As I sat in the American University class "Dialogue or Clash of Civilizations", taught by Akbar Ahmed, American University's Chair of Islamic Studies, little did I know that four years later I would be completing and starring in a major motion picture. This July 4th at 9 PM the film Journey into America will premiere at the Washington DC Convention Center as a part of the Islamic Film Festival at the Islamic Society of North America's (ISNA) annual convention.
The film is the result of an unprecedented nine-month trip across the United States headed by Professor Akbar Ahmed. Unlike other studies that rely on poll data and phone conversations, here our team visited over 75 cities and over 100 mosques and met Muslims in their homes.
The trip stemmed from a previous trip we took to the Muslim world for the book Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization in which our team journeyed to nine countries and met the whole range of society from students to politicians like former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and the late Benazir Bhutto.
In every country that we visited, the idea that Americans harbored negative opinions of Muslims was named as the "number one threat to the Muslim world" in surveys we distributed. We undertook this project in part to address this question and see what Americans really thought of Muslims. We also wanted to see how Muslims were living in America and how they were fitting in.
The project began as a study of American Muslims but we soon realized we were looking at something bigger. In our travels some people told us that Muslims could not be American. This brings up the definition of "Americanness" itself. What does it mean to be an American anyway?
We asked this question to everyone we met, Muslim and non-Muslim. We asked scholars like Hamza Yusuf and Noam Chomsky and politicians like Jesse Jackson and Missouri's former governor Bob Holden. We asked people on inner city street corners and corporate boardrooms; on Indian reservations and affluent suburbs.
We met every kind of Muslim and visited communities that most Americans would be surprised to discover, such as the 70,000 Bosnians in St. Louis or Houston's 40,000 Nigerian Muslims. In Miami, we spent an afternoon with Cuban Muslims and in Los Angeles, Cambodian Muslims. Many Muslims actually told us that America was the "best place to be a Muslim" because of the religious freedom afforded in America is nonexistent in many Muslim countries.
In Arab, Alabama one of our team members, Hailey Woldt, dressed in a full body abaya to gauge the response of locals with surprising results. In New Orleans we spoke with Mardi Gras revelers and in Grand Island, Nebraska interviewed Somalis who were fired for demanding time to pray during the holy month of Ramadan. We saw another side of a Las Vegas meeting with an African American imam struggling to feed the homeless and discussed Islam with rural people in the coal mountains of West Virginia.
We heard horrifying stories of violence and detention from Muslims caught in post-9/11 dragnets but also stories of hope, optimism, and inspiration. The result is a captivating portrait of the United States at a key moment in its history that should be seen by every American, Muslim or otherwise.
Ideally, the US should have no problem with Muslims. Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson welcomed Muslims to the United States and Benjamin Franklin once expressed his desire to see the Mufti of Istanbul preach from a pulpit in Philadelphia. In our film Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota -- who is also on the July 4th movie premier panel -- recounts his story of how he came to be sworn in on Thomas Jefferson's Quran, a powerful symbol of American pluralism. But the aftermath of 9/11 has meant that many Americans see Muslims as a dangerous threat. This perception can only be challenged by speaking to our neighbors and getting to know each other. We have tried to encourage this effort with our film.
As July 4th approaches we should think about what America means to all of us. Is America a country for White Protestants or people who act like White Protestants (which some people on our trip told us it was) or is it the inclusive society as envisioned by the Founding Fathers? It cannot be both. The US needs to rediscover the inclusiveness and moral courage of the Founding Fathers if it is to create a truly pluralistic society for all its citizens and lead the world in the 21st century.