What Goes On Inside Your Neighborhood Mosque

Guests

Hussein Rashid, associate editor, Religion Dispatches
Asra Nomani, author of Standing Alone
Imam Mohammad Hamad, president and imam, Islamic Society of Sheboygan, Wisc.

From California to Wisconsin, Staten Island to Tennessee, protesters in local communities have said they do not want mosques in their backyards. While proponents of the building projects support their right to worship freely, opponents fear they may draw everything from too much traffic to extremists and terrorists.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

The organizers of Park 51 have problems with the phrase the ground zero Mosque. It isn't a mosque, they say, and while it's nearby, it's not within ground zero. They say the 13-story facility in Lower Manhattan would be an Islamic community center on the model of a YMCA.

Opponents say it's an outrage, a trophy mosque deeply offensive to many of the families of those killed by Islamic extremists on 9/11, but even if you do describe this facility as a mosque, it would be just one of 100 in New York City and one of well over 1,000 across the country.

How well or poorly do those mosques fit within their communities? What's going on with the mosque in your neighborhood? If you're Muslim, is there controversy around your mosque? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And we begin with Hussein Rashid, a visiting professor of religion at Hofstra University in New York, associate editor of the online magazine Religion Dispatches, and he joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

Professor HUSSEIN RASHID (Visiting Professor of Religion, Hofstra University; Associate Editor, Religion Dispatches): Thank you, Neal. How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you. Are there examples of other mosques around the country that stirred up controversy, perhaps not on this scale?

Prof. RASHID: You know, we've had mosques stirring up controversy around the nation, well before 9/11. Obviously after 9/11 there's been an issue. Probably one of the better-known ones is one in Temecula out in California, another one out of Wisconsin. We've had two additional ones in New York and Staten Island and Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.

So Park 51 is not unique in this, but it's not something that's post-9/11, either. It's something we've been experiencing as a community for quite some time now.

CONAN: Well, in Temecula, for example, the imam of an established Islamic center there wanted to expand the space after 12 years. What was the controversy?

Prof. RASHID: Well, my understanding is that the controversy was that it was the expansion of a mosque space, and there was an opposition to it, saying that Muslims should not be allowed to expand their worship space.

There was a protest that was held, where less than two dozen people showed up, and supporters far outnumbered the protestors. And I think that's really emblematic of a lot of the controversies we're seeing around the nation now.

There's a lot of hot air and bluster. It's not substantiated, in fact, and I would say a lot of these smaller mosques are really embedded within their community and therefore have a lot of community support across the religious divide.

CONAN: The mosque proposed, you mentioned, in Staten Island, was voted down by the sale. The Catholic Church was going to sell an unused facility that was going to be transformed into a mosque. And eventually, the church decided to rescind the offer to sell.

Prof. RASHID: Yeah, and I don't quite understand the dynamic of what happened there. I mean, I do understand some of the politics that was happening. I'm not sure what happened, internally, within the church.

But I think Staten Island was a center that, you know, I dont think the organizers did a good enough job of reaching out to the community ahead of time. And I think that, you know, while they do have the right to build, as anybody does, a house of worship in this country, there should also be a sense of how do I make sure that I'm seen as part of the community. And that's incumbent on whatever faith tradition is out there.

CONAN: And we speak of Islam as a monolith. Of course, it is not. There are different kinds of mosques and different sects and various other things. I'm not sure sects is the right word, but part of the controversy around Staten Island centered around, at least, the accusation that the organizers of that mosque were associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, who are, of course, associated with people who are, well, the opposition in Egypt, but also Hamas.

Prof. RASHID: You know, first of all, Neal, thank you for point out that no, I don't like the word sect. I think it's problematic in the Muslim context.

But as you correctly noted, there are a wide variety of interpretations of Islam, even when you're looking within New York. Staten Island is a very different community and environment, as a borough, than Queens or Brooklyn. And even that, you can start subdividing.

So New York is diverse, Muslims are diverse, and the Muslim American Society, the people behind the mosque in Staten Island, admit quite openly, that at one time, they were affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and now they say they're not.

And unless we have evidence to the contrary, I think we need to take them at their word and see what it is they're trying to develop and grow into here, in the American context.

CONAN: Others say the organizers of at least some mosques are backed by Saudi Arabia and subscribe to the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, which is, they say, well, the same stripe that gave rise to Osama bin Laden.

Prof. RASHID: I'm not a big fan of the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. I know that I would not be welcome in one of their mosques. But at the same time, I think that's giving them too much credit to say they gave rise to bin Laden.

You know, I think bin Laden comes out of a horrible hodgepodge of some of these literalist movements, these puritanical movements that come out of particular areas in the Middle East, and I do have problems with the Wahhabi mosques.

But at the same time, are we in a position that unless they are threatening -directly threatening American interests - are we in a place to say we're going to determine what religion is good, what religion is bad?

CONAN: So there's no legitimate inquiry into the ideological grounding of whether these are mainstream Islamists or Salafists or Wahhabists?

Prof. RASHID: I think insofar as we can legitimately investigate any religious grouping, I think we should. Again, looking at the New York example in the 19 late '80s and early '90s, there was a Jewish group here called the Kahane Chai, which was labeled as a Jewish terrorist organization.

So this is not unique to the Muslim community, and I think insofar as there are people who use religious ideology to further a political interest that is harmful to America, we should be investigating all of them.

CONAN: And if in the broader sense, this fight over the so-called ground zero Mosque, the Islamic community center there in Lower Manhattan, do you think that this is a broader fight about finding a place for the Muslim faith in America?

Prof. RASHID: To a certain extent. I think there are two separate issues here, and I think President Obama hinted to them on his speech last Friday at the White House Iftar dinner - or the breaking of the fast dinner. Where he says look, there's a question of the First Amendment right, and I don't think anybody can argue that the First Amendment doesn't guarantee the right to build this center.

The other question is, has there been enough outreach to the Muslim community in New York City? Has there been enough outreach to the Manhattanites in Lower Manhattan? And I think that's a very separate - two very separate questions that we need to address. And I don't think they have been adequately addressed.

So I don't think the I think the constitutional question is really a non-starter. If we believe, as Americans, in the Constitution, there should be no debate on that.

CONAN: And I'm not sure that even opponents would say that there's a debate on that. But one of the things they say, look, if the intention of this community center was to bring people together, well, it's already failed in that regard. It's one of the most bitter, dividing points in the country, right now.

Prof. RASHID: And, you know, I think it's a great point that they bring up, because the New York Times ran a story on the center back in late December of 2009, early January of 2010 - and it was quiet for five or six months, until, you know, people from outside of New York City, who couldn't tell you what two blocks in Manhattan means - because as most Manhattanites know, you're talking about traveling different worlds in two blocks; you know, who have no idea, who have never been to ground zero, are all of a sudden telling people who lived through that moment, oh, you should be upset by this.

So the very people who are saying this center is tearing this country apart are the people who are instigating that fight.

CONAN: I've, though, seen an opinion poll, that say, by a substantial majority, people of the state of New York are opposed to this.

Prof. RASHID: Well, the state of New York and the city of New York are two different environments. You know, it would sort of be like comparing the state of America to the capital the country of America to the capital of America. They're two different constituencies.

And the people who live here in Manhattan are more ambivalent about this structure but are not as opposed to it. And interestingly, the same polls that say two-thirds of Americans are opposed to the mosque are also two-thirds of the country also say that they have the First Amendment right to build it - or this community center.

So there's got to be some overlap there. And so I think we really are dealing with two different issues.

CONAN: We want to hear from those of you, well, if you're Muslim, has there been controversy about your mosque, or if there's one in your neighborhood, what's going on with that? Is it controversial? 800-989-8255 is the phone number. The email address is talk@npr.org. And Hussein Rashid, I'm not sure you've been to the over-thousand mosques in this country, but I think it probably is safe to say the vast majority of them are non-controversial.

Prof. RASHID: I would say yes, the vast majority of them are non-controversial. You will walk by them. You know, there are two mosques in the ground zero area now. People walk by them every day, and nobody says anything about them. And they're probably mosques that people walk by and don't realize that they're walking by mosques, because they're just such a normal part of the community.

CONAN: So this idea of a new mosque, or in fact that it was such a grand vision, 13 stories tall, is that what you think inflamed things?

Prof. RASHID: I think a couple of things started coming together that inflamed passions around this project. One was, as I mentioned earlier, the lack of real community investment in this project. So there wasn't that natural safeguard.

You know, when we look at what happened in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, it was such the community, the Muslim community there was such an integral part of the community that nobody felt from the community felt threatened by it. It was all people coming from outside, and that quickly diffused, because they were recognized as outsiders.

So I think you didn't have that excuse me, that you didn't have that natural community buffer built up around this project. And the other thing is, I think people are just looking to score cheap political points on this.

You know, Jews were the outsiders in this country at one point...

CONAN: Well, everybody was an outsider at one point.

Prof. RASHID: Everybody was an outsider at one point, but Catholics, you know, and, you know, I think the movie "Gangs of New York" shows this really well, you know, the way Irish Catholics were outsiders in this country at one point, Jews were outsiders in this country at one point.

This is the story of becoming American for religious communities in the 20th century and now the 21st century - is that we will be looked at as outsiders -despite the fact that Muslims have been here since, in large numbers, since the period of the slave trade; that Muslims occupy high business positions, high political positions, high positions in NGOs.

This is just part of the growth process. And I think the question is how do we manage this process so we don't leave any lasting damage to the American idea of e pluribus unum.

CONAN: And at the same time, are you at all concerned that, well, there have been situations where people coming out of, at least some mosques, have provided threats? And you look at the imam Awlaki's mosque in Northern Virginia, for one.

Prof. RASHID: I'm glad you brought up Awlaki, because I think that he actually proves an instructive point, in that he was actually removed from that community because of his rhetoric.

A study done out of Emory University has shown that an increase in the presence of mosques, actually helps to de-radicalize Muslim youth because it becomes a community center where people can come together, and different ideas can be exchanged. And Awlaki's success was the success was in outing Awlaki.

CONAN: With the controversy over the planned Islamic center near ground zero, we're talking about the mosque in your neighborhood. If you're Muslim, is there controversy around your mosque? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Politicians and protestors continue to weigh in on the planned Islamic center near ground zero in Lower Manhattan in New York. It's become a hot-button issue in the country. As we've heard, it's hardly the first time a proposed mosque has generated controversy, though not on this scale.

What's going on with the mosque in your neighborhood? If you're Muslim, is there controversy around your mosque? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Hussein Rashid, visiting religion professor at Hofstra University. He also serves as associate editor for the online magazine Religion Dispatches. You can find a link to that at npr.org. And again, just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's go next to Riyad(ph), Riyad's calling us from Orlando in Florida. Hello, are you there?

JACKIE(ph) (Caller): Hello, this is Jackie, and I'm in Tennessee.

CONAN: Oh, Jackie, and you're in Tennessee. Well, go ahead, I'm sorry.

JACKIE: Oh, that's fine. My husband and I spent three years when we were first married in the Middle East, and while we were there, we tried to really embrace the culture there. And when we came back to the United States, we settled in Dearborn, Michigan, for 10 years.

And there were a number of mosques there, beautiful people, beautiful, wonderful people, and it really is I really want people to know that there are different cultures, but embracing the traditions of this culture is something that's inherent to all of us.

Like the wonderful tradition of the call to prayer five times a day, we have adopted into our family, even though we are Christian. We have so many wonderful friends that are Muslim.

And I think it would just be a wonderful manifestation of Americanness if we could just accept that mosque near ground zero because it would be triumphant of our show of our Americanness that we accept everyone. And that's what our country was founded on.

CONAN: Well, as our guest Hussein Rashid was saying, Lower Manhattan is different from Staten Island or Queens or indeed upstate New York. Dearborn is a lot different from Manhattan, too.

JACKIE: Absolutely. It's one of the largest populations of Muslims in the United States. And we embrace them there. I don't know, other than a political stance that these people are taking, why there would be a problem.

CONAN: All right, Riyad excuse me, not Riyad, Jackie. Thank you very much for the call, appreciate it.

Joining us now from Emerald Isle in North Carolina by phone is Asra Nomani, the author of "Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam," a contributing writer for the Daily Beast, and it's nice to have you back with us.

Ms. ASRA NOMANI (Author, "Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam"): Hey, thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And your latest piece for the Daily Beast was titled "A Muslim Questions the Mosque," and you wrote that while many of those protesting the so-called mosque at ground zero might use different language than you do, you have some of the same concerns.

Ms. NOMANI: I do. You know, there is a professor of Islam in Atlanta, Alan Godlas, who once told me that whenever you feel anger, you know, usually it reveals a deeper pain. And I feel like this anger that we're hearing expressed against Islam is basically this real pain by a lot of people for the failure inside of our Muslim community to be able to acknowledge both the good, bad and ugly of our community, the extremism that does exist very realistically from mosques to institutions.

And I feel that pain because for the last eight years, I've been going to mosques around the country, and I've been thrown out of mosques on the Upper East Side, from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to Seattle, Washington, because they don't want women to just walk in through the front door and pray in the main hall even behind the men.

You know, most of these mosques are men's clubs. According to a survey by the national Muslim organizations, about two of three attendees are men. And the thing that troubles me the most in this one survey is that while there is this appreciation of American freedom and democracy, most of the respondents going to mosques also said that they believe that America is an immoral and corrupt society.

And so that's a dilemma that we have and a paradox inside of our Muslim community that I don't feel we've yet reconciled.

CONAN: Hussein Rashid mentioned there were, there are already two mosques in Lower Manhattan, not far from ground zero. You wrote about one of them in your piece.

Ms. NOMANI: Yeah, and I've gone to the other one. You know, so the other one, Masjid al-Farah, is the one that's run by Imam Feisal right now. He's been running a prayer service for years. And I went there, and it is an example of a reform progressive mosque where we walked in, one of the women didn't wear a head scarf. We weren't shunned or sent into the basement. We were given a space behind the men.

The other mosque is an example of the Salafi interpretation of Islam, where there is an isolation message that's preached from its pulpit rather than assimilation. And that's exactly the battle inside of our Muslim community, what kind of interpretation is going to ultimately prevail.

And I think a lot of the I mean, a lot of the frustration that I have, that, you know, I feel like the folks that are frustrated with Muslim communities and Islam is that we really haven't done a good job of, you know, having an unapologetic expression of Islam.

It's time for a very unapologetic expression that says, look, we're not going to pretend like we don't have problems. We're not going to pretend that we don't have extremism. We've got problems, we've got extremism, and we're going to own them, and we're going to take responsibility for it.

But instead, you know, I think we've done a really bad job in terms of public messaging, and that's the frustration in the world.

CONAN: What about, and again, to bring up the point Hussein Rashid mentioned earlier, the removal of Mr. Imam Awlaki from Virginia?

Ms. NOMANI: Well, that's so interesting because there he is, Imam al-Awlaki, sitting in a mosque in Northern Virginia. That mosque is now my hometown mosque because I've moved into the D.C. area. And ever since I moved there a couple years ago, I've been afraid to walk through the doors because of what I've heard has been preached from that pulpit.

This summer, I went in with a group of women. We walked through the front door. We went into the main hall. We prayed behind the men, 20 feet behind them. We weren't sitting in their laps or, you know, inappropriately getting near them. And what happened? The mosque leaders called the cops. They called the cops, and they got us kicked out of the mosque because in their interpretation of Islam today, in the 21st century, they believe that a woman is just too sexy for the mosque, that she can't be anywhere in the main hall. She's got to be segregated and separated. And their interpretation is one that I don't believe is compatible with our society here in the West.

And yet it's what prevails because in two out of three mosques, women are sent into the back corners. We're literally sometimes behind shower curtains, behind one-way mirrors so that the men can't look in, but the women can look out, darkened corners because they don't want to see the shadows of the women even.

And that's a reality, and what happens when we go into those mosques? Oh my gosh, I mean, most of the community just looks the other way when, you know, we try to assert our right. One man gave us a thumbs-up sign, that we were doing the right thing when we walked into that mosque that's called 9/11 Mosque now because so many of the hijackers went through there.

But when the men came and surrounded us to kick us out, he didn't step forward. And that's what I think is the larger frustration in society, that not enough Muslims are stepping forward to challenge those Wahhabi puritanical and Salafi interpretations.

Prof. RASHID: Neal, can I comment?

CONAN: If you would quickly because we want to get some more listeners in on the conversation.

Prof. RASHID: Just quickly. Ms. Nomani, first of all, it's a pleasure to be on the show with you. And I think it's interesting that I think we want to, as you said, try to avoid people who pose a threat to other people. We want to limit that.

But I'm all for different interpretations of Islam. Just like the mosques who limit the role of women, there may be women who want that role, just as there are mosques, and as you said, Feisal Abdul Rauf, which allows more active engagement for women in the prayer space.

I think the more interpretations and the more diversity we have in practice, the more it becomes difficult for any ideologue to come out of any one community.

Ms. NOMANI: Well, I disagree because, you know, I believe that what we've inherited in the 21st century is exactly what happened in the 10th century, where rational thinking, you know, characterized by this group of people called the Mutazilites, were basically extinguished by the Ash'arites. And we know that this is a battle that we've had for centuries inside of our Muslim community.

So what happened in the 10th century? Ishtihad, this concept of critical thinking, the gates of Ishtihad were closed. And today in the 21st century, I don't believe that, you know, all of these interpretations coexisting is necessarily a good thing for society because at the end of the day, what's happening is that the ideological people who embrace the puritanical interpretation bully and intimidate the rest into silence.

And we have to take sides. I believe we have to take sides, and we have to not just be like oh, yeah, peace, love, everybody's going to coexist. We, in our Muslim community, have to fight for the pluralistic tolerant expression of Islam.

CONAN: And I don't mean to interrupt, but I do want to get some callers in on this conversation. We have found Riyad in Orlando. Is this you now?

RIYAD (Caller): Yes, this is Riyad.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

RIYAD: First, I like to say (speaking in foreign language) for our Muslim listeners. I live in Orlando, Florida, and we have several mosques around the area. And initially post-9/11, we were under much controversy, you know? A lot of people actually put threats against the mosques and Muslims going to the mosque. People blockaded outside the mosques and, you know, but essentially we started developing this program called the Center for Peace, which is an outreach program which we actually go out to schools and we speak to people and we invite people to come to dinners once a month, and we actually teach them what Muslims believe. And Orlando has grown increasingly in patience and respect towards the Muslim community around here.

We do have a couple of mosques around the area that do, you know, preach the radicalism and, you know, the different ideologies and methodologies that were, you know, being spoken of just a few minutes ago, and even one mosque that has, you know, the darkened mirrors that the women can see out of but the men can't see into.

But all in all, you know, for the majority, the people have become very open to Islam in the community. And we've actually had a lot of people who come into the mosque now who want to seek more knowledge. And a lot of people have, you know, understood what Islam is about. And even, you know, when controversies that happen worldwide, we have people that, you know, Christians and Jews alike who come and support, you know, things that happen overseas, you know, in favor of the Muslims here because Muslims here are being ridiculed by, you know, media and other outlets.

CONAN: So the more transparent the particular mosque is you think the more welcoming the community will be?

RIYAD: Absolutely.

Ms. NOMANI: Riyad, I had a question for you. This is Asra.

RIYAD: Sure.

Ms. NOMANI: In your process of becoming active in trying to, you know, promote open, tolerant interpretation of Islam, what were your run-ins with the folks in the community that go to the other mosques that have that really puritanical literal interpretation of Islam? And did you go into that mosque?

RIYAD: Well, yeah, I go into that mosque. It's called (unintelligible), and I go in there, and, you know, it's a totally different world. The people that go there, they actually look at me, and they, you know, give kind of a, you know, evil eye, so to speak, to me.

Ms. NOMANI: Right.

RIYAD: And, you know, I actually have a, you know, a Da'wah site on YouTube. It's the Islamic Informant. That's my nickname. And I speak about, you know, how Islam is, you know, being misinterpreted often. A lot of people taking things to the extreme, which it shouldn't be. I mean, we have - like you were speaking about just a few minutes ago about, you know, the women segregation. There's several hadiths, you know, when it speaks about the women being in the back of the mosque, you know, during the time of Prophet Muhammad, sallallahu 'alaihi wa sallam. You know, so, you know, the children were there. So, you know, when you spoke about that, I haven't seen many mosques around the state, but, you know, having women being kicked out, I don't feel that's right at all.

CONAN: All right. Riyad, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

RIYAD: My pleasure.

CONAN: We're talking about the mosque in your neighborhood. Our guests are Hussein Rashid, a visiting professor at Hofstra University, a visiting professor of religion, and Asra Nomani, author of "Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And while we're primarily talking about what happens within a mosque, we got some emails about without as well.

I live in Cedar Rapids, writes Sarah(ph) from Cedar Rapids, home of the mother mosque, the oldest mosque in North America. There was recent vandalism at the newer mosque by a teen from a neighboring community. I think the outcry over the Manhattan mosque close to ground zero sparked the kid's vandalism. I'm so offended by the opposition to the mosque. It is so offensive.

Nicholas(ph) in St. Cloud, Minnesota. In my hometown of St. Cloud, there was recently an incident where obscene messages depicting the Prophet Muhammad were posted outside of a local Islamic center. There was overwhelming response from Muslims and others outraged by the incident. Unfortunately, this is indicative of growing tensions between recent Muslim immigrants and the local population that oftentimes views them as outsiders.

And this from Alice(ph) in Frederick, Maryland. I'm a Muslim convert whose ancestry in the U.S. goes back to the 1700s. Our mosque in Frederick, Maryland, is not allowed to play the call to prayer outside, even only on the Friday noon service, while church bells are abundant on Sunday. We've also had repeated vandalism to the extent that we had to install a fence and a gate. And in general, we're seeing reports of greater vandalism incidents of that sort this Ramadan than in previous times.

Let's see if we can get another caller in before the break.

Let's go to Yusef(ph), Yusef with us from Miami.

YUSEF (Caller): Hi, there. Well, I was calling just to comment on the fact that my mosque - and I agree with the young lady on the - your guest, that Muslims need to do more to reach out. And what we do at my mosque, for instance, is because we've been there in the community since the 1950s, we invite people over for iftar dinner. We invite the community in so that there is no avail, so that when they watch the news and see Osama bin Laden, they realize he is not the pope for Islam, and they have a greater understanding. So more outreach needs to be done, absolutely, on behalf of Muslim communities.

And it relates directly to this mosque that, you know, potentially will be built in Manhattan because we have to keep in mind that this man, Abdul Faisal, is a Sufi, and his wife is there along his side at all times, and she has a great role in everything that he does. And we need to understand that the Sufis are moderates. Just like what happened in Lahore, Pakistan, not too long ago, a Sufi mosque was bombed. Muslims killing Muslims as well.

So we have to gain a greater understanding, but it won't come without Muslims, moderate Muslims who have a voice, who are willing to go on programs such as yours, and speak out. It will not happen unless we, the moderates, speak out because in general no one wants to do research for themselves. They'll take what they see on the news, and that's it.

And the problem going on in New York City right now, it's a city problem. I guarantee you, if you ask those people in Manhattan, just those people in Manhattan, just those people, they will say, you know what, this mosque is fine. This center is fine. This YMCA concept for a mosque is fine. But it's others elsewhere around the country who, through rhetoric and because people refuse to educate themselves because - and then Muslims are not doing it for themselves as well - that's how we get into these controversies. And I'll take responses off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: All right, Yusef. We're going to have to take you over - the responses over the break because we've got a break coming up, but stay with us for that. We're going to continue the conversation with Asra Nomani and Hussein Rashid. Also coming up, we're going to be talking with Imam Mohammad Hamad who's the president and imam of the Islamic Society of Sheboygan to find out what happened in that greatest little town of the world when the controversy erupted and, well, what happened when it calmed down. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The controversy currently swirls around a proposed Islamic center to be built in southern Manhattan, not far from the site of ground zero, but that's not the only controversy. We got this tweet: Controversy over a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Fear of Shariah law and questions over who is financing the 50,000-square-foot facility. These controversies are not new, yet the majority of the well over a thousand mosques in the country, the vast majority are not controversial. What's happening in the mosque in your neighborhood? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Our guests are Hussein Rashid, a visiting religion professor at Hofstra University, and Asra Nomani, author of "Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam" and a contributing writer to The Daily Beast where she wrote "A Muslim Questions the Mosques." In just a few minutes, we're going to be joined by Imam Mohammad Hamad, but at the moment, what's happening at the mosque in your neighborhood? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

And Hussein Rashid, I wanted to give you a chance to respond. Clearly, there are concerns over which stripe of Islam and who's responsible for the funding and what's going to be going on inside of these facilities that does concern a lot of people.

Prof. RASHID: Absolutely. And, you know, I'm a big proponent, coming out of the American context especially, of an increased transparency and an increase in the number of ideas and communities of interpretation we have out there. I think the more diverse Muslim voices we have speaking, the easier it is to see the fallacy of the arguments asserted in these puritanical movements. And I think that when you increase transparency and you force Muslims to be responsible for their actions and their deeds, then you'll end up with a stronger and better community overall.

CONAN: And Asra Nomani, clearly, as you've mentioned, there are places that are preaching things that could be described as, well, antithetical to the United States, antithetical to Western culture indeed. Nevertheless, I'm sure you would assert those people have every right to build those kinds of mosques or those kinds of synagogues or whatever else, whatever religion they may believe in.

Ms. NOMANI: Yeah, and - but I believe, ultimately, like we are in a struggle for the soul of Islam in the world and in America. And I was so happy to hear from Riyad and Yusef, from their communities because right now, this is headlines and I'm so happy that we're having this conversation as a nation. Because it's been our dirty little secret inside of our Muslim community, that we have these problem mosques, that we have these problem imams who come to town and preach their garbage.

And what has happened so often is that, with backs up against the wall, many Muslims want to just circle the wagons. And I fear that, you know, these Muslim organizations that represent interests in America so often look at, you know, the harassment and the backlash and so many of these issues that are headlines and important. But they dont want to police inside of our own communities. And that's where I believe we have a serious responsibility to this country that is a new home for most of us - not for everyone, but for most of us. And we need to be good neighbors. We need to be on the sending side of inner faith invitations, not just on the receiving end of it.

CONAN: Let's go to Allison(ph). Allison, with us from Wichita.

ALLISON (Caller): Yeah, hi.

CONAN: Hi.

ALLISON: Well, I actually have a couple of different points to make. One is the mosque in my community, and I think this is probably true of most of the mosques in the states, is that it's made up of a lot of different nationalities like Islam in particular is. It has a lot more immigrants, like, I know, that for example, they talk about the Irish Catholics having faced a lot of, you know, persecution...

CONAN: Bigotry, yes.

ALLISON: Yeah. But everybody in the Irish Catholic groups was all Irish. I mean, they were all coming from Ireland, right? Whereas the Muslim community, at least in Wichita, and actually I've lived in a lot of different places in the states after I converted to Islam. So, many of the communities I've seen are facing - in order to come to a community consensus, they have to filter it through like 10 different - everybody wants to do it the way they did it back home. You know, there's Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Turkey, right?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ALLISON: Bosnia. So, you can't just say - so that kind of slows down the process because it's - not only are you personally trying to assimilate to American culture, but as a religious community with all of those different voices and they all have different aspects of American culture that are more difficult for them to assimilate to than some other aspects, you know, like...

CONAN: I get your point.

ALLISON: Okay.

CONAN: People would point out that Dublin is different from...

ALLISON: That's my point. And then the other thing that I have...

CONAN: ...darkest(ph) Tipperary, but, you know - yeah, right.

ALLISON: Right. Well, there other thing I'd like to say is, I was raised as a liberal Christian in the '80s, and I didn't know who Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson were. But every single time I told people that my family went to church, they were all, like, oh, my gosh. Does that mean that, you know, your dad is going to, like, walk himself in a tower and start asking people for money?

So I don't think that religious fundamentalism is a dirty little secret that Islam has. I think that the real rise of religious fundamentalism has swept religions across the globe: Buddhism and Judaism and Christianity. And that it's not something that, like, just Muslims need to confront because, honestly, if you talk to what I would call fundamentalist Christians, I don't think that the view that they have on, like, the rights of women are anymore puritanical than puritanical Muslims.

CONAN: I think you meant any less puritanical.

ALLISON: (Unintelligible)

CONAN: But, yes. Okay. I got your point.

Ms. NOMANI: Allison - I had - if I could just ask Allison a quick question.

CONAN: Quickly.

Ms. NOMANI: Do you guys have battles, for example, over potluck dinners in the community, on how you can actually organize them, you know? (Unintelligible) about that.

ALLISON: Oh, yeah, because everyone has a different idea about how they used to do it. And then Muslims countries have organized really differently because everybody eats at home or, you know, together, not at the mosque.

Ms. NOMANI: Like today, you have battles over whether the women and men can be in the same room?

ALLISON: Not at the one that I'm at now, but I have lived in communities where that was an issue. Yeah. And, like, can you eat as a family? But the other thing that comes up with those issues a lot is a lot of the space issues because a lot of the mosques aren't purpose built.

Ms. NOMANI: So nearly not that...

ALLISON: So not only that can women and men be in the same room, but a lot of times it comes down to who's going to eat outside.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ALLISON: Who's going to eat in the rain, in the tent.

Ms. NOMANI: Right. Because I brought that up...

CONAN: Yeah.

ALLISON: Are we going to - like...

Ms. NOMANI: I brought up the issue of the potluck dinners because that's just one little example of this, you know, phenomenon that we have in American culture that's pretty, you know, normal. And yet inside of our Muslim communities it is so problematic oftentimes. There was a big battle in my mosque at Morgantown, because one of the American converts wanted to just have a dinner where the families would meet together.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. NOMANI: But then the students that came from Saudi Arabia, where they had known this strict gender segregation, just went ballistic. And they screamed and yelled and we didn't have our potluck dinner.

CONAN: All right. Well...

Prof. RASHID: Well, I think Allison also hints something else, which is the way we overemphasize places of worship as part of our identity. So if you look at the Muslim American community - you know, you have somebody like - a woman like Dr. Ingrid Mattson who heads up the Islamic Society of North America, Zeba Iqbal, who's the national director for the Council for American Muslim -Advancement of Muslim Professionals, Willow Wilson, who's got a wonderful new autobiography out. So, you know, there all these other spaces where we are thought leaders and we are culture leaders. In other words, there are places Muslims live besides the mosque, where I think we're having a really important impact, and where we are expressing these other interpretations of our faith.

CONAN: Hussein Rashid, thank you very much for your time today. Hussein Rashid, a visiting professor of religion at Hofstra University. We'd also like to thank Asra Nomani who's a contributor to The Daily Beast. We thank you both very much for your time.

Prof. RASHID: Thank you.

Ms. NOMANI: Thank you. And I invite everybody, please, to go to their local mosque.

CONAN: Joining us now by phone is Imam Mohammad Hamad, president and imam of the Islamic Society of Sheboygan in Wisconsin. And I know you've been patient to hang on the line. We appreciate your time.

Imam MOHAMMAD HAMAD (President, Islamic Society of Sheboygan): Thank you so much, you know, Neal, you know, for inviting me in your show.

CONAN: I know that your mosque was among those that faced opposition in its planning stages. Can you give us an idea of what happened?

Imam HAMAD: Yes. In the planning stages, you know, Neal, we have to have - to change, you know, the zoning from highway commercial to being commercial. And we have this town hall meeting. And in the town hall meeting, some people, you know, there is some concern. As I heard, you know, I mentioned, you know - as some of the guests, you know, they mentioned that the concern was the community around the mosque. And I see it from a standpoint - from a point that when you see this concern rise, you see the importance of a Muslim center, you know, to help to bridge, you know, this gap between communities. And so, we went through a couple of town hall meeting. People would call us, you know, like we are setting up terrorist training camp and...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Imam HAMAD: ...that we have to work, you know, some translator inside the mosque to see what they're saying. And such kind of thing, you know, which is we did not anticipate, you know, in the process.

CONAN: And having been through the process, what lessons have you learned?

Imam HAMAD: We learned that, you know, in the end we are a nation of law and the Constitution. And then, any victory, you know, in this method, you know, is not a victory for the group, above, you know, other group. It's a victory for our Constitution. Our Constitution grant exactly, you know, the right to freedom for every minority, every religious group in this country.

CONAN: I wonder, if you would bear with me as I offer an analogy. Certainly, sometimes within your religious community, the mosques, the prayer center has to be a site of well religious ritual. And other times, though, would it be accurate to say that an Islamic center needs to be like a membrane through which members of your community pass through into the broader community of Sheboygan; and through which the broader community Sheboygan can pass through and see what's going on inside your community?

Imam HAMAD: Our, you know, center, you know, just simply - you know, it's an education center for our kids, so when we grow up, we grow with Islamic value. They will not be scared from the - from who they are. Our, you know, center is just the same as any center for Catholic, for Buddhist and for Jewish. It's a center, you know, for - education center of religious ceremony. And we have the same activity that's going on, you know, in any, you know, community, in any religious community we have. It's the same in the mosque.

CONAN: We're talking with Imam Mohammad Hamad about the mosque he is in charge of or he helps run in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And we have this email from Mariamir(ph), who writes: thank you for today's topic of discussion. This is what's going on in our Masjid in Tucson, Arizona. We've had a free public health care day event for the greater community of Tucson, recently. We're having community iftars - those are dinners - to break the fast during this month of Ramadan. We're assisting refugees from various countries, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, et cetera, along with major refugee associations. We're a small community of families and students who are professionals in medicine, engineering, teaching careers amongst many other worthy professions. Tucson is our home. Just out of curiosity, when was the last time you visited a Masjid? Neal, you're welcome to fast - break fast with us anytime.

And I wonder, Imam Hamad, does that sound familiar to - as to what's going on in your center?

Imam HAMAD: Yes, it's the same thing, you know, we do. We do - especially, this is a blessed month for us, Ramadan, and many of the community there are gathering, you know? And there's a social activity and - plus the prayers. Plus, they break the fast together, you know, during this month. And we do the same, you know, the same thing, you know? There is many, you know, family, they are - and held especially in this time, you know, where a lot of people there have lost their jobs. There is a social activity to interact, you know, with them. They also - as one of the guests, you know, say that, you know, we are coming from different, you know, nationality and different country, and they started knowing each other, you know?

And at the same time, we see, you know, and hear most of the comments, the negative comments comes to the Muslim community, from people to say that I heard, I read on the Internet, somebody told me. And we see the most positive comment comes from people that say that I interact with those people. I visited these countries, and we see (unintelligible) nice thing to say about them. So people know they have to clear this fear from their mind and to make the step to visit us and to see that, you know, we are this or this. And they had to -when they interact with us, I'm sure, you know, that their view of Islam and Muslim centers will be changed.

CONAN: Imam Hamad, thank you very much for your time.

Imam HAMAD: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Mohammad Hamad is the president and imam of the Islamic Society of Sheboygan and joined us on the line from his office in Wisconsin.

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