Journey into America

By Eboo Patel and Samantha Kirby “I had set out to learn about Islam in America. But I found I … Continued

By Eboo Patel and Samantha Kirby

“I had set out to learn about Islam in America. But I found I could not do so without understanding American identity.”

A few years ago, my friend and senior leader in the work of religious pluralism, Akbar Ahmed, took on an unprecedented project. He traveled across the country – accompanied by five exceptional young people – to learn about Islam in America.

As one of the world’s most prominent researchers on Islam and the Muslim world, Akbar previously conducted an important work –Journey into Islam – where he and several young companions traveled to three major regions of the Muslim world to learn what Muslims think and how they view America.

His new project, Journey into America, is the companion to that.

I just finished watching the film documenting the group’s travels through our nation. After 9 months, 75 cities and 100 mosques later, it more than lives up to Akbar’s previous work. The film presents the depth and breadth of what it means to be Muslim in America – and consequently, what it means to be American.

From interviews with leading intellectual Noam Chomsky and Congressman Keith Ellison to conversations with residents of Arab, AL, Somali factory workers in Grand Island, Neb., and party-goers at Mardi Gras, to visits to American landmarks like Plymouth Rock and the Alamo, Akbar and his team take the viewer on a voyage through 21st century America.

It isn’t all pretty. A child in Texas describes his experiences growing up, telling the viewer that “Nobody likes [Muslims in Texas] – but they don’t mind us.” At another point, preeminent Muslim leader Shaykh Hamza Yusuf references Noam Chomsky, quoting that racism towards Arabs is the last acceptable bastion of racism – and adding that this applies to Muslims in general. We hear the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian businessman in New Orleans who was arrested and detained without reason during Hurricane Katrina.

But the film also illuminates the joy of being a Muslim in America. At a Muslim school in Chicago, when asked by the teacher if they were Muslim, a sea of shining faces respond with a resounding “Yes!”

In Salt Lake City, when asked how it felt to live as a Muslim among so many Mormons, a young man responded that he feels “Utah is the best place to raise kids. It’s just that I could be more myself here than I could anywhere else, even in a Muslim country, because here, if you’re different, it’s not viewed as bad.”

In Dearborn, Mich., we meet third generation Halal meat shop owners, who in the best of the American tradition have passed their family business down from father to son to grandson.

One of my favorite lines came from the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Akbar asked Jackson which founding father he found most inspiring, and he responded with one of my personal faith heroes – the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Jackson pointed out that today, there is a generation building bridges because the wall has been torn down.

Journey into America – both in practice and presentation – reveals some of the newest and gravest chasms facing American society today, but also offers us stories of the generation building bridges across them.

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  • PSolus

    Do you care to speculate on what I would encounter if I were to set out to learn about rational, intelligent thought in Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria, Algeria, Lebanon, etc.?

  • zebra4

    PSolus:Your attampt to equate those named countries with America and really change the subject of this article is not only impotent but is also shameful.America is America because it has a unique history and because it is a melting pot of cultures and religions.

  • daniel12

    I suppose, although I have not exactly been the best friend of Muslims, I can say something respectful toward Muslims today. I get my haircuts from a Muslim barber shop, and they are the best haircuts I have ever received. I have curly hair and Muslims are masters of curly hair, they know exactly what to do with it. And they have one technique I have never had done anywhere else and it is a technique really pleasurable to undergo. I mean the technique of taking a razor and holding it in the same hand as a comb and “combing” the hair. It feels great and the effect on hair style is great. Also the dentist I had is Muslim and did a great job on a root canal I unfortunately had to undergo for a tooth I chipped while eating. He performed the root canal on the very day I went to his office. I had never had such a thing done before and I was startled when he said “let’s get started”. But he did a perfect job and the tooth hurt for only a couple days. Now of course I never think about the tooth at all. Which is a sign of good dentistry. Also, I love sardines and when all the terrorism stuff really started to make the news I considered not getting sardines from places such as Morocco, but then I thought “what the hell…” Big message and wisdom accrued: Do not allow all the terrorism stuff to prejudice one against Muslims in economic action because of course first, Muslims are just as good in economic action as any people, and second, being against Muslims in economic action, not “buying Muslim” or not “frequenting Muslim places” only makes the terrorism worse. What would one expect Muslims to do if they are shut out of the economic market? What would any people do? Perhaps peace is possible after all–if we help one another.

  • PSolus

    zebra4,I can only guess by your incoherent comment that you failed to understand my comment.You might try asking someone who understands English better than you to explain it to you.

  • abhab1

    Any person wanting to know how the average Arab Muslim feels about America need only read some of the comments in the Arab press about any subject dealing with the USA. An article about the economic situation in the USA at AlJazeera TV internet cite prompted the following remark from an Algerian reader.

  • abhab1

    The previous quote I made was taken from the section on Money and Labor of the issue of Aljazeera internet cite on the time and date shown below. The heading was ‘Record rate of Bankruptcies for individuals and Corporations in the USA.السبت 14/10/1430 هـ – الموافق3/10/2009 م (آخر تحديث) الساعة 10:48 (مكة المكرمة)، 7:48 (غرينتش)

  • CalSailor

    I was asked to lead a community observance on Thursday, Sep 13th, 2001, just two days after the Towers came down in NYC, in suburban Maryland, 20 miles from the White House. We had more than two hundred people gathered at the community center, where we offered prayers for those who had died, for the first responders who were working so hard to assist, for the family of those injured or dead, and for understanding among peoples. I made the comment: We do not fully know who and why the people behind this attack chose to do this, but this is not the work of our neighbors who are Muslim. Those of our neighbors who are Muslim have come to this country for the same reasons we or our ancestors came: To become part of this nation, to benefit from its blessings and to offer our work and contributions to the community. Those who did this are terrorists; they are not our Muslim neighbors.People of all religious faiths came up to me afterwards, and some of the most poignant were comments made by Muslims about how betrayed they felt that someone who had claimed their religion was justification for this. We need to be clear on this: Every person who comes to our country with the intent of becoming an American is welcome here. We have no test of religion to become a citizen. We welcome all nations, peoples and colors here. To take any other stand is a betrayal of all that we hold sacred in our country.Pr Chris

  • rentianxiang

    It is always interesting to get a glimpse into what people actually are thinking and saying directly from them. Of course, it is not instructive if it is done with an agenda so as to eliminate things that might not serve that agenda. I am interested to see the film but I hope it does not white-wash the truth, especially with respect to the rejection of many democratic principles by at least a portion of the Muslim population. Just to get an idea of whether this is an honest and thorough picture of Muslim attitudes and experiences in the USA, I wonder if he conducted any interviews with anyone involved with the Islamic schools, such as those in Virginia, which teach hatred for the Jews and Infidels? Were there any questions regarding how the Muslims in America view non-Muslims and what the nature of the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims should be? Unfortunately, the Quran does not offer much hope for non-Muslims being treated as equals by Muslims in the long run. We need to be completely honest about the situation both here and abroad with respect to what it means to be Muslim in a society that does not recognize Islam as any more valid than another religion. I was happy to see that he interviewed the Somali factory workers who forced the factory to bow down to their religious requirements, even though it had a negative impact on the business itself as well as the non-Muslim workers at the factory. I hope that some questions were asked regarding how they view the imposition of their religious laws to the detriment of others and whether they have any responsibility toward those whose lives they have impacted.