Posts Tagged ‘United States’


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:

Read Full Post »


The below piece first appeared on Dawn News’ blog today. It was my first in a series of pieces 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.

New York City is not only home to a significant Muslim population, the community is also a reflection of the city itself – vibrant, diverse, and colorful. Muslims in New York are South Asian, Middle Eastern, African, East Asian, European, and African-American, all speaking an array of languages and practicing Islam in their own culturally nuanced ways.

Aman Ali and Bassam Tariq, two young South Asian Muslims living in New York City, decided to explore the diversity within New York City’s Muslim community, visiting a different mosque each day during Ramadan – from Malcolm X’s mosque in Harlem to the Bosnian Cultural Center to the Islamic Center at New York University. Their journey, documented at 30 Mosques in 30 Days, gained an enormous following, with up to 1,500 people visiting the website each day to learn of the previous night’s discoveries. Towards the end of the month, they had reached their goal of 20,000 unique visits to the blog.

When asked what inspired 30 Mosques, Aman noted the project began as a simple personal experiment, since there were so many mosques he and Bassam wanted to explore in the New York area. They were overwhelmed with the unexpected number of responses they received from both Muslims and non-Muslims around the world, writing in to express their desire to pursue a similar experiment in their own cities or communities. What started as an innovative personal adventure soon became a way of connecting people throughout the world.

The two young Muslims wanted the experience to be as natural as possible, despite the subsequent media attention their website received as the month progressed. Ultimately, Aman and Bassam wanted to document what treatment any Muslim would receive walking into a mosque in the city. The overwhelming hospitality they received at each place surprised them both. On Day 28, Aman visited a mosque in the Bronx that had burned down the night before. Despite the tragedy, the congregation was united in their resilience. Aman, in his post, wrote,

Bilal [a man in the congregation] brought up one of my favorite sayings from Prophet Muhammad that really captured the mood in the air tonight. That the Muslim community is like a body. When one part of the body is in pain, the entire body is in pain. In other words, when one of us suffers we all feel the pain. But Bilal brought up an interesting point. He said this saying also applies to happiness. When one of us is feeling good, the rest of us should feel the same as well. He told me this was not a time for us to be sad and depressed. Instead, this is a time for us to smile and be thankful that everyone is here to support each other during the end of this blessed month.

On Day 9, Bassam blogged about the Masjid Aqsa, a predominately West African mosque in his neighborhood. He told me how a man insisted he stay after his prayers to eat, making sure everyone there knew he was a guest and should be welcomed. In the corresponding post, he wrote, “The hospitality during Ramadan has been unbelievable. There’s something in the air, and the weather only seems to get better.”

Each post on 30 Days further cements this notion – that despite their ethnic, cultural, and sectarian differences, the Muslims Aman and Bassam encountered were universally hospitable and inclusive.

Aman told me, “The Islamic Center at NYU was built by college students, while one mosque on Staten Island was established by a guy who worked in a factory during World War II. Each one of these threads make up the Muslim-American narrative –we are united by the belief in Allah, hospitality, and welcoming others.”

For both of them, these stories are instrumental in showing what the Muslim community in the United States has to offer, and how Muslims in America fit into the broader American identity. Aman asserted, “In America, we have different races, ethnicities, and religions, and for the most part live peacefully side by side. The prejudice and “clash” that occurred after 9/11 stemmed from ignorance and misunderstanding. One of the reasons we did this project was to show people that Muslims aren’t two dimensional characters…that such anecdotes humanize us.”

Although Aman and Bassam’s spiritual journey to 30 Mosques was only a modest attempt to break perceptions, their subsequent narrative indicates how easy it can be to break barriers, to challenge stereotypes, and get to know one another. Bassam, who recently met the great Abdul Sattar Edhi, said when asked to autograph his book, the renowned Pakistani philanthropist wrote, “Love human beings.” That simple message, Bassam noted, “is what it’s all about.”

Read Full Post »

Infamously controversial Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad paid a brief visit to Pakistan today, where he met with President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in Islamabad during his four-hour stay. According to the Associated Press, “[The] Iranian and Pakistani leaders resolved issues related to a multibillion-dollar [$7.5 billion] gas pipeline project opposed by the United States during the Iranian president’s brief visit Monday to Pakistan…” The 2,600 km pipeline to India is expected “to earn Pakistan millions of dollars in transit fees,” reported BBC News today. The news agency cited the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP), which reported that Iran also agreed to supply Pakistan with 1100 MW of electricity, an announcement that is significant in light of Pakistan’s recent power crisis, [see previous post on power riots in Multan].

Later on Monday, Ahmadinejad traveled to Sri Lanka, and will follow with another high-profile visit to India on Tuesday. Iran’s South Asia tour was described by the Christian Science Monitor as an “outreach strategy” aimed at both “making energy deals and curbing Western influence.” Although media outlets today emphasized the Pakistan leg of the tour, the Monitor noted Iran’s biggest challenge on the trip to counter U.S. influence and “rekindle diplomatic relations” would be with India.

M.J. Gohel, a security analyst and director of the Asia-Pacific Foundation in London, noted, “India is very short on energy, so there are economic reasons for India to maintain a working relationship with Iran…However India’s long-term and strategic relationship is definitely with Washington, and I think that has been made very, very clear.” Nevertheless, India does have a stake in the aforementioned gas pipeline, “which is meant to deliver 30 million cubic meters of Iranian gas daily each to Pakistan and India,” reported the Monitor. BBC News added,

The gas pipeline is seen as crucial for India which relies heavily on fuel imports for its fast-growing economy…Analysts say that the pipeline could also contribute to security as Iran, Pakistan and India benefit more by mutual co-operation.

Ultimately, Ahmadinejad’s visit holds deeper ramifications for the United States, who feels the pipeline deal will weaken its efforts to isolate Tehran. The Christian Science Monitor noted in its piece today, “Washington opposes the pipeline because of what it brings to Iran, despite benefits also for U.S. allies India and Pakistan.” CNN reported Monday that Washington has put both New Delhi and Islamabad under pressure not to sign any agreement with Iran, despite the economic and security benefits of the oft-labeled “peace pipeline.” In fact, the United States recently tried to “scuttle” the pipeline by reportedly offering India advanced nuclear technology to make up for the loss of Iranian gas. Nevertheless, CNN cited Iran’s “semi-official” news agency, Fars, which reported that India “recently declared its readiness to participate in the discussions on the pipeline after more than a year.” If this development has taught us anything, it’s that international deals, despite their security and economic benefits, can hold much larger geostrategic ramifications and dangers, causing its progress to therefore come to a standstill. [Image from Christian Science Monitor]

Read Full Post »