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.