February 04, 2017

Where Church and State Collide

Assalamu Alaikumالسلام عليكم

Or, as we say in Catholic church services: "Peace be with you." (And also with you.)

After expanding my horizons a bit over the last few years, I've realized that I'm a big fan of Islamic art. I quite enjoy visiting mosques, though I was raised Catholic and find myself without prayer these days. And I've had the time of my life traveling to two different Muslim countries (Morocco and Tunisia).

Thankfully, it turns out I don't have to hop a plane to North Africa or the Middle East to visit one—because there's a big one in Culver City that accepts visitors of all faiths.

It's a little complicated, though, because lots of non-Muslims don't feel so comfortable with this mosque in a major LA suburb. Maybe that's because it was initially bankrolled by Saudi Arabia—specifically, $8 million to open it in 1998, donated by the (now late) Saudi King Fahd and his son, Crown Prince Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz (though the mosque no longer receives funds from overseas—instead sustained by donations from its congregants).

And a recently declassified report from the FBI identified it as a site of "extremist-related activity both before and after September 11." (Suspiciously, the mildly redacted document has been moved from its original file location on the U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence website.)

And, it's true that 15 of the 19 terrorists associated with the 9/11 attacks hailed from Saudi Arabia.

It's possible one or more of them may have attended the Culver City mosque for whatever reason at any point during their time on the West Coast.

But then again, Saudi Arabia wasn't included in the recent so-called "Muslim Ban."

But Saudis have had some troubles crossing our borders in the past—before the current presidential administration, that is. In 2003, the State Department wouldn't let Saudi diplomat Fahad al Thumairy (a high-ranking member of the clergy at the mosque) back into the country.

Somehow, though, the King Fahad Mosque has continued to thrive—and, by all appearances, keep the peace.

That's no easy task, since all Muslims aren't the same. In fact, there are two major denominations of Islam—and they don't always get along with each other very well.

But somehow, surrounded by these hand-painted, patterned tiles...

...that are inscribed with calligraphy...

...and marble walls...

......under that 72-foot minaret...

...and a dome so typical of Islamic architecture...

...the two factions can come together to face the holy city of Mecca (which happens to be in Saudi Arabia) in prayer.

On the one hand, you have the Sunnis—the majority population of Muslims who follow the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as carried on by the man he deemed his successor.

On the other side of the divide, you've got the minority Shiites (a.k.a. Shia), who claim that the successor should have been a relative of Muhammad—and, judging by blood lines, they've got a certain divine right to accession in the Islamic religion. But Muhammad didn't select one of his relatives before he died back in the year 632 A.D.; so, in practice, his descendants have no power.

Although the Culver City mosque is primarily Sunni-leaning, you can find both Sunni and Shiite Muslims together facing Mecca and praying in its 63,000 square feet of prayer space.

Elsewhere in the world, you'll find most of the Shia in Iran and Iraq. But the Shia have had a hard time uniting even just with each other—instead, splitting off into three different sects. And, as I said, it's complicated—because, judging on religious denomination alone, there's no clear way to differentiate the "good guys" from the "bad guys."

And whenever the majority—in this case, the Sunnis—is given absolute power without a system of checks and balances, disaster is practically inevitable. Once seen as loving, peace-making people, the Sunnis are now better-known for their militant faction (the minority within the majority faith) that has given rise to ISIS.

In Iraq and Syria (the last "I" and "S" in ISIS), dissent has become deadly. The Islamic State seized large portions of both countries and have made enemies out of just about everybody.

Sunnis are executing Shia based on faith alone (under the assumption that the Shia are unbelievers). But plenty of Sunnis have died as a result of the attacks, too, despite being on the "right" side of the argument.

Sometimes it seems like these radicals are just trying to bring on the apocalypse. They're trying to tear everything down and start anew. They're ready to blow up whatever they need to, no matter who gets hurt in the process. The casualties are "a small price to pay" for the larger goal at hand.

Unfortunately, the Islamic State is not so much a religious group as a militia. It's a political and military movement, not a religious one.

But it leverages religion to make a point.

The King Fahad Mosque has been reported to "reject Western values." Maybe that's because it encourages those who walk through its doors to cover up a little more than we Californians are used to. Or maybe it's because you're asked to remove your shoes before entering and, if you're a woman, to head upstairs for your own distraction-free "safe space" for prayer, far from the male gaze.

Or maybe it's because you may break bread and participate in interfaith services at the mosque, no matter how you pray, who you pray to, or what you think of Muslims. You are welcome there all the same.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Pico-Union Project, From Temple to Church to Mosque
Photo Essay: Aimee's Castle on the Lake

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