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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 4    Issue 15   16-31 December 2009


Journey into America. Produced and narrated by Akbar Ahmed; directed by Craig Considine, 2009, 99 minutes.

The United States’ relationship with its seven million Muslims is challenging its tradition of commitment to human rights, justice and freedom, and will define its future identity as a ‘post-racial’ society, testing the nation’s unique ability to lead the whole world to a better future. This is the message of the new documentary film Journey into America, constructed as a collage of scenes chosen from over 70 US cities and 100 mosques visited by Akbar Ahmed, the Pakistani Muslim anthropologist, and his team of five young Americans who became like his extended family – joined for shooting in Texas by Ahmed’s own family. This is less an ethnographic film, for we never stop in the same place for more than a few minutes, than a combination of morality tale and road movie.

So do not expect the gradual building up of an interpretation from evidence, which would be impossible when covering such a huge topic. Relentlessly, Ahmed hammers home that recognition of the humanity of others is essential to a civilized society, and that there is no reason why Muslims should not take their rightful place in the pluralist, tolerant society symbolized by the Statue of Liberty – especially if they are hard-working, thirsty for education, and willing to integrate with American civic and patriotic values. Chomsky, one of a number of public figures interviewed to camera, says that the settler populations of the USA have always been irrationally fearful of a supposed enemy within, which actually they were crushing: first the Native Americans, then the black slaves, then the Irish, the Jews, the Chinese, the Hispanics – and now the Muslims. Anthropologist Lawrence Rosen points out that Muslims cut across the lines of conventional ethnic categories in the USA.

Most of the film is devoted to the sympathetic depiction of Muslims in various walks of life, and to descriptions of the discrimination and harassment, often violent, that they are exposed to. It also suggests that anti-Muslim prejudice can be the result of ignorance rather than malice. Ahmed does not shirk from admitting that the special difficulties the United States has with its Muslim minority are not exclusively the fault of the still dominant Judaeo-Christian majority. Indeed, much groundwork in fostering good community relations in some of the USA’s cities was set back many years by 9/11. The former president of a Muslim students’ association in a Detroit college tells how he was attacked by three jihadi Muslims, men he had worked with: they nearly killed him because he was trying to promote dialogue between Muslims, Jews and Christians. The Sheriff of Los Angeles says that the leading US Muslim organizations have missed an opportunity in not publishing in Jewish journals an unconditional condemnation of suicide bombings.

The nearest in the USA to dar al-Islam seems to be Utah, where Ahmed sees a parallel between Islam and Mormonism, because of doctrinal similarities and because of the ‘misunderstandings’ that both have suffered from. Utah is described as the best place to raise a Muslim family because of the absence of anti-Muslim discrimination. Perdition is represented first by Las Vegas, where the exorbitant hotels throw away food rather than give it to the poor, and second by Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where the camera dwells disgustedly on drunken rowdies who swear, insult Islam, and flash their private parts in return for coins.

Ahmed comments urbanely to camera that Muslims cannot accept gambling, alcohol and free-for-all sex; and we cut to a self-confessed ex-‘party girl’ explaining how, by converting to Islam, she has discovered spiritual peace. Mardi Gras, evidently, encapsulates the destiny of a country that has lost its religious moorings – though we also meet a spectrum of Christians ranging from inter-faith activists (the Catholic Archbishop of Houston gives the film a formal blessing near the end) to virulent Islamophobes.

As an exercise in trying to persuade Americans that they have over-reacted to the trauma of 9/11, and that the proportion of American Muslims who want to take over the country is a tiny minority, this film is an undoubtedly worthwhile. There is no reason why it should have added still further to its scope by explaining the jihadi tendency in Islam, or how this has been unintentionally nourished by US foreign policy. However, it is hard to understand why one of experts interviewed should be Michael Chertoff, extolling the Pilgrim Fathers’ quest for freedom and predicting that the USA will probably one day have a Muslim President, There is no mention that Chertoff, as a leading member of the Bush-Cheney administrations, was one of the architects of the ‘global war on terror’ and the PATRIOT Act. Of course, it may be that Chertoff out of office has mulled over his past, à la Robert McNamara, and has come to regret the neo-McCarthyite flavour of the Bush-Cheney years – but if this is the case, we are not so informed.

As a collage Journey into America is intricately composed. Though inconveniently long, it could be found specially useful in teaching contexts as a basis for discussion – for instance, about the pros and cons of faith schools. In one telling moment, a boy of about ten years old, filmed at a meeting of New York Muslims, complains about anti-Muslim prejudice and adds ‘You’ll see how big we are’. Does he mean that Muslims will contribute greatly to American life, or is he playing the demographic card? Another issue for debate: in a society of gender equality is it acceptable that a Muslim man marrying a non-Muslim woman is obliged by Islamic law to convert (as one man interviewed in this film willingly did), but not vice versa?

Akbar Ahmed’s benign personality presides over the whole. True, one might hope for a sharper recognition of the anthropological principle that what people say is not necessarily the same as what they do. Inter-faith exhortation tends to overhang like a cloud of words when it is not anchored to practical social problems such as poverty alleviation. We see this practised in a down-to-earth way by the imam in Las Vegas at his struggling mosque-cum-social service centre (founded in the 1960s by the Nation of Islam), together with the bishop of the Rehoboth Holiness Cathedral.

Ahmed’s media profile is now as high as that of any living cultural anthropologist. One does not have to agree with all his positions to recognize that, in the specific but crucial field of Islam and relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, his life’s work has done much to advance the values of anthropology. His celebrity should be welcomed as a gift to the discipline.

Jonathan Benthall
University College London
1. Journey into America is an independent production and is privately distributed by Akbar Ahmed. For a copy contact: akbar@american.edu. For further details see http://journeyintoamerica.wordpress.com/.

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