German University in Cairo.
This statement and update was submitted by the ICM, April 2009.
“The community continues to evolve and mature to better serve the needs of its members. After the successful Open House in 2005 and the departure of polarizing figures that paralyzed the atmosphere for progress, an environment for open dialogue materialized.
The first step was a community-wide effort to overhaul the constitution to better position the mosque to serve the congregation. This work culminated into the largest general body meeting on record in November 2006. Roughly forty men and more than twenty women met for over four hours and in democratic fashion reformed the governing policies of the mosque. These actions directly led to better representation of the community in mosque administration and the creation of an independent school board. The resulting school board helped update the Sunday school curriculum and the school has seen attendance at an all-time high. Nearly eighty children now attend the school and there are plans to expand the scope of its educational mission.
The administration has also continued to include female representation. In the Islamic Center of Morgantown (ICM), women currently comprise half of the school board and a third of the Executive Committee. The Muslim Student Association (MSA) has seen a similar proportion of executive positions going to women and the largest number of female members in its 30-year history.
Through MSA and ICM efforts, West Virginia University now offers accredited courses in both Arabic and Islamic studies taught by congregation members.
The mosque leadership has also moved to make the administration more transparent with the first election of its Board of Trustees. Prior to the constitutional amendments of 2006, vacancies on the board were filled by appointment by presiding board members. While this method was acceptable and even preferable in the community’s early days, the growing Muslim community and logistics of the new mosque demanded change: one that ensured a crucial part of the mosque administration will always stay in touch with the congregation’s vision for the future. The resulting changes to the board have added young, dynamic members on its roster. God willing, this new board will be more apt to deal with the new challenges facing our community.
One of the most important steps this new administration has taken in line with congregation wishes is the appointment of an imam with administrative and clerical duties. During the time the documentary was filmed, the mosque did not have an imam but only the position of religious coordinator on the Executive Committee. Sohail Chaudhry has accepted this currently part-time position and has greatly increased the services and programming the mosque has to offer.
The mosque has also launched a website (www.icmorgantown.org) to help inform the public about events and activities at the mosque as well as communications tools to directly route concerns to appropriate administrators. These efforts have gone a long way at enfranchising the whole community in mosque affairs.
The community still has its share of growing pains that any organization, much less a religious institution as diverse as ours, must face. With the backgrounds present, differing opinions and viewpoints abound; however, the overriding goal of taking the community forward has not been lost. We in the community are grateful to all the past and present members who helped build this mosque. This still relatively new center has vaulted the breadth and scope of religious activities available to the Muslim community of Morgantown. We are committed to keep open channels of dialogue and civil discourse to continue to meet the needs and desires of the congregation. There is a bright future ahead of us here in Morgantown and we are grateful to Allah for the chance to be a part of it”.
Submitted statement and update from The Islamic Center of Morgantown, April 2009.