This 4th of July I celebrated America's Independence with Pastor Rick Warren, Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), and 45,000 Muslims. We were together in Washington, D.C. as a part of the Islamic Society of North America's (ISNA) annual convention. The Washington Convention Center came alive with halal food stands, people praying on the carpets, and entire families in their colorful regional Islamic dress--all a stone's throw away from the 4th of July fireworks spectacular going on at the National Mall.
The convention's theme "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" was a call for pluralism and bridge-building between different faith communities in the US, symbolized by ISNA's selection of perhaps America's top Christian leader as the keynote speaker. In his speech in a cavernous hall Warren appealed for Muslims and Christians to work together to solve common problems which he said was possible without "compromising my convictions or your convictions."
Warren's presence wasn't the only thing contributing to the evangelical-like atmosphere of the assembly hall. The sound system, giant video screens, and slick mass production values recalled America's Protestant mega-Churches. Warren's presence created a lot of interest but the real buzz among the convention crowd was reserved for superstar converts to Islam like Sheikh Hamza Yusuf--perhaps Warren's equivalent in the American Muslim community--and Yusuf Islam.
I was at ISNA for the premiere of a film I made with Ambassador Akbar Ahmed of American University and a team of young Americans called Journey into America. The film depicts a nine month journey we took to over seventy five cities and one hundred mosques to study how Muslims were fitting into American society and to promote better understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. Our film was featured as the special event at the Islamic Film Festival.
As I walked around with Ambassador Ahmed many people embraced and greeted him with the traditional Arabic greeting salamalekum, which means "peace be upon you." This warmth was immediately extended to me when they saw us together. Even when I was alone and people asked who I was all I had to say was that I was with Ambassador Ahmed and doors would open. I felt very privileged as a young American to have access to a community that so many of my countrymen know so little about. That is why Ambassador Ahmed called our team the "best Ambassadors for America to the Muslim world" when he introduced the film.
Our film's world premiere went very well. The theater was packed to capacity and we had to turn over 400 people away at the door. I had been tense for the last few weeks worrying how the audience would respond to the film, but everyone was enthusiastic, laughing and expressing shock at all the right parts. It was great to have some of the stars of the film that we had interviewed across the country and well as our team's parents and friends lending their support.
On the panel afterward were ISNA's president Dr. Ingrid Mattson, Imam Mohamed Magid of the Northern Virginia ADAMS center, Rabbi Bruce Lustig of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, Al Jazeera's Riz Khan, and Ambassador Ahmed.
All the panelists praised the film as an important step to improving relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in the US. Riz Khan had already interviewed the entire team on Al Jazeera and was so enthusiastic he said he wished to show it as a three part series on his network. Both Dr. Matteson and Rabbi Lustig complimented the producer on the originality of the concept and the technique and invited the film to be shown under the auspices of their respective organizations. They said it should be compulsory viewing for every American wishing to understand Muslims, and vice versa. Imam Magid praised one scene in the film in particular where we visit a statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia containing a tablet which reads "Religious Freedom, 1786 - God, Jehovah, Brahma, Atma, Ra, Allah." The fact that Jefferson had included "Allah" surprised the imam and reinforced the convention's theme of American pluralism and interfaith dialogue.
Yet despite the inclusive theme, our movie event was the only place where I saw non-Muslims. I had even accompanied Ambassador Ahmed to the highest gathering of the VIP delegates and there was not a single non-Muslim there apart for me and members of our team. I am unsure if this was due to ISNA's failure to make a serious attempt to bring mainstream America to their 4th of July convention or of Americans' disinterest or hostility to Islam. Despite Warren's star power, for example, there was not one mainstream American media outlet at the opening press conference. This meant that both Muslims and non-Muslims missed a golden opportunity to talk and interact with each other in the nation's capital.
The goal of our film and the work we've been doing at American University is to improve dialogue and communication between ethnic and religious groups in the US, which is what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they created this country 233 years ago. Witnessing the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims even at a major Washington, D.C. convention dedicated to pluralism means we still have much work to do.
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