The events of 9/11 have created much interest in Islam and Muslims. Mainstream media have responded to this demand for information with sweeping generalizations and easy stereotypes. America’s small community of Muslims longs to be a part of that discourse. This documentary (2008) gives them a chance to be heard and understood through dialogue with non-Muslim Americans. Director Mara Ahmed often says that she became a filmmaker in order to make this documentary:
If you google the words ‘moderate Muslim’ today you will get 18 million hits on the internet. This interest in the construction of the ‘good’ Muslim is the result of a post-9/11 Western world trying to parse Islam and its followers. The need to identify ‘militant jihadists’ by distinguishing them from ‘moderate’ Muslims has cast suspicion on all Muslims in America. Stereotypes are becoming well-entrenched. The purpose of this documentary is to debunk those stereotypes by showcasing Pakistani Americans and asking them questions non-Muslim Americans have framed through vox pop interviews. A secondary goal is to educate people about the basic tenets of Islam in order to highlight similarities with other Abrahamic faiths. Finally, the film is a celebration of Muslim communities, their stories and cultures.
Rather than trying to speak for all Muslims, this personal documentary focuses on the Pakistani American community in Rochester. The film does not contend with Muslim stereotypes by advancing religious postulates, instead it uses the more audience-friendly approach of cultural exploration (including norms and values derived from religion). Islamic scholars are interviewed to answer basic questions about Islamic theology and history, but most issues are commented on by regular Pakistani Americans who want to participate in America’s mainstream socio-political discourse. Filmmaker Mara Ahmed acts as the film’s narrator, taking the audience on a journey into a little-known, but much talked about American community.
The underlying idea is to highlight similarities between Islam and other Abrahamic faiths and to celebrate the cultural richness and diversity brought into the American mix by Muslim communities. The film aims to become a dialogue between Americans who might not otherwise interact. It is also a much needed platform for moderate Muslims to express their views about what’s happening in the world. By being both American and Muslim they have a unique insight into the complex inner workings of American foreign policy and the role of the media.
The documentary is a montage of several visual and thematic elements:
1) Segments include Interviews with Pakistani American Muslims, Islamic scholars and the Imam at the Islamic Center of Rochester about (1) How things have changed since 9/11 (2) Why are Muslims portrayed a certain way by American media? (3) Islam 101 (4) Is Islam a violent religion? (5) Islam and terrorism (6) What’s jihad? (7) Women in Islam (8) What’s next?
2) Transitions between different segments/topics provide appropriate context for the discussion and some food for thought. Transitions are also used to point out inconsistencies or underline important aspects of the discourse.
3) Vox pop is used to interview non-Muslim Americans and frame some of the questions that are addressed in the film.
4) Vignettes are interspersed throughout the documentary to break up various segments, provide some relief from serious dialogue and show the lives of mainstream American Muslims.
The Muslims I Know addresses serious issues in an edgy, fast-paced, tightly edited, modern format. Interviews are shot handheld, in different locations. Short sections of interviews are intercut with photographs and footage to bring personal histories to life. Footage shot in Lahore, Pakistan, is presented in saturated color to bring out cultural exuberance. It takes the form of an explosive collage that captures the spirit of the city rather than being a real-life representation. The film has an artistic visual feel. Qawali music is used to tie images together into a dynamic montage. There is abundant use of music throughout the film to produce a vibrant, positive outlook. The end result is a documentary which is thought-provoking and attractive. The gravity of its theme combined with the appeal of its format makes it all the more palatable and effective in its reach.
“The Muslims I Know: Discussion Guide for the Film” was written and compiled by Dr. Anthony Cerulli,
Dr. Aitezaz Ahmed and Mara Ahmed. You can download for free by clicking below:
“The Muslims I Know” opened on June 8, 2008 at the Dryden Theatre in Rochester, NY. The event was co-sponsored by Women in Film and Television Rochester. About 300 people attended the screening. The response to the film was enthusiastic and the screening was followed by a robust, hour-long discussion. June Foster, Executive Director, Rochester/Finger Lakes Film and Video Office, introduced Mara Ahmed, the film’s Director, Producer and Writer. Mara spoke briefly about why she made the film and thanked people who had helped with the project, many of whom were in attendance. They included most of the film’s interviewees as well as Thom Marini (Chief Cinematographer), Chuck Munier (Post Production Services), Dave Sluberski (Post Production Sound), Shamoun Murtza (Musical Score), and Teagan Ward (Theme Song). Nora Brown, President of Women in Film and Television Rochester, and Sarita Arden were the main organizers of the event. The post screening discussion was moderated by Barry Goldfarb, Professor, Department of Visual and Performing Arts, Monroe Community College. The panel consisted of Aitezaz, Bilal, Farah, Ibrahim, Dr. Davila, Thom Marini and Mara Ahmed.
WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING
Bruce Acker, Assistant Director, Asian Studies, University at Buffalo
Thank you for showing “The Muslims I Know” at the University at Buffalo. The film does a superb job portraying the aspirations of Pakistani-Americans in the 21st century. Not surprisingly, the subjects of your film have the same goals for peace, freedom, prosperity, and security that other Americans have. Unfortunately, on top of the general post-9/11 anxiety that we all feel, Muslims have faced suspicion and fear that their words and actions will be met with prejudice and misunderstanding. We need to get to know Muslims better – as a group and as individuals among us in our schools, neighborhoods, places of work, and communities.
Eric Comins, International Student & Scholar Services, University at Buffalo
After seeing such negative extremist images in the media, the average non-Muslim U.S. citizen tends to wonder if there is such a thing as a moderate Muslim. “The Muslims I Know” is a realistic portrayal of Muslims who are just like any other American (because they ARE American). They live, love, and laugh just like everybody else. It’s very easy to dislike or fear someone you don’t know. Viewers of this film will be pleasantly surprised to learn just how average and likeable the subjects of the film are. After all, we all came to the US for the same reasons: to make a better life for ourselves and our families and to enjoy an increased sense of freedom.
Linda Moroney, Filmmaker and Technical Director, Rochester High Falls International Film Festival
I very much enjoyed your film and found it to be wonderful. I think your opening was in fact, brilliant! Your narration was strong, personal, and inviting. I hope this project will help people that live their lives based on a platform of fear to see beyond that motivation.
Chris Christopher, Producer and Writer of July ’64, an Emmy-nominated documentary broadcast on PBS’s Independent Lens, Managing Director of ImageWordSound
I saw your film today. I thought it was lovely and thoughtful – a true labor of love. The shots are interesting and dynamic, the speakers articulate and the points well made. I especially liked the answer back format with questions from bystanders. The “A is for Allah, J is for Jihad” section was truly horrifying.
Dr. Greta Niu, Assistant Professor Department of English, University of Rochester
I would like to thank you and all of your participants for creating such an educational, compelling, wonderful film. It made me feel very hopeful, as did much of the subsequent audience discussion. Please tell everyone that I was truly impressed with their words on screen and off. You found some extremely articulate, contemplative, intelligent people! So many questions after the screening were also addressed carefully and smartly. Your husband and you, I thought, especially, responded so thoughtfully and strongly to the question about serving as a “spokesperson for the race/ethnic group”.
Dr. Russell Peck, John Hall Deane Professor of English, University of Rochester
What a wonderful film. We loved every minute of it. it’s so beautiful to see on a large screen. The film’s message came across with superb clarity. You used the younger set magnificently; they were all so articulate and well focused in the points they were making, whether in a light vein or seriously. The discussion afterwads was excellent too. You were both very articulate in fielding questions, even the aggressive ones by the woman at the end. You both certainly gave us plenty to think about. I’m looking forward mightily to the showing at UR in the fall. The remarks from the young woman at the end about using it in Rochester schools was very promising.
Dr. Randy Kaplan, Director, Asian American Studies and Programming, SUNY Geneseo, Artistic Director of GENseng – Geneseo’s Asian American Performance Ensemble
In short, it was wonderful! I thought you did a beautiful job (and you have a great voice, you should have been a performer!) – very touching and straightforward. I loved all of the people in it, and I wished I had been invited to the wedding in Lahore. I think that is exactly what you wanted to accomplish, yes – having people (non-Muslims) watch it and say, “Hey, I wish I knew that family or those students in person!”
Debora McDell-Hernandez, Coordinator of Community Programs and Outreach, Memorial Art Gallery
Congratulations on producing such a wonderful film! I was really impressed. You created a great project in a relatively short period of time too. I applaud the people featured in the documentary for being so candid in their responses to questions. I am glad that you have been able to nurture your artistic side over the last few years.
Kate Green, President, Newcomers’ Club, Pittsford
Just wanted to tell you how pleased I was to see the great turnout for you ‘World Premiere’ today. Your film is magnificent and I am such a supporter of your contribution to world peace and understanding.
J. A. Toyer, Attorney and Social Justice Advocate, Rochester, New York
Thank you so very much for helping us to grow in our love of God and of the human family through “The Muslims I Know” and our dialogue with you this morning! As I viewed “The Muslims I Know” for the second time, I felt incredibly blessed that we have you, and your family, in our Rochester community and country. The documentary is not only full of valuable information for the mind but also great beauty for the heart: the beauty of families, family life and nature, of candor and courage in people who asked questions, who spoke of historical and political realities, and who shared their love of the USA and of their experiences of injustice and being treated differently because of who they are as members of the human family. I was moved to smile and to choke back tears. “The Muslims I Know” is a “must see” film, now more than ever, and you are just the person Pope Francis tells us all we must encounter and with whom we must enter into dialogue.
‘A is for Allah, J is for Jihad’ by Craig Davis, the World Policy Journal, Spring 2002
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Education Center for Afghanistan, located in Peshawar, Pakistan, and operated by the Afghan Mujahideen (holy warriors), published a series of primary education textbooks replete with images of Islamic militancy. These schoolbooks provided the Mujahideen (who, after a ten-year struggle, drove the Soviet occupying forces from Afghanistan in 1989) with a medium for promoting political propaganda and inculcating values of Islamic militancy into a new generation of holy warriors prepared to conduct jihad against the enemies of Islam. More here.
‘From U.S., the ABC’s of Jihad’ by Joe Stephens and David B. Ottaway, the Washington Post, March 23, 2002
In the twilight of the Cold War, the United States spent millions of dollars to supply Afghan schoolchildren with textbooks filled with violent images and militant Islamic teachings, part of covert attempts to spur resistance to the Soviet occupation. More here.
Muslim Condemnations of 9/11
In the aftermath of the violence and horror of 9/11, criticisms were made that Muslim leaders and organizations were not outspoken enough in denouncing acts of terrorism. Muslims are constantly perplexed by this accusation, as we heard (and continue to hear) nothing but unequivocal and unified condemnations by the leaders of our community, both in the United States and worldwide. More here.
Muslims Condemn Terrorist Attacks
This page focuses on condemnations of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and other terrorist incidents since then as well as of terrorism in general. It is not a complete listing of all condemnations written or spoken by Muslims but is intended to provide a representative sample. More here.
These 6 Corporations Control 90% Of The Media In America
This infographic created by Jason at Frugal Dad shows that almost all media comes from the same six sources. That’s consolidated from 50 companies back in 1983. The fact that a few companies own everything demonstrates “the illusion of choice,” Frugal Dad says. While some big sites, like Digg and Reddit aren’t owned by any of the corporations, Time Warner owns news sites read by millions of Americans every year. More here.
Sam Harris, Maajid Nawaz, and the Illusion of Knowledge
The dialogue between Harris and Nawaz, one which they claim is a groundbreaking effort to solve the issue of Islamic extremism, is in fact counterproductive because it ignores actual Muslim communities and their efforts on these fronts and fundamentally misunderstands the Islamic tradition and its relationships with reform. It also engages people who either have no formal training in what they’re talking about, or just have very little to do with the conversation (like Sam Harris himself), thus creating a space of illusory significance which ultimately produces nothing of lasting value. More here.
The belief system of the Islamophobes
Arun Kundnani: A century ago, America’s Jews were likewise seen as infiltrators threatening Western values. Central to US anti-Semitic ideology was also a conspiracy theory that presented Jews as secretly pulling the strings of international finance and world revolution. Henry Ford, for example, used the pages of his Dearborn Independent newspaper to propagandise such views in the 1920s. The modern discourse over Muslims today resembles the manner in which Jews were talked about then. In both cases, a religious minority is seen as a dangerous underclass destroying society from below with their alien values, as well as a hidden force secretly controlling the world from above, through their infiltration of centres of power. American Jews were eventually able to overcome the worst anti-Semitism of the 20th century and establish security and equality in the US. Will Muslims be able to do the same? Unfortunately, history never repeats itself in the same way. The key difference is that, today, widespread anti-Muslim fears among the public provide a justifying pretext for a global US empire that did not exist in the 1920s. Islamophobia is not just an irrational fear, but a belief system that is useful to sections of power. Opposing anti-Muslim conspiracy theories and all of their accompanying rhetoric are not just about defending the civil rights of Muslims in the US. It is also about removing one of the ideological supports of US imperialism. More here.
A People’s History of Muslims in the United States
Alison Kysia: As Michael Gomez explains in Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas, Muslims were among the first to resist the colonialists. In fact, colonial authorities had long seen these “Moors” as a threat. According to Sylviane Diouf, author of Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, colonial documents between the Crown and conquistadors describe enslaved Muslims as “arrogant, disobedient, rebellious, and incorrigible.” Diouf writes that no fewer than five decrees were issued against these rebels in the first 50 years of colonization. Records from as early as 1503 confirm a request by Nicholas de Ovando, the governor of Hispaniola, to Queen Isabella asking her to restrict further shipment of enslaved Muslims because they were “a source of scandal to the Indians, and some had fled their owners.”
It’s essential that students know that resistance to colonial domination has always been a part of our history—and Muslims played a role in this resistance from the earliest days.
Advertisements for people escaping slavery included names like Moosa or Mustapha, common names even among Muslims today. According to Gomez, in 1753 Mahamut (one of many spellings of Muhammad) and Abel Conder challenged the legality of their enslavement through a petition to the South Carolina government “in Arabick.” Similarly, in 1790 a number of formerly enslaved people originally from Morocco—referred to as free Moors—likewise petitioned South Carolina to secure equal rights with whites.
U.S. history textbooks generally present “slaves” as a monolithic group, absent of history, culture, and scholarship. But stories of the Muslim presence in the early United States give examples of the rich multicultural diversity among enslaved Africans. More here.
LIST OF ALTERNATIVE MEDIA
The concentration of corporate media ownership in the US, has made it more important than ever to consult alternative, non-mainstream media in order to be well-informed about what’s going on in America and the world. For a comprehensive list of thought-provoking alternative media, please click here.