We all want to make sense of the world. The problem is that we often want to make the world seem simpler than it is.
After the 9/11 attacks, it was simpler to go to war against Islam than to track down the people behind the attacks and bring them to justice.
And now as Rep. Peter King, a Long Island Republican, is holding hearings on what he sees as the Muslim threat in America, Pittsford filmmaker Mara Ahmed is releasing her second film — Pakistan One-on-One, a documentary done in Lahore, the city of her birth. The 30-minute film is built around a series of interviews with men, women, students, professors, shopkeepers and a real estate agent — each asked about the future of democracy, the war on terror and the Taliban.
Ahmed moved to Brussels as a child and in 1980 returned to Pakistan, where she finished high school in Islamabad and college in Karachi before moving with her husband to the United States in 1993. She holds a master’s degree in economics but says “art has always been my passion.” After 9/11, Ahmed looked for ways to give voice to her perspective as a Muslim American woman.
She does not use her films to make an argument, but to let her viewers glimpse the complexity of the people she features.
Pakistan is a “nation of extremes,” she says, with affluent cosmopolitan city neighborhoods, such as Lahore, and abysmal rural and urban poverty, with extremist Islamic sects and highly educated Westernized Muslim professionals.
“Having grown up on three continents I feel that I am not anchored to any one country, language or culture,” Ahmed says.
Pakistan is far from an American-style democratic society, but it is even further from the country Ahmed grew up in. In the 1980s, she says, under Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, “there was one state-owned television station and no freedom of speech.” Today, there are many independent TV stations, bristling night and day with political programs, often featuring very “abrasive” women journalist/hosts who challenge every point of view. Pakistan is a nation of “political junkies,” she says. Doing interviews like hers in Iran would be a problem, but the Pakistani government “doesn’t care.”
In her film students debate the prospect for democracy. A shopkeeper says there can be no democracy “until the judiciary is independent.” A law student says he thinks “the war on terror has become a war of terror.”
The Taliban, Ahmed says, is no more monolithic than Islam itself, with different groups motivated by different circumstances.
“Every time I go back to Pakistan,” Ahmed says, “I am amazed at how people have been exposed to media and how down-to-earth and practical they are about their own plight and the world.”
That is a point worth showing. The world is not a simple place. When it comes to economics, international politics and religious motivations, “common sense” is usually shared ignorance. And when it comes to Islam, we can learn a lot if we’d just listen to our own neighbors.