Archive for October 21st, 2009


Journey into America: The team conducts a social experiment in Arab, Alabama

The below piece first appeared in Dawn Newspaper’s World section. It was my third installment in a series on “Muslims in America,” where I attempt to show how Muslim-Americans are working to change perceptions and challenge stereotypes in the United States. You can read the Dawn piece here:

The United States is a country founded on freedom, justice, and tolerance. These fundamental ideas are revisited in Journey into America, a documentary that explores American identity through the Muslim lens. Professor Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, traveled with a team of young Americans for nine months, visiting over 75 cities and 100 mosques in the United States. The result is an unprecedented effort to understand the nuanced dimensions of Islam in America, and its place within the broader American identity.

Journey into America, the companion to Ahmed’s earlier study Journey into Islam, is the first consolidated anthropological study on the Muslim-American community. Five Americans were chosen to be part of his team – Craig Considine [the film’s director], Madeeha Hameed, Jonathan Hayden, Frankie Martin, and Hailey Woldt. According to Ahmed, the team members not only were instrumental in conducting the necessary fieldwork; they also acted as his “guides” on the journey. For his team, the film was also a journey of discovery. Hailey Woldt, a former honors student of Ahmed’s who traveled with him to the Muslim World for Journey into Islam, told me this study challenged her preconceived notions about her own country. She noted, “I learned so much about my own society by talking to the Muslim community.”

At one point in the documentary, the team visited Arab, Alabama, where they conducted a small social experiment, dressing Woldt in a full abaya to gauge the residents’ reactions. Despite the fact that Arab [pronounced ‘Ay-raab’] is a small and more homogeneous town, people were warm and welcoming, living up to what Ahmed hailed as, “Southern hospitality.” In an interview with Woldt, she added the Arab residents were open to getting to know her as a person, rather than viewing her simply “as an image or a stereotype.”

Such anecdotes in the film were refreshing because they showed how misconceptions persist on both sides of the divide. While ignorance does exist, it does not always come from a place of hatred, but sometimes from a simple lack of exposure. In such instances, there is an opportunity to foster understanding and change perceptions, as was illustrated a number of times throughout Journey into America.

In Chicago, the team encountered a street named Mohammed Ali Jinnah Way, in honor of Pakistan’s founding father, Quaid-e-Azam. Interestingly, the street was commissioned bya longtime Jewish figure on the Chicago City Council, Alderman Bernie Stone. In the film, Stone admits, “I probably have better support from Muslims than Jews.” He adds, ‘My message is that each of us should treat each other as you would treat your own brother.” In Los Angeles, the city with the largest Muslim population in America, Sheriff Lee Baca calls himself a Pakhtun, having traveled not only to Pakistan but also to the Khyber Pass. Well-versed in Islam, he is an instrumental leader in encouraging understanding among the various faiths in his community.

The film explores the diversity of the Muslim-American community, from a Shia congregation in New York City to a community in Dearborn, Michigan to the oldest mosque in America, built in 1934 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Professor Ahmed and his team even visited Sapelo, a small island off the coast of Georgia. There, they interviewed Ms. Bailey, a direct descendant of Bilali Muhammed, a West African Muslim slave brought to Sapelo in the early 19th century. Although Muhammed’s descendants have since converted to Christianity, the churches on the island still face east towards Mecca, and until recently, worshipers removed their shoes before entering the church. To this day, the people of the island bury their dead facing Mecca.

These different stories become the interwoven narratives of the documentary, creating a colorful picture book of the Muslim-American community. Despite the nuanced differences between the communities, Akbar Ahmed noted there was still an “overall sense of being Muslim.” Moreover, he and his team were overwhelmed by the tremendous amount of hospitality they received. That generosity and warmth, he said, became a universal thread in their journey. Professor Ahmed added, “They were so grateful because we were traveling to their homes and talking to them face-to-face, rather than writing about them from afar.” In doing so, Ahmed and his team gave these communities a voice to tell their story.

The question of American identity was another constant thread in Journey into America. In particular, the film sought to address the difficult question of how Islam fit within these parameters in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The issue was touched upon in the film’s numerous interviews with notable figures, including Noam Chomsky, former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, and Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Akbar Ahmed’s team also met with Keith Ellison, a Muslim Congressman from Minnesota, who took his oath of office on the Holy Quran. Although he came under attack by some who called it “a threat to American values,” the interesting twist was that the copy of the Quran used for the swearing in ceremony was owned by one of the country’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson.

For Ahmed, the journey was an effort to not only probe Muslim identity in America, but also revisit the ideals of these founders. He told me, “We were hunting for clues of what the founding fathers wanted [for American society].” When the team visited the University of Virginia, they encountered a statue of Thomas Jefferson. In the hands of the third U.S. President was a book dated 1786 and the words, “God-Jehovah, Allah, Brahma, Ra…” The founding fathers’ ideal of religious pluralism was immortalized in the hands of this statue. For America to progress, Professor Ahmed noted, it must rediscover these fundamental values. Journey into America is therefore a definitive study on all of these difficult questions, using an approach that is as humanistic and emotional as it is academic.

Journey into America, produced and narrated by Akbar Ahmed, directed by Craig Considine, is 99 minutes long. It has shown at numerous film festivals, including the Islamic Film Festival, and has screened throughout the United States. The next screening will be at the Washington National Cathedral at 5:30 pm EST on October 25 in Washington, D.C. [Click here for ticket information] The documentary will also be presented on Pakistan’s AAJ Television in the coming weeks. You can see the trailer for the documentary below:

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