In Search of the "Muslim World"

08/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Wednesday, I had the privilege of screening an advance copy of a powerful new documentary that will premiere on the Fourth of July. The film, Journey Into America, will make its debut during the 46th annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) this weekend in Washington, DC.

The film is one of the byproducts of a remarkable nine-month, 75-city exploration of America conducted by the brilliant anthropologist and Islamic scholar, Akbar Ahmed, and his outstanding team of former students. The film portrays the experiences of Muslim-Americans. It does that, but also ends up doing much more since it has a lot to say about the American experience beyond that of any one hyphenated group. The Muslim-America revealed in the film, provides much food for thought about how we think about any designated group of Americans and in this case, Muslim-Americans. For me it brought to mind the impulse of those of us in media to talk about diverse groups of people as if they think and act alike based on some shared affiliation.

Governments and news media often have more in common than either cares to admit. For example, each loves to organize diverse groups of humans into what appear to be monolithic groups by assigning broad labels to entire swaths of populations. The result is things like politicians speaking of "African-American voters," or "Latino voters," or news stories that explore the latest from the "Evangelical community," or the "Muslim world." The labels almost always describe some minority element of the greater whole. Reading between the lines, there is the implication that the group in question behaves differently than the unidentified norm (whoever they are).

Another unspoken assumption suggested by these labels is that we can predict or understand the actions or opinions of individuals if we can identify them as members of a group. The language also suggests that a place like, "the Muslim world," actually exists, and that we can visit it, "reach out" to it, engage it in dialogue, or perhaps even wage war with it.

As someone who has spent some time on the airwaves over the years, I am guilty as charged. "How will Christian voters react to President Clinton's infidelity?" "Will African-American voters support this candidate?" "What will be the reaction in the Muslim world?" These are just a few examples of the types of simplistic categorizing that many others and I have been guilty of resorting to when trying to understand and describe the world around us.

What this type of labeling amounts to is an attempt to understand and describe the complex behavior of somewhat arbitrarily assigned groupings through oversimplification. In most, if not all cases, these types of broad generalizations don't hold up to scrutiny. We essentially attempt to define reality by distorting it. There are inherent dangers associated with this type of lazy thinking. "Islam is a religion of violence." "The religious right is intolerant." These are just two examples of the types of flawed conclusions that can result from pretending such monolithic groups actually exist.

All of this brings me back to, Journey Into America, the film I just watched. The so-called, Muslim world the film uncovers is not some exotic locale a world away but is instead a place you can find right outside your door. And in the end, the world we visit isn't so much a Muslim world or a Muslim-America as much as it is our shared world, a hyphen free America filled with problems, dreams, fears, and hope.

Professor Ahmed's stated goal is to, "improve understanding and increase dialogue between different people, different cultures, different religions." One of the ways in which this profound and important film does so is by showing us that we are not as different as the labeling game suggests. Journey Into America makes an important contribution to challenging the simplistic shorthand that distorts our sense of reality. There is no easily defined "Muslim-America" any more than there is a distinct "Christian-America," or "Jewish-America." There is, however, an America populated by people of many beliefs, some shared and some different. That's the America I discovered again when watching the film. An imperfect America, that also happens to be the most diverse and tolerant nation on earth.

I wish you a happy and healthy Fourth of July. And when the fireworks are over, I encourage you to see Journey Into America for a powerful reminder of what the American experiment is all about.