When Mara Ahmed moved to the United States from Pakistan with her husband in 1993, the world was a different place. Terms like “Muslim Extremist” and “Islamic Jihad” barely registered in the minds of Americans. However, after the events of September 11, 2001, these words became irrevocably embedded in the American consciousness.
Ahmed, who grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, is a Muslim woman living in Rochester, and has two master’s degrees to her name. Until 2003, she was a financial analyst working at a prominent Rochester company. That year she decided to quit her job and begin pursuing her love of the arts. She considers herself a moderate Muslim.
When America declared war on terror in 2001, Ahmed and other Muslims like her felt the weight of the media bias towards her people. Muslims were being portrayed as violent extremists bent on jihad. Seeing this misrepresentation, she immediately felt the need to do something about it. A documentary, in her mind, was the only option. She needed to show the world a different side of Muslims. She calls her documentary, The Muslims I Know.
She began taking classes at RIT in 2006 to help her take on this project. In collaboration with RIT film students and faculty, she began building her project from the ground up. Ahmed started by interviewing non-Muslims to get their take on the people of Islam. She asked them, “If you could ask a Muslim person anything, what would it be?”
The responses gave her a strong base to move forward, to help combat the negative image of Muslims.
Ahmed’s film focuses primarily on a series of interviews, using the questions from non-Muslims, with Rochester area Muslims of Pakistani origins. These interviews attempt to break down the stereotypes associated with Muslims and help address how non-Muslims view the culture. “You can’t just talk about Muslims as if it’s one thing, so I didn’t want to make that same mistake, and say, ‘I represent all Muslims’… so I kept it very narrow in that sense.”
The interviews take place in coffee shops and living rooms, giving the viewer the feeling that they’re actively involved in the conversation. Subjects range from college-aged students raised in the States to middle aged men who came to seek the ‘American Dream.’
Ahmed’s homeland, Pakistan, takes a lead role in the film. In 1947, when the British Empire left the Indian subcontinent , Pakistan was formed, as a primarily Muslim country, in an effort to ease communal tensions between Muslims and Hindus. Some Pakistanis regard religion similarly to some Americans, using it as a political tool, rather than as a basis for a fundamentalist government.
Pakistan’s recent history has seen extremes of democracy and dictatorship. The military dictatorship of General Zia that ruled in the 1980s was supported by the United States, and was only toppled after Zia was killed accidentally when his airplane crashed. He was replaced by a series of democratically elected leaders, including the recently assassinated Benazir Bhutto. This came to an end when then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was deposed in a military coup by President Musharraf. Musharraf, who has cooperated with the United States in the war on terror, is supported by the current U.S. administration. Recently, Pakistan held democratic elections, during which the parties of Bhutto and Sharif received the majority vote. Only about 3% of the vote, according to Ahmed, was given to any strictly religious party.
Ahmed’s take on American foreign policy in the Pakistani region comes through strongly in her work. She points out that America has taken a hypocritical stance when it comes to the support of democratic movements. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s and 1980s, America supported a military dictatorship in order to stem the Soviet advance. However, when the Soviets withdrew from the region, American interests shifted away. When the region regained prominence during the War on Terror, American support fell on another Pakistani military dictatorship, despite what Ahmed calls a “grass roots” movement for democracy.
She also tries to enlighten the viewer about Islam itself. Ahmed’s interviews with local scholars and experts cover the basic tenets of Islam. These tenets do not call for violence, as many point out, but rather for peace and brotherhood.
In a description of the film, she writes, “[It] answers the question: ‘Where are the moderate Muslims?’ This question is asked by the media. The silence (and therefore culpability) of the moderates is still a hot button issue seven years after September 11, 2001.” She continues, “The Muslims I Know attempts to redress this imbalance by giving mainstream Muslims a voice and a face—something not often seen in American media.”
Throughout the film, the segues between interview subjects are done with footage of Lahore, Pakistan, Ahmed’s hometown in the Punjab province. Scenes of the ancient city of Lahore are filled with energy and color, set to exotic traditional Pakistani music. She says, “I have scenes from a wedding in Lahore…[and] scenes from the streets of Lahore…to kind of show people where we come from.”
The film was self-financed, as Ahmed drew upon friends and local artists to help out with filming. She hopes to start showing the film at festivals, and hopes that one day it will be shown on televisions. “I just try to screen it as much as I can, wherever I can, however I can.” In addition to a number of RIT students who were involved in the production of the film, Ahmed has also screened the first half of the film at the School of Film and Animation. The Muslims I Know is currently in post-production, and when it’s finished, Ahmed wants to show the film on campus. She hopes that the film will stir interest in the subject, and perhaps, as she writes, “deconstruct…stereotypes by showcasing first generation Pakistani Americans.”