Documentary launched at ISNA film festival in Chicago on September 5.
By Dr Amineh Hoti
WASHINGTON, DC: Seeing more than 40,000 Muslims collect in one place in Chicago in America on the 5th of September 2015 under one roof in mega convention halls is insightful to those who should understand the nature of Muslim people and diversity in the United States today. The global media, with its sensationalist nature, wrongly tends to depict Islam and Muslims as inherently violent.
When referring to Muslims, we often hear on our television sets these problematic phrases, “Islamism”/ “Islamists”, “the growing threat of Islam” “they are going to take over”, etc. One criminal incident is associated in a second’s depiction on TV with an entire religious population of human beings. Islam is one of the largest religions of the world with more than 1.5 billion people as followers. But are Muslims – who the media has so readily painted in the wider world imagination as violent – as they are made to be shown?
One of the largest gatherings of Muslims in North America showed how wrong those in the media were who stereotyped a whole world community, simply because they belonged to a particular faith. We arrived in Chicago to attend a series of events organized by ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) – this was the 52nd annual ISNA convention and it included a range of events and entertainment including an array of speakers, book signing by authors, meet the author, round table discussions, colorful bazaars, film festival, art exhibition, recitation competition, children’s program, basketball tournament, health fair, young professional banquet, fashion show, and even a matrimonial banquet! There were so many simultaneous programs each competing with the other for the attention of thousands of excited families and guests. The variety of events here reflected how “normal” Muslims are – like any other community they simply want to survive and live in peace with their environment and with their fellow human beings (this is one aim of ISNA – to promote interfaith relations and positive relations between Muslims and others).
One of the films launched at the film festival of ISNA and shown at prime time was an important and remarkable project called Journey into Europe of which a film with the same title was being launched. I had flown a day before across the world from Islamabad, Pakistan, to Chicago for the launch of this film in which I had taken part. Unlike the popular sensationalist coverage of Islam and Muslims, this project did more to heal than fracture inter-communal and inter-religious relations. Drawing out an array of voices from various faith and cultural communities of Europe – the mother continent of America – it allowed viewers to begin to understand the complexity of the conundrums faced by so many immigrants and local people living side by side in the 21st century against a backdrop of growing communal unease, media sensationalism, marginalization, and violence.
The film brings out the voices of women and men of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Hindu faiths, and those with non, from across Europe — Germany, Spain, the UK, Bosnia, France, Greece and Denmark. Top policy makers and religious leaders (presidents and prime ministers, bishops and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Grand Muftis and Rabbis along with distinguished academics and intellectuals) are interviewed. We hear, for ourselves, what the challenges are and the ways in which we can live together. There are problems but there are also solutions. This film gives us hope, and better still, deeper understanding of the complex situation. Islam is often targeted in the popular media for a lack of women’s equal voices – here women’s voices are varied, strong and powerfully present. In a scene in Granada, against the backdrop of the Alhambra Palace in Spain, we see an array of Muslim women who are from the UK (Cambridge), South Africa, America, Spain and so forth- all challenging popular stereotypes of what it is to look and be like “Muslim”.
Present in the audience were the president of ISNA – Imam Magid who the Time Magazine has called “The American Imam”. Imam Magid spoke and complimented the film highlighting the importance of this work in helping deeper understanding and bridge building. Ambassador Rabbi David Saperstein was also present in the audience. There were distinguished community leaders like Kamran Khan, Munir Chaudhry, and Mo Khan who stood for the senate and promises to have a successful career in politics. The Pakistan council general was represented by Zahid Zaman, a senior diplomat.
A lady in the audience expressed how amazed she was at the range of voices and opinions that were so successfully brought out in the film, she asked, how so many important leaders were interviewed in one project and also how long it took to make the film? The film’s producer Professor Akbar S. Ahmed answered that it took him 50 years of (effortful) work to build up to this project. It was not an easy task because it involved fundraising which would allow extended field research over several years and which would include six members of the team.
The project interviewed asylum seekers landing on the shores of Sicily and Greece. They were arriving in Europe with an economic crisis in the background and rising right wing movements which target Muslims. Islamophobia has risen dramatically and with it anti-Semitism which is an old problem that has never gone away in Europe in spite of the terrible events in the last century when people said “never again”. There were “donner” killings of young Turkish immigrants in Germany – targeted just simply because they were not of white German origin, the rise of the Golden Dawn in Greece, Britain First in the UK whose members are x-army officials and are now out to “clean” Europe of immigrants, especially Muslims and Jews. There were two dangerous trends – alongside conventional reporting of Islam and Muslims giving the impression that Muslims are not to be trusted, they want to take over, they are not one of us. Alongside this general deeply problematic message of the media, there was the rise of extremist groups not wanting to accept, include and integrate, but rather to reject and exclude. The voices of the right wing are also brought out in the film. In all this growing tension and religious stereotyping the ordinary person is left to shoulder the burden of the media image imposed on him/her.
I cannot express my sense of excitement and pride at seeing the film we had worked on so hard finally on the screen with a highly appreciative audience – and at a film festival too. As one top lady physician and development governor pointed out in the audience this film was and should be used as a tool for dialogue to teach better understanding. Indeed, I too, at my own Centre for Knowledge (Markaz-e-Ilm) in South Asia have used Professor Ahmed’s bridge building products before as teaching tools on the subject of increasing the love for knowledge and peace education. As Alex Salmond, the top Scottish leader, said in the film, this film is “the tartan of Islam” today – it explains how societies are interwoven and how we must learn to respect each other to live in peace. Therefore, not only terrorists and their funders (whichever religion or non that they belong to) along with haters of any of the faiths, but everyone, must see this film in order to better understand why we need to stop hating and to live in peace with “the other”.
(Dr. Amineh Hoti, the Executive Director of the Centre for Dialogues & Action at Forman Christian College, is part of the Journey into Europe team.)