There is something so refreshingly beautiful about telling people’s stories when they have your complete attention, respect and cooperation. Because her interviewees trust her completely, Mara Ahmed’s engrossing documentary works on all levels. It intimately describes the lifestyles of Muslims living in a post 9/11 America with compassionate understanding and scholarly inquisitiveness. It is a film that asks hard questions but answers them with aplomb using the voices of brilliant American Muslim teenagers, articulate professors, well respected local religious leaders from Rochester, and her own friends and family members. The whole experience has a certain tone and flow which instantly relaxes the viewer into an appreciative state of philosophic wonder about the true nature of Islam and what it is like to be a follower of Allah in America today.
I also appreciate the candidness and gentle courage of the film. Through her various portrayals of “average” American Muslims, Ahmed challenges principles of American democracy by exposing how easily they can be eroded and forfeited in times of political fear and social paranoia. As she graphically alludes to in her film, millions of Muslims face the threat of imperialistic terror in sovereign nations like Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen on a daily basis. Yet there is also the terror of Islamophobia here at home. This is a terror which many Muslims in America feel when they go to the airport, or drop their children off at school. This is a more insidious form of terror that has no beginning and no end because it is manufactured and directed by society rather than individuals.
The Muslims I Know makes the compelling case that if left alone and given the opportunity to prosper as free citizens, the vast majority of Muslims will be some of the nation’s most loving parents, skilled doctors, dedicated teachers, honest and talented police, trustworthy politicians, and noble soldiers. In other words, to reject Muslims from America is not only counterproductive from a human resources perspective, it is to reject the very origins and principles which brought this nation into existence. In fact, I heard from a young college student recently that Ben Franklin actually studied the Qur’an when he was helping to draft our nation’s Constitution. After viewing Ahmed’s film it became even more obvious to me that there is no America without the contribution of Islam. From the very founding of this country-both before and after the birth pangs of revolution- Islamic messengers, artists, teachers, laborers (both free and slave), and so many remarkable athletic and entertainment superstars have helped to create what we call the American experience. This American- Muslim history is American history; it is not a subset or episode in American history that deserves our specialized attention. To think of Muslims as mere contributors to our history is to distance and other Muslims in a way that leads to discrimination, religious intolerance, and xenophobia. More to the point, it overlooks the simple fact that our history is their history and vise versa.
That being said, I often wonder just how strange and grandiose the hallowed principles of American democracy must sound to an orphan on the streets of Kabul, or to a Syrian refugee stranded on a capsizing boat in the Mediterranean. How must they sound to the tortured inmates locked away at Gitmo, or to the 6 year old Muslim boy who is body searched at Dulles? How must they sound to the Muslim Americans who pay taxes and obey the law but are denied jobs because of their choice to wear the hijab? These are good questions.
Fortunately we get answers from Mara Ahmed’s creatively thought provoking and noninvasive film. Not only did Ahmed capture the stories of Muslims she knows, she also captured their hopes and fears on camera in a way that helps explain an entire generational struggle with roots dating back more than a thousand years. She brings so much insight, tenderness and dignity to the conversation that it becomes clear to non-Muslim viewers why this religious call has awakened the souls of men and women on every continent since the Prophet first recited the voice of Gabriel.
In the end, what shines through most brightly in her film is the joyful resilience of an ancient faith which we should all know much better.