Monday, August 20, 2012

My Visit to the Islamic Cultural Center of New York

I am a student in Class 18 of the Humanist Institute, and during our recent New York meeting, we took a field trip to the Islamic Cultural Center of New York where we we able to observe afternoon prayers and engage in a question and answer session with Imam Omar Abu Namous. The trip and the conversation with the Imam was very educational.

Let me discuss the Cultural Center itself, or at least what I saw of it and learned of it on my trip. The Center is located in Manhattan, at 97th St and 3rd Avenue, and is a small complex of buildings built around an impressive domed mosque and a traditional minaret. In addition to the mosque there is a full time school for children that serves about thirty children on weekdays and weekend religious instruction for children who go to public or other private schools that serves about 400 children.

Upon entering the mosque our group of eight students and two mentors removed our shoes, and the three women in our group donned headscarves. We were escorted upstairs to the third floor, beneath the dome. Given the Islamic prohibition of replicating natural forms in artwork, the inside of the mosque seems very spare and plain to my eyes. Design, in the form of architecture and patterns on the carpeting is geometric, not representational, and some of the design work was quite intricate. Though I have an appreciation for domes in architecture, and was impressed by the building, the lack of vibrant colors and representational art made the experience seem sterile to me.

Omar Abu Namous
We were left alone in this large imposing space until being greeted by a kindly cleric in full robes who introduced himself quickly and with a thick accent so it took some Internet searching after our visit to determine that we had met Imam Omar Abu Namous, the man currently in charge of what is perhaps the most influential and politically charged mosque in the United States.

The video appended to the end of this piece will give you a pretty good idea of the man and his public persona, and it was his public persona that we encountered on our visit. (I also recommend the New York Times article on the Imam.) In a very short space of time I was convinced that Imam Namous was interested in accomplishing two goals during our visit: Portray Islam and American Muslims as being ordinary, middle of the road religious Americans uninterested in terrorism, and to defend the tenets of Islam as it applies in the public sphere. He was not interested in dialogue, or in having his beliefs challenged. The Imam spoke to us with some condescension, as a grandparent might speak to a child, with delightful, cheery laughter that seemed somewhat affected.

I did not record the conversation, so the flow of the subjects and the give and take of the questions and answers is lost to me, but several interactions stand out in my mind. In no particular order I will lay out some of the more interesting, or odd, bits of the conversation.

At one point the Imam was asked about the compatibility of Islam and Science. Is modern Islam open to discoveries in science that might in some way contradict the Koran, for instance? The Imam was quite clear on this point: There is no problem of Islam and Science being incompatible. He held two fingers together indicating that Science and Islam were as one, in his view. The question was then asked, So Islam accepts Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection? The Imam answered, No, Muslims do not accept evolution. A fish may change it's nature slightly, but it can not become another animal. Apparently, Science and Islam are completely compatible until Science disagrees with Islam, then it can no longer be considered Science.

At another point the Imam told a story about Adam and Eve that was so weird it just has to be written here. None of us in attendance, and we are a well read group with a large amount of experience and reading on religion, had ever heard this story before.

Adam, it should be remembered from the Bible, was created in God's image. Eve was created, cloned actually, from Adam's rib, or more specifically a white bone cell from Adam's rib. It is because Eve was created from a white bone cell that she is a white woman. Adam, you see, was a black man. All the shades of humanity descended from the two original progenitors have a coloration somewhere between black and white depending on how much we take after either. I found this story astounding, and rife with psychological implications.

To the extent that the Imam wanted to assure us, without so much as saying so, that Muslims are peaceful and are not terrorists, he was successful. His conservative, patriarchal values and weird ideas on science and mythology would not be out of place among Catholic priests and Orthodox Jewish rabbis. He holds to a general, second class view of women and feels that homosexuality is a sin. In fact, he said that homosexuals should quit, comparing the practice to smoking cigarettes or abusing illegal drugs. The idea that homosexuality might be a choice or an addiction would not be an unusual view among evangelical Christians.

Conservative Catholics are cozying up to conservative evangelicals and Mormons in this country in furtherance of common political and social goals. Imam Namous could easily ally himself with these efforts. The phrase Judeo-Christian might one day be expanded to include Muslims as well, as in Islamo-Judeo-Christian values. In fact, it might be inevitable. In a brief discussion about democracy, which turns out to be an Islamic value, we were told that Muslims should not vote for a presidential candidate who supports gay rights. Though he did not say so in so many words, Imam Namous strongly encouraged us to vote for Romney over Obama. Talk about voting against your own self-interest.

I came away from the experience of visiting the Islamic Cultural Center with the same feeling I have whenever I interact with those people and institutions that sport a conservative religious and political ideology. I feel a sadness at the waste of human potential that these ideologies impose. Women being relegated to second tier status, LGBT people unable to actualize themselves fully as sexual beings, children being taught "science" in religious schools where the subject has been warped and debased, and efforts and treasures being committed to political and social causes that limit and retard society's progress and freedom rather than expand and encourage it are just some of the terrible results we all suffer.

Conservative, mainstream Islam, as represented by the Islamic Cultural Center of New York and Imam Namous is no worse than any other conservative religious institution in the United States, unfortunately, it is also no better.


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  2. Great summary Steve, although I think it's important to add the Imam's explanation of why Islam is sometimes misunderstood by Americans. In his view it is because there are people, such as pornographers, whose economic interests run counter to Islam. So they set off bombs and blame the attacks on Muslims, hoping to turn the tide against Islam. I have a hard time seeing this as an honest expression of conservative ideology. I see it as lying, and it's despicable.

  3. There's already a catch all word that encapsulates all of Judaism, Christianity and Islam - they are all Abrahamic religions.

    Yep - or monotheists. It's actually a fairly new concept in the world view. Prior we had all the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, which morphed into Abrahamic Judaism. And in some parts of the world they don't worship a god at all, or have so many gods it's hard to keep track.

  4. Chris, I agree completely, and the only reason I didn't bring that up is because in writing this out this morning I completely forgot about it. In truth, Namous must be aware that he is lying, and even if he lies for political or religious reasons (the so-called "pious lie") it's still a lie. But I saw the lie as being politically motivated, and in essence no worse than what I hear from conservative religious leaders of other faiths and ideologies. The Catholics deny the efficacy of condoms, condemning millions to terrible, preventable deaths, Evangelicals pushed Uganda into trying to have the death penalty for homosexuality, and hard-line Jews continue to support West Bank occupation. And they all lie to justify these behaviors.

    Truthspew: That's a great point, and I do sometimes hear people use the term Abrahamic to describe a unified idea of Western morality. I think we will see more of this in the future as the conservatives in all these religions start to make common cause on certain political issues. Another interesting thing Namous said in reference to this, he indicated that Buddha might have been a prophet like Jesus, Abraham or Mohammad. This shows that he might be able to make common cause with conservative right wing Buddhists as well.

  5. Excellent as always! I like that you extend your original thoughts by responding to comments. I like the idea of putting your ideas out there and making this, for example, as a kind of work-in-process.