'Unmosqued' Examines Muslim Variant Of Unchurched Youth

May 23, 2014
Originally published on May 23, 2014 11:00 am

There's a new film screening on American college campuses this spring that's sparking lively debate among Muslim students. Unmosqued depicts a younger generation of American Muslims drifting away from Islam, and it argues that mosques bear the blame.

Recently several hundred people gathered at the Webb Foundation to celebrate Mawlid, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The foundation is named after an early American convert to Islam. There's no dome, minaret or even a building. It's known for service projects, good Sunday schools and father-daughter camping trips.

Unmosqued celebrates diverse and increasingly popular communities like Webb — so-called "third spaces" beyond home and masjid, the Arabic word for mosque.

Unmosqued also takes a hard and often unflattering look at mosques in America.

"The masjid is very relevant for immigrants. For our generation it has become such a place that bears little to no relevance to my life," says Bilal Hilto, co-founder of The Lighthouse Initiative, a third space center in Long Island, N.Y.

Atif Mahmud, the film's producer, says he got the phrase "unmosqued" from a term Christian friends use to describe how they'd drifted away from their childhood congregations.

"I heard the way that young Christians were talking about how they felt unchurched, and I felt exactly the same way," Mahmud recalls.

Mahmud says this isn't a battle over beliefs — it's a battle over culture. He's a business consultant with an MBA, and he says that just like his corporate clients, many of the mosques need new habits and more hospitality.

"It is very possible that we can go to a mosque today, wash ourselves, put our shoes on the rack, go inside, make our prayers and come out and go home without having said a word directly to a single person," Mahmud says.

Mahmud says mosque leaders should visit popular evangelical churches, like the one near his home in Houston. The sermons are focused and timely. People smile and hug. They hand out fresh orange juice in the parking lot.

In the film, converts to Islam talk about how they don't feel welcome; women talk about how they feel isolated. The film features awkward fundraisers, lectures in broken English, signs and sermons in foreign languages, dingy bathrooms.

Leena Suleiman attended a recent screening for the Muslim Student Association at the University of Chicago. She says the film got a lot right, but she worries that it favors third spaces and might insult older immigrants.

"There was a bias in the film," Suleiman explains. "There's already a problem. That will turn off the men and women that are causing the issues that exist."

She says she won't show the film to the older folks at her mosque because she needs them as allies in the push for change. The filmmakers point out that their own parents are immigrants, and the film does include some immigrant "uncles" who want the young generation to lead.

This isn't just a Muslim story; it's a very American story.

"We see this with most immigrant groups founded by folks who are trying to re-create a sense of home in a new space," says Benjamin Zeller, who teaches American religious history at Lake Forest College near Chicago. "So they want to re-create the language, they want to re-create the culture, they want to re-create the art, they want to re-create the style, the mood of the old world in the new world."

He says Japanese Buddhists, Italian Catholics and German Jews have all been there.

Creating American mosques is exactly what the filmmakers have in mind. They view mosques as crucial institutions.

Filmmaker Ahmed Eid says at heart, Unmosqued is about community: "Islam is not a religion you can practice by yourself in a hut somewhere. Every Friday, every week we have to gather as a community at a mosque and learn something from the imam."

Eid hopes the film will inspire his generation to get involved, whether at mosques or third spaces that may someday evolve into mosques, so that by the time his 3-year-old daughter is in college, she'll have a mosque where she feels at home.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And on American college campuses there is a new film showing this spring that's sparking some lively debates among Muslim students. It's called "Unmosqued" and describes a younger generation drifting away from Islam. It argues that mosques themselves are the problem.

Monique Parsons reports.

MONIQUE PARSONS, BYLINE: On a recent Sunday night near Chicago, a couple hundred people are celebrating Mawlid, the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed. Zain Lodhia kicks things off with a song he composed in the prophet's honor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARSONS: You don't typically hear music like this in a mosque - and in fact, this isn't one. It's called the Webb Foundation, named for an early American convert to Islam. There's no dome, minaret, or even a building. They're known for service projects, a good Sunday school and father-daughter camping trips.

The new documentary "Unmosqued" is about American Islam, and it celebrates diverse and increasingly popular communities like Webb, so-called Third Spaces, beyond home and masjid, the Arabic term for mosque.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARSONS: It also takes a hard and often unflattering look at mosques in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "UNMOSQUED")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARSONS: That's Bilal Hito, co-founder of The Lighthouse Initiative, a third space center in Long Island, New York. Film producer Atif Mahmud says he got the phrase unmosqued from a term Christian friends used to describe how they'd drifted away from their childhood congregations.

ATIF MAHMUD: I heard the way that young Christians were talking about how they felt unchurched, and I - I felt exactly the same way.

PARSONS: Mahmud says this isn't a battle over beliefs. It's a battle over culture. He's a business consultant with an MBA, and he says many of the mosques just need new habits and more hospitality.

MAHMUD: It is very possible that we can go to a mosque today, wash ourselves, put our shoes on the rack, go inside and, make our prayers, come out, put our shoes back on, get in our car and go home without having said a word directly to a single person.

PARSONS: Mahmud says mosque leaders should visit popular evangelical churches, like the one near his home in Houston. The sermons are focused and timely. People smile and hug. They hand out fresh orange juice in the parking lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARSONS: In the film, we hear from Muslim converts who don't feel welcome, women who feel isolated. There are awkward fundraisers.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "UNMOSQUED")

PARSONS: Lectures in broken English.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "UNMOSQUED")

PARSONS: Signs and sermons in foreign languages. Dingy bathrooms.

(APPLAUSE)

PARSONS: Leena Suleiman attended a recent screening for the Muslim Student Association at the University of Chicago. She says the film got a lot right, but she worries it favors Third Spaces and might insult older immigrants.

LEENA SULEIMAN: There's a bias in that film. And there's already a problem. That will turn off the men and women who are causing the issues that exist.

PARSONS: She says she won't show the film to the older folks at her mosque because she needs them as allies in the push for change. The filmmakers point out that their own parents are immigrants, and the film does include some immigrant uncles who want the young generation to lead. But this isn't just a Muslim story, it's a very American story.

BENJAMIN ZELLER: We see this with most immigrant groups founded by folks who are trying to recreate a sense of home in a new space.

PARSONS: Benjamin Zeller teaches American religious history at Lake Forest College near Chicago.

ZELLER: So they want to recreate the language, they want to recreate the culture, they want to recreate the art, they want to recreate the mood of the old world in the new world.

PARSONS: He says Japanese Buddhists, Italian Catholics and German Jews have all been there.

SULEIMAN: But their kids don't want that. Their kids generally want something closer to what we conceive as American.

PARSONS: And creating American mosques is exactly what the filmmakers have in mind. They view mosques as crucial institutions. Filmmaker Ahmed Eid says at heart, "Unmosqued" is about community.

AHMED EID: Islam is not a religion you can practice by yourself in a hut somewhere. Every Friday, every week, we have to gather as a community at a mosque and learn something from the imam.

PARSONS: Eid says he hopes the film will inspire his generation to get involved so that by the time his three-year-old daughter is in college she'll have a mosque where she feels at home.

For NPR News, I'm Monique Parsons.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.