Today I visited the Islamic Society of Michiana's mosque in South Bend, Indiana for Friday prayers. I was required to go for a class in world religions and, for some time, had planned to visit on this particular Friday . Given the recent Fort Hood shooting, I suspected this would be no ordinary visit.
I entered as a man, who I assume was the imam, had just begun his "English Talk", the equivalent of a sermon. The subject was the Festival of Eid, which commemorates Abraham's sacrifice of his son, that Muslims will soon celebrate. The talk was basically a list of dos and don'ts for celebrating the festival in a way that would bring the worshiper closer to God. For example, actually sacrificing a goat, as opposed to paying to have one sacrificed somewhere else for you, was recommended.
As the Eid talk was winding down I thought that perhaps the speaker would let the Fort Hood incident pass without mention, but it turned out his homily had a part II. For the speaker, the incident was essentially a PR disaster, and he felt that the media, especially Fox News, had used it as an opportunity to present Muslims in a negative way. He recommended community involvement as a way to remedy this problem, suggesting involvement with a soup kitchen or a donation to the Islamic Society of North America's fund for the victims' families. He concluded by reminding his congregation that even though America is humiliating and killing Muslims overseas, America is the place they have chosen to build their children's future, and therefore they need to support America.
Then mentioning his fears of a backlash against Muslims, the speaker invited a worshiper, whom he described as a NRA member and knowledgeable about self-defense, to the podium explain how Muslims can defend themselves if attacked. The man began by describing the tactical capabilities of the various firearms. It eventually became clear that he was concerned about someone trying to carry out a mass shooting similar to the Fort Hood shooting in their Mosque. If this were to happen, he recommended that those farther away from the shooter and able to do so flee and that those closer and not able to flee rush the shooter, "sucker punch" him, and not stop until he is down.
During this self-defense talk several men in the back near where I was sitting began talking among themselves and heckling the man, telling him they had heard enough. When that man was done, another man immediately got behind the podium and made a statement clearly distancing their Islam from the actions of Nidal Hasan and clarifying that Hasan was not following Islam in doing what he did. The men who had been heckling during the self-defense talk, indicated that they supported these statements.
After this it was time for prayers. A man in the front chanted the call to prayer, and then everyone moved forward and stood on the prayer carpet, all facing the same direction. I stood throughout the prayer as a sign of respect.
During the prayer the worshipers bowed lower and lower, until they were totally prostrated, symbolizing total submission to God. The prayer is chanted in a minor key, and the beautiful music gave me a sense of mourning for the Muslim people. It was obvious that this community was dealing with a lot of pain through humiliation brought on them by the oppression of their people overseas and compounded by the horrific actions of one of their own at home. During the prayer I was profoundly moved and prayed that God would reveal his loving character to the Muslim people.
It seems to me that the Muslim community in North America is experiencing what Seventh-day Adventists experienced to a lesser degree during the events caused by David Koresh in 1993, when public exposure of violence and wrongdoing forced our church to face the dark side of our anti-American, apocalyptic teachings. While we quickly pointed out that David Koresh was not currently an Adventist and tried to minimize his connection to our church, the fact remains the he and almost all the adults in his compound were ex-Adventists. Every religion has this dark side, the question is how to deal with it.
It seems to me that the Muslim community in North America needs find a way of expressing a constructive critique of the West that doesn't degenerate into extremism. Community involvement and statements denouncing Hasan are PR band-aids that ignore the real issue of Islam's dark side, extremism. And publicly planing for the very unlikely event of a mass shooting only increases the sense of fear that results in extremism. On the other hand, I doubt that Muslim Americans will have the space to address these issues until the media spotlight currently trained on their community moves on to the next story.
Although I did not appreciate the self-defense talk (I feel that adolescent male fantasies of a heroic charge at a deranged gunman have nothing to do with the worship of God.), I enjoyed my visit to the mosque. Of all the non-Christian worship services I have attended, this was the one where I felt closest to God, probably because there was an extended period of time when I could simply pray. My only regret was that I had to leave soon after the service, during the time after prayers. Before I left no one approached me for conversation.