By Ali Moosavi.

We’re all carrying so many years of this trauma and so the film for me is really about helping our community acknowledge that this happened but also how we should heal from it.”

Ever since 9/11 Islamophobia in the West, in particular USA, has been on the rise. This existed way before 9/11, even the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995 was initially suspected to be carried out by Muslim extremists. The famous speech by President Obama in Cairo University in 2009 gave hope to many Muslims that a new dawn in treatment of Muslims in USA had arrived, but it proved to be a false dawn. The Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 further fueled the animosity towards Muslims. The continuous linking of Islam with terrorism by media and use of terms such as “Islamic Terrorists”, “Jihadists”, etc. has not helped. The worsening of the situation for Muslims reached its peak during the Trump presidency and introduction of the infamous Muslim Ban.

In her documentary An Act of Worship, filmmaker Nausheen Dadabhoy has looked at the condition of Muslims in USA from a Muslim viewpoint. She has interviewed many victims of Islamophobia in USA. Some have been bullied at school while families of others have not been allowed to visit their children in USA, even to attend their wedding.

I spoke to Nausheen Dadabhoy.

You have divided your documentary into chapters, each with a heading of a significant date that negatively affected USA’s view of Muslims, such as 9/11, the Boston Marathon Bombings, etc. Was there any specific event that made you want to make this documentary, or it was a culmination of all the various events?

In the film a lot of the structure of the events that we’re looking at are those that  defined moments in time for people around my age (I was born in 1982), people who were born in the 70s, 80s early 90s whose parents immigrated here after the Immigration and Naturalization Act. I think a lot of those moments defined us; the First Gulf War, the Oklahoma City Bombing, of course 9/11 and since then, like with the Boston Bombing, the countering violent extremism program all of those things kept trickling and loading into anti-Muslim rhetoric and anti-Muslim policy. I think at least for me what impacted me and made me make this the film was a culmination of so many events and so many things that were driving me not just in terms of this Islamophobia in the US, but I think also in terms of documentary filmmaking or films in general and the kinds of stories that are told about our community.

You made this initially as a short film, how was the journey from the short film to the full documentary?

The interesting thing is that we always thought about making a feature first but when the Muslim Ban was announced we were already in development and had already established a relationship with CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations) in Los Angeles and we received funding for a short. That was part of their program for communities that were impacted by the Trump Administration. So for us it was a good opportunity to make a proof of concept of what we thought the film was going to be about. Initially we thought we’ll follow CAIR for a year and the film is going to be about CAIR. After we made the short we resumed development and ended up travelling to a bunch of different cities in the US and during that time we figured out that this film can’t just be about CAIR. What we were seeing was that there were young women in every city we went to who were on the front lines of combating Islamaphobia and so we thought the film also has to be about these young women and how they’ve been largely overlooked in the American cultural framework of how we talk about Muslims in the US.

How did you do your research finding all these different people that we see in the film?

There was a lot of on-the-ground work and we ended up traveling to around twenty cities. We had this relationship with CAIR and asked them to introduce us to other CAIR chapters so we started there and then for instance I want to Michigan and met with people from the CAIR chapter there but I also met with a bunch of other activists working locally. We interviewed a number of people just to see if their story was compelling and if they seemed comfortable talking to us and whether their story made sense in the broader framework of what we were trying to cover. We were going to each state and having FaceTime with people and that also helped us figure out what are the issues that are impacting people in in our communities. For instance the way anti-Sharia legislation works in Tennessee is very different from the kind of legislation we see in New York or California. So it was a lot of just travel, going places, building relationships with people. We encountered so much hesitancy from people about wanting to talk to the media or even be in a film so we literally had to show up and sit down with them and say this is who we are, you interested in participating in this project?

We were seeing that there were young women in every city we went to who were on the front lines of combating Islamaphobia and so we thought the film also has to be about these young women and how they’ve been largely overlooked in the American cultural framework of how we talk about Muslims in the US.

Do you think that the Muslims who have migrated to the US should do more to assimilate into the American way of life or the onus should be on the non-Muslim Americans to better understand Muslims and their way of life and their cultural beliefs?

I guess to me that idea of needing to assimilate just doesn’t work. I don’t think that assimilation should be a goal because assimilation automatically assumes that the norm is white culture and the norm isn’t white culture. We’ve been programmed as a society globally to think about white supremacy as the cultural norm but that’s not the cultural norm, it’s just 100 years of colonization and the kind of media that we see that still makes that the cultural norm. So to me that should never be a goal and in terms of non-Muslim people trying to understand who we are, I think we’re past the point of humanizing Muslims or seeking empathy. We should already have a baseline starting point that Muslims are humans! and that shouldn’t be something that we should be asking of people outside of our community.

Specially since 9/11 the word Islam is linked a lot in media with terrorism, like the expression “Islamic terrorists” and somehow Islam has become linked with terror.  How do you see the role of media in this in the US?

I think even in your question you’re saying this is how the media talks about Islam so the problem isn’t how we’re talking about Islam, the problem is how the media is talking about Islam. If you look at this association of Islam with violence and terror, it doesn’t start in America, it doesn’t start at 9/11, it goes all the way back to medieval discourse about the Crusades and how we talk about justifying Christian militancy and expanding the Christian state and going into what had been Muslim majority regions and trying to conquer them. This framework is very orientalist in terms of how we think about Islam in that gaze and is not something that I’m even considering like I don’t associate Islam with terror, that’s not something that I’m taking into consideration when I’m making my film, and that feels like it’s a problem for white people to address, like why has the White Christian majority linked Islam with terror. Usually it’s about drumming up political support and you can see a rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes whenever there’s an election and that’s why you have this kind of discourse but the proportion of media coverage about Muslim terrorism or Islamic extremism definitely outweighs the number of related incidents in the US and even abroad.

You show a lot of the issues and problems that Muslims face in the US. Do you have any solutions to offer to reduce these problems and improve the relationship between Muslims with non-Muslims in the US?

I think there are a lot of people who are doing good work related to how to reach out to people outside of our community and create better relationships and obviously a lot of that work starts with civic engagement. It starts with voting, who you’re voting for and becoming involved in your local communities first. For me this movie was more about our community understanding this is what the last thirty years have been like for Muslims in the US. There’s a lot of unacknowledged trauma in our community; we would interview people and we would ask them can you recount on an incident of Islamophobia and they would often like brush off something and say well this happened to me but it’s not as bad as what happened to somebody else. We’re all carrying so many years of this trauma and so the film for me is really about helping our community acknowledge that this happened but also how we should heal from it, how we stop censoring our trauma, how live our lives as Muslims in this country, and do that in a healthy way, not in a way where we’re feeling that we have to be defensive or feeling that we need to reach out to others and build those bridges. I think every other community is allowed to just be who they are like, why can’t we just do that too?

What are your expectations from the US government?

I think repealing anti-Muslim policies would be a good start. We see that even though the Muslim ban was repealed under Biden, we’re still seeing 75% of refugee families that were on the cusp of having their family member reunited with them are now being denied entry or 50% of those who had gotten so far in the process are not having their process moved forward. So repealing the Muslim ban looks nice but how do we actually address the harm that happened to families during that ban? I remember when we were filming in 2018, we had a group of students at a university taking part in a “know your rights” workshop and the person who was leading the workshop was from CAIR New York and was talking about the NYPD surveillance program and it came up during that workshop that this workshop right now could be under surveillance, and we don’t know if the surveillance program has ended. So having programs like this where we’re surveilling the Muslim community and criminalizing wearing a hijab, going to the Mosque, growing a beard, those are the things that the US government can do, starting with not having an anti-Muslim policy.

Where have you shown this documentary so far?

Tribeca is going to be our world premiere.

What are the plans after that? How is how is it going to reach a wider audience?

We can’t share that yet, but we have some good news that’s coming soon!

Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).

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