A journey into something

Interfaith projects are always interesting. If an opportunity arises to watch a documentary by a renowned Pakistani anthropologist it would be foolish to dismiss it. It so happened that such an opportunity arose in December last year. I signed up for it, looking forward to an intellectual experience.

The documentary screened was a shortened version of a 90 minutes documentary. It was edited into a 20 minutes video on Muslims and perceptions of Muslims in America. It was an interesting video. I I think they focused more on the image of the victim Muslims who want to be accepted by American society, but are not. As well as how Muslims are apologetic about being Muslims. This was also a comment made in the documentary by Bapsi Sidwa, a Parsi Pakistani author, living in the States.

Maybe Denmark is different from USA, maybe Muslims who are apologetic are not strong enough, or sufficiently educated to explain their faith. I say this because I don’t remember my parents being apologetic about being Muslims. Moreover, I know of an American Muslim of Pakistani origin. During his student days at university he was actively involved with the Islamic Society and promoting awareness about Islam to non-Muslims. He prays 5 times a day, speaks Arabic fluently and has studied at Al-Azhar. Not to mention, he is a very successful corporate lawyer, a partner in one of the top legal firms in the States. He may not have a beard and dress like a cleric, but he is certainly an informed practicing Muslim.

The proud examples shown in the documentary were mostly of converts to Islam. Some were from the media and legal professions. One was also a congressman sworn into Congress with a Quran Jefferson had. The one who worked in media talked about how she felt much safer covered up than she ever did before and how non-Muslims don’t really care about anything other than fame and money. These things you find in the Muslim world too. I went from the Christian world to the Muslim world and I saw more moral filth there than I ever did in Europe. I don’t think you can just generalize about people like that. Yes, ignorance has to be dealt with, and communication is the best way to do so.

In this connection, the documentary is a step in the right direction because it shows the different colours of the Muslim community and the opinions of non-Muslims about Islam. One funny incident was the choice of a town in Alabama called Arab. It’s an all white town, nothing to do with Islam or Muslims. It was supposed to be Arad, but someone got the spelling wrong and never changed it back. Dr. Anthropologist and his research students also conducted a field experiment. One of the girls from his team dressed up in black abaya and scarf and interacted with the community to find out about their opinions on Muslims and Islam. It turned out that since Arab is an all white, Christian town they knew nothing due to lack of exposure. The video also kept mentioning a statue of Jefferson outside a prestigious university. The statue is holding a tablet with different names of God, according to the different religions, including Allah.

It seems the documentary was shortened to leave more time for the Q & A session. The panel lacked enthusiasm. One of the academics on the panel instead of making his introduction mumbled his opinions about the documentary and was very unclear.

The Q & A session was quite interesting. One statement made by a former UN staff in the audience, was that the Quran Jefferson had, was not out of humanitarian spirit but to communicate and deal with Muslim pirates along the coasts of America. He also said that the tablet on the Jefferson statue was meant to illustrate that anyone was welcome to America as long as they lived according to the laws of the land. He also said: “any society is formed by its laws, not by the sentiments of its community. Muslims are known for having strong sentiments, but have little adherence to the law, let alone Shariah law.” They come to the West because they are unable to exist in their countries of origin due to the lack of freedom of expression and movement in those countries. In this connection Muslims are not just demonized in the West, but also in their own countries.

In connection with the above, Dr. Anthropologist replies that his documentary is an effort in challenging intolerance. He raised an interesting point that the struggle must come from within Islam. Muslims in general must continue to fight for the vision of the ideal Islam, which is justice, equality and compassion. However, these are ideals of all the Abrahamic, monotheistic faiths.

To conclude, Dr. Anthropologist also mentioned that “a lack of simple solutions prevent the finding of a common ground between communities of the different faiths”. According to the panel, some interesting avenues for further investigation were raised during the Q& A session, however I wonder if the avenues discussed were the kind Dr. Anthropologist was interested in, because you don’t mention you have to catch the train back to Cambridge. Moreover, showing excerpts from a documentary is different from an actual documentary screening. They ought to include the much talked about scenes with Noam Chomsky, Hamza Yusuf and Jesse Jackson in the screening. It seemed they were not so much interested in screening a documentary, but wanted to create an opportunity to get fresh ideas to continue their projects. Moreover, I think such occasions benefit everyone, the participants as well as the arrangers, because you get to see interesting public figures and they get to have interactive brainstorming sessions with a curious audience.