I have just returned from spending two weeks in Germany going to mosques, talking to young Muslims and Imams and sitting in trains. Most impressive, and also demanding for me, was a weekend I spent in a mosque in order to follow a three-day long seminar. Before I registered for the seminar, I introduced myself via an e-mail to the organizers as a researcher and asked whether it would be possible for me to sleep in the mosque. And, as I have experienced so many times before, I was welcomed in a friendly and open way. My aim was to see how it is to merge a whole weekend into lectures, discussions and prayer. Since I do not cover my head, I somehow “look German” and do not pray, I was quickly spotted by the women who came forward to ask me questions about what I was doing there and what my own belief was. While it was quite easy to answer the first question, I found it as usually quite difficult to state my own beliefs in a coherent and clear way. And, also as usually, one prevailing question was: What hinders you to accept Islam? Another question I find difficult to react to. Not so much because I am not able to state a reason but because I do not want to be misunderstood: The fact that I have not converted to Islam does not mean that I think everybody else who is a Muslim has got it totally wrong. Very often it is conceived as a zero-sum game: If you do not accept Islam as your religion, you think it is wrong, not only for yourself but in general. It is difficult to elude this notion of all or nothing.
However, this time I was struck by an incident which brought the question of mosques, outsiders and trust to the forefront.
Apart from me there was another woman present (among a crowd of around 200, at times 300) who apparently was not a Muslim. She told me and everybody else that she was searching for meaning and religion and that she was interested in Islam. Let’s call her Tina. We talked from time to time and she occasionally asked me questions about Islam and some Arabic words she did not understand. I felt uneasy to answer questions about Islam since I am not a Muslim and cannot appreciate the spiritual and religious dimensions as a Muslim can. We also slept next to each other. One thing caught my attention: Tina took a lot of notes, not only during the lectures as many other women did but also during the lecture-free time. I thought to myself that she might be colleague, a researcher who had decided not to reveal her identity.
On Saturday afternoon, we were both asked during a lecture to come to the office of the women’s section of the mosque. Present were two women from the organizing team, a female representative of the mosque’s steering committee and a quite agitated woman I had briefly talked to the day before. Tina and me were confronted with the question “What are you doing here?”. I wanted to answer but the women focused first of all on Tina. She started to explain that she was searching for meaning etc. She was asked why she had taken pictures and for which newspaper she was working. Tina actually had brought a camera in. She told everybody that she just got the camera and loved photography. I had not seen her actually taking pictures. But apparently she had. Some women had confronted her before to erase pictures she had taken covertly from children and praying women. Some women had then complained to the organizers about her.
The agitated woman testified that she had talked to Tina extensively about Islam and that Tina had asked strange questions. That was how she got alerted. At this point the situation got quite tensed and I wanted to help Tina. However, when she took her ID from her wallet in order to identify herself, I could see her press card. She maintained that she used to work as a reporter until a month ago but that she was in the mosque for personal reasons. The women demanded to see whether she had any pictures left on the camera. Tina unpacked her camera when the agitated woman shrieked: “She is trying to hide a memory card in her pockets!” From this point on, nobody believed her anymore. I did not really know what to feel: The women were clearly angry and apparently rightfully so. Tina was on the verge of crying.
I decided that at this point it was most important to clear myself from the allegations because I wanted to stay to listen to rest of the lectures. I clarified my identity, told the women that I had asked for permission before registering for the seminar and that I had been at this mosque in 2008 when I also visit the mosque as a university lecturer with a group of international student to meet the imam. One of the woman said that she recognized me. I was “absolved” and left the office and talked to some women who had noticed the commotion going on in the office.
Meanwhile the situation escalated to the point that the police was called in order to take Tina out of the mosque and to make sure that she would not publish anything based on the conversations with the women in the mosque. The women told me later on that they had read Tina’s notes and found that she had misrepresented the community. For example, she had noted down that women were only allowed to eat after the man had finished eating. However, the man, who did all the cooking during the weekend, first carried away the pots with their food to the main mosque where the men where eating before the women entered the cafeteria where we ate. The cafeteria and the kitchen are one room in this mosque. Due to the exigencies of gender segregation the men were in general not supposed to be in the cafeteria while the women were there. I am not sure whether Tina misunderstood the arrangement or was responding to her own ideas about the community when wrongly portraying the eating procedure. The police came, talked to the women who had talked to Tina and accompanied Tina outside.
This incident brought my precarious position to my attention: as a non-Muslim researcher in a setting where the relations between the Muslim local community on the one hand and the authorities, the media and the broader public on the other hand become increasingly polarized. The women told my that in the last years several journalists had tried to “sneak in”. At the beginning of that seminar they “uncovered” a journalist who was herself a hijab-wearing Muslima. They told her that she could not stay also she was Muslim. In general, they do not accept journalist inside the mosque during prayer or other events any more due to, as they say, to purposefully misrepresenting and hateful coverage they had suffered from. However, they are still willing to give interviews in general.
I could not help thinking about what conclusions the women would have drawn from my notes if they had read them. Most of my notes were on the content of the lectures. However, as a researcher and outsider, you are also interested in reactions and interactions of people. For example, I jotted down some phrases that I kept hearing from the women like “I am here to strengthen my imam”. Hearing this phrase so often I thought that this must be very important to the women. Or I noted down what kind of questions the participants asked the lecturers because this is an indication for me as to what keeps young Muslims busy and what is on their minds. After the seminar, I read through my notes with the intention to find anything that might be seen as “negative” or “pejorative” by the Muslims who participated in the seminar. I could not find anything. However, I would still feel very uneasy to share my notes with anybody because something that I think to be quite innocent can be quite sensitive for others.
As for Tina, I am still not sure about her. I saw her crying and shivering in the office, quite the opposite of the hard-nosed undercover journalist. But either way, she failed to respect the dignity and intimacy of the mosque as a place of worship. Taking close-up pictures of people in this kind of setting without asking them is a no go.