San Francisco is one of the most “progressive” (read: liberal) cities in the US. And, as this NY Times article describes, there’s a movement there to modernize Islam, at least in a small way.
As part of renovations to the Darussalam mosque in San Francisco last fall, a wall separating the women worshippers from the men was demolished and not reconstructed. This was the result of a campaign by what the Times calls “a small if determined band of North American Muslims, mostly younger women,” to change practices they feel are discriminatory, and not a necessary part of Islam.
The women point to the fact that the tradition of separation is a relatively recent one, the result of Wahabism’s ascendance in 18th-century Saudi Arabia. Wahabism is, of course, the extremely strict sect of Islam, still based in Saudi Arabia, responsible for much of the growth of what might be called fundamentalist Islam, and to which many jihadis, including Osama Bin Laden, ascribe.
It’s a commonplace to say that Islam needs a reformation; but in fact, technically, Wahabism was a reformation. But let’s not get so technical; I think what is meant is that Islam needs a reforming and modernizing movement–as in, for example, Reform Judaism. And of course, anyone who is aware of Reform Judaism knows that one of its changes was exactly the one that has occurred in the Darussalam mosque: the mixing of men and women in worship.
Reform Judaism was a product of the Enlightenment and the relative assimilation and freedom afforded Jews in 18th century Germany (hmmm, same century as Wahabism, different direction). We tend to associate Germany and Jews with the later horrific events of the Holocaust, so its easy to forget that–as far as human and civil rights for Jews went–Germany was probably the most “enlightened” country in the world in the 18th century. And it was that freedom that allowed and fostered the changes and modernizations resulting in the birth of reform Judaism.
I’m not equating Judaism with Islam; there are tremendous differences. But if Islam requires reform–and I believe it does–it stands to reason that reform would begin in the climate of the freedoms afforded by a Western country such as the US or Canada.
Of course, as the Times article states, reform and change can cause backlash and retrenchment. And there isn’t much cross-fertilization between what happens in a mosque in the US and what happens in mosques in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan.
But it’s still an encouraging sign that this was allowed to go forward. And the spread of such changes in the Moslem third world, not just in the West, is one of the possible benefits of events such as the Iraq war, and increasing freedom in that country. A backlash is possible, but so is a ripple effect.
The tearing down of the wall in the Darussalam mosque is a small change, it’s true. It may not even rise to the level of a pebble being dropped in a lake; perhaps, instead, a tiny grain of sand. But even a grain of sand can cause ripples.