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Building Bridges at the U.S. Embassy in London

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If there is one person in the world today that could ease the conflict between America and the Muslim world, it is Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the former high commissioner of Pakistan to the U.K. and current Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic studies at American University. On Nov. 28, he was invited to screen his documentary, "Journey into America," at the U.S. Embassy in London, in which he was introduced as "one of the greatest scholars of Islam in the world today" by Minister Barbara Stephenson, the former U.S. Ambassador to Panama. In attendance was the who's who of Britain's Muslim community, among them Lord Gulam Noon, a British businessman from Mumbai, and Imam Qasim Rashid Ahmad, who had founded IQRA television, one of the U.K.'s leading television stations for Muslims.

Ambassador Ahmed's "Journey into America," which I had the privilege of directing, documents our travels across the length and breadth of the U.S. For more than a year, we traveled to more than 75 cities, visited more than 100 mosques, and talked to thousands of Muslims and non-Muslims. We discussed America's relationship to Islam with intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Hamza Yusuf, and politicians like Congressman Keith Ellison and former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff. We also discussed the nature of American identity with people from the roughest parts of Detroit, Mich., and with people in corporate boardrooms of Texas; with descendants of Muslim slaves on Sapelo Island, Ga., and in the sacred groves of the Mormon community in Palmyra, N.Y.

One of the first points that the audience picked up on was the diversity of Ambassador Ahmed's team, which was comprised of largely young non-Muslim Americans. Abid Hussain, an employee of the Arts Council of England, reflected upon the importance of the team when he stated that "Journey into America" changed his perception of America by showing him that there were indeed "advocates for the Muslim experience within the non-Muslim community." For Hussain, "Journey into America" also confirmed the importance of "having conversations and brokering relationships, as we can only distinguish between fact and fiction through dialogue with the other."

For other members of the audience, "Journey into America" cut straight through much of the pseudo-intellectual drivel of the post-9/11 era. The scene when the team went to Arlington National Cemetery to visit the gravestones of Muslim American soldiers, who died in the Iraq War, was particularly symbolic for one Muslim Metropolitan police officer. He said that he was able to relate to this scene on a deeper personal level: "When people see me in the street there are all sorts of stereotypes that are invoked," he said. "Sometimes I'm called names such as terrorist or bin Laden. As someone who has been a police officer working in counter terrorism and subject to the risks that we face, in particular as Muslim officers, this is particularly difficult to swallow." The officer continued: "By actually meeting people -- both Muslim and non-Muslim -- and sharing their views and experiences, you get an idea of how people actually feel opposed to the rather dangerous and frightening perception created post 9/11."

Another scene in "Journey into America" -- our visit to Arab, Ala. -- followed one of our female team members, who was dressed in traditional Islamic clothing, as she interacted with the locals. Though they were unsure of who she was or where she came from, the people of Arab were not hostile and, in fact, were quite friendly. For Laura Martin, an American student at the University of Edinburgh, the Arab scene was one of many in "Journey into America" that could help "create a framework upon which to build a necessary and critical dialogue both in reference to Muslims as well as addressing our American perceptions." The dialogue between Americans and Muslims must start somewhere, Martin added. "This film is a good starting point."

Given my experience as the director of "Journey into America," I am in a unique position to initiate the dialogue that Martin yearns for. For this reason I introduced to the audience my new One Film 9/11 interfaith initiative, which was created on Sept. 12, 2012. The goal of One Film 9/11 is to use "Journey into America" to counter the recently released anti-Muslim film, "The Innocence of Muslims," which depicted the Prophet Muhammad as, among many things, a child rapist and mass murderer. One Film 9/11 has the aim of building bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims by screening "Journey into America" around the Muslim and non-Muslim world on Sept. 11, 2013. To help drive One Film 9/11, I have created a blog and Facebook profile, so others can get involved and help us build bridges.

The importance of One Film 9/11's use of film and social media was echoed by Abid Hussain, who said that by combining these two resources, we can establish "a really powerful means to shaping and changing viewpoints." Hussain also stressed that One Film 9/11 can present "a counter narrative, which is critical during difficult and challenging political times where so many people form views not through direct interaction but through what they see and hear through the media."

In a world where ideologically driven commentators, self-interested politicians and religious fanatics fan the flames of misunderstanding, One Film 9/11 can serve as another means of building bridges between Americans and Muslims worldwide.