On the evening of 12th December the School of Oriental and African Studies hosted the film screening of ‘Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam’. This was the first event in the Muslims, Trust and Cultural Dialogue project, and was co-sponsored by the Framing Muslims Research Network and the Centre for the Study of Pakistan at SOAS.
The film was a timely and varied exploration of the Muslim experience in the USA. It followed Professor Akbar Ahmed and his team of American students to more than 100 mosques in cities, suburbs and towns across America. The film reveals a patchwork of Muslim American life: Abdul Rahman Zaytoun who was detained after 9/11, the Dawoodi Bohras an organised Shi’a sect of Indian origin, a town called Arab which contained no Arabs, Houston which has over 100 mosques, and Andre Carson the African American Muslim senator.
The film was followed by a panel discussion with the film-maker Professor Akbar Ahmed, a noted anthropologist and commentator on contemporary Islam, his co-researcher Craig Considine, a PhD candidate at Dublin Trinity College, Dr Anshuman Mondal of Brunel University and Professor Peter Morey of the University of East London.
Professor Ahmed emphasised that the film was part of a much wider research project that has now been published under the same name as the film by Brookings Institution Press. He posited that the example and resilience of Muslims in America is a continuation of the vision of Thomas Jefferson and the values of America’s founding fathers. “We are trying to re-affirm these values”, asserted researcher Craig Considine, adding that the purpose of the film was to promote better understanding and that this current series of screenings took place against the background of the “Innocence of Muslims” film controversy. Considine proposed that the contradictions of the American Muslim experience demonstrated a need to re-evaluate and restore America’s original values. Professor Peter Morey of UEL spoke about his own parallel work, the ‘Framing Muslims’ project which was established “to distinguish between Muslims as a bogey construct versus real people”. He also postulated what an equivalent ‘Journey into Britain’ might look like, considering the cultural diversity of British Islam. Dr Anshuman Mondal suggested that there may be a feeling in the UK that pluralism was ‘foisted upon’ the majority population by mass immigration, which is a very different context to the migrant history of America. He added that the ‘religion/culture’ dichotomy is part of a wider re-fashioning of young Islamic identity in relation to the parents’ ‘first generation’ legacy, suggesting that “their new identity reflects the freedom and pluralism of Western culture”.