Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, has come to an end and Muslims from around the world celebrated Eid al-Fitr. August proved to be a time of discipline and dedication for Muslims that abstained from food, drink, intimacy and other temptations from dawn to dusk, every day for a month.
But now, September is approaching and Americans will inevitably take a retrospective look on 9/11. The aftermath of the terrorist attacks left Muslims wondering how life in America will change. Although there is a large population of Muslims in this country, adherents at that time believed that Islam is the most widely misunderstood religion in America. It is understandable to fear the unknown.
In 2009, Michael Wolfe and Alex Kronemer of Unity Productions Foundation premiered a documentary, Inside Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think in Washington DC. This 55-minutes film brings to life extensive research done by the Gallup World Poll, which interviewed thousands of Muslims in over 35 countries to simply find out what they think.
The documentary features experts like John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed that wrote a book in 2008, Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think. The film highlights the relationship between Muslims and the West which is based on facts and not fear.
The film’s executive producer, Michael Wolfe, sits down with me to discuss Inside Islam, what Muslims think and what American’s should think.
Why were you invested and/or inspired to do this documentary?
I wrote a book in the 1990s about going to Mecca. It was a travel book about the hajj, my first hajj in the early 1990s. That book was read by a producer on ABC nightline, Ted Koppel’s nightly program. They thought it would be interesting to go Mecca with a camera crew and film the hajj. It was the first time an American reporter with cameras had gone to Mecca and reported back from there. I got a crash course in making documentary films. After that, about a year later I met my current production partner, Alex Kroener. He had done something similar with CNN concerning the hajj. And being both American-born Muslims and both people that had something to do with television, we got the idea of doing a documentary together which wound up being Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet. It is a 2 hour documentary for PBS. That finished not long after 9/11 and broadcast not long after 9/11. It was received very well because American viewers and audiences did not have much information about Islam or contemporary Islam. There were big audiences for this program. It showed 100 times the first year in the United States. That meant somewhere every night this program was playing in the US. That seemed too important a statistic to ignore. So we went on to make other documentaries. We’ve been doing this now for over 10 years.
How long did it take to complete it Inside Islam?
This particular one required two years from beginning to end. We made it in conjunction with and based on years of research and years of polling research that went into the first ever global poll of Muslims in the world. Instead it being someone’s interpretation of what Muslims think, this is a presentation of in-depth scientific polling in 35 countries around the world of what Muslims actually think.
How did you determine who would be featured in the film?
Because it was Gallup’s poll and the report was written up as a small book by John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed. Dalia was the lead researcher in the poll and it featured the two of them. One was academic the other a professional researcher. They were already the interpreters of the information having written the book. It was logical to feature them as the spokespersons. We also wanted people outside of Gallup as well. That accounted for Pollack and we went to Lebanon and interviewed Jihad who was in charge of the field research in a number of the central countries in the Arabic speaking part of the Muslim world. We chose them because they had hands on experience.
What were some difficulties in putting this film together?
Making research interesting. Every film has its challenge. And this is making polling statistics interesting, visually interesting to an audience that is use to turning on the television and seeing something exciting or gripping that makes them put their fingers to their cheek and say “oh, I didn’t know that”. You pretty much have to elicit from an audience in order to establish any interest. “I didn’t know that” is a very important one for documentary filmmakers. There is a lot of these reactions in this film because the general American audience has a lot of stereotypical assumptions that I would call cliché assumptions of the Muslim world. Many of them based on how different Muslims are from everybody else. One of the important findings in the poll demonstrates that Muslims are in their trusts, in what they like for their children and for themselves, in their education and economy are the same as most other people in the world. And also, like every large human group, there is a small sliver of them that are impatient to the point of violence.
Your film premiered June 3rd 2009 in DC, what were your feelings during the premiere? How did the audience react?
We premiered it to a large group, probably 800 people. Many represented organizations of various types themselves. Including parts of the State Department, various parts of the Departments of Justice, police departments, interfaith religious leaders and social scientists. So, the premiere was not advertised in the newspapers “come one, come all”. Our purpose in doing that was to spread the information about this poll in the film among influential people who would then carry it out further because all this information has policy implications. It has implications for police departments and how individuals are profiled or not. It has a lot of implications. So we invited a large group of people to the premiere who actually had very positive responses.
Madeline Albright introduced the film, past Secretary of State, to the audience, as did a couple of professors from Georgetown University. The people that left that auditorium went out into their various parts of the government and parts of society with a new piece of news. Part of the result of that was that the film was shown on capital hill a number of times. It was shown in the State Department a number of times. It is still being shown in various police departments around the country. It is a film that has been on television on PBS and it has also been used in trainings and in social interactions of various kinds all over the country.
One of the most recent examples is about six weeks ago. [The film] was shown to 150 people in the Department of Justice. Remarks by individuals in the audience included, “oh I didn’t know that ” and “I didn’t realized how little I knew”. This is the Department of Justice in the US government.
9/11 triggered a sense of fear against Islam and Muslims…With the 10 year anniversary approaching do you think Americans/West know more about Islam now?
That is a very good question. I would say yes amongst the better educated and those that care to find out and read a little bit and have Muslim friends. But there is also a counterforce in the country, which is a small minority that is very well financed that is putting out a different negative message. There is political gain to be had by putting up negative message and security issues. One of the models of US economy and foreign policy is to have a “boogie man”. That’s what the Soviety Union was about for 40 years. That’s how foreign policy has formulated often is to have a big enemy of some kind. Obviously 9/11 played in to that.
But I think we are coming out of the other side of that 10 years hence. Choices are not “you’re with us or against us”. That was the choice presented to the American public and the world by very powerful military and economic force. That argument doesn’t hold water anymore. That presentation of that dynamic is not what is going on anymore. Things have really changed. I think the US, as we move in to an election year, will hear a small minority of extremely conservation position that is really disturbing rhetoric that has been in the veins of the small minority of the US for more than 150 years.
It goes back to the 1850s during the civil war, then theRoman Catholics and therefore the Irish and the Italian that were going to take over the country and polute the race. Then it was the Chinese, then the Japanese, and then the Germans. You go right down this long list of groups that have been viewed as the “end of America as we know it”. Muslims need to know this history too. As Muslims we need to know that we are not being singled out. This is a historical pattern. This is a cultural pattern. It is the dark side of the American dream. There is no other country like this.
Do you believe the Western world respects the Muslim world?
No. First of all, it is not a subtle question. There is a lot of people on both sides of that question. There are people that do have respect. When there is such stereotypical behavior you have to think there is a piece missing here. The piece is respect. The piece is, these people are not like me but it doesn’t mean I have to jump all over them and change their world. That is respect. Respect is to say there is difference in the world, but its okay I’m different too. I think we’re in a better place now than we were during the worst days of 2005 with Abu Gharib. What we are seeing now is that at home, the rise of the election rhetoric. A certain amount of the election rhetoric is rooted in anti-Muslim, or Islamaphobic rhetoric.
People like to put laws on the books in states. Religious laws are already outlawed, there is only one law and that is the law of the land. To put a law in the books that says Sharia Law can’t [be included] – its already on the books. It’s ridiculous and they know that. These are lawyers – they are people in the state houses. They know this. But what they get out of it is the ability to eventually get cheap votes. So, this is electioneering, deeply imbedded in the way things are done are.
Why should the people in Orange County care about “what Muslims think”?
The vast majority of Muslims in the United States are hard working people with children in school, mortgages to pay, and jobs to do. Many of them service jobs like doctors, teachers, etc. If and when an individual Muslim does something violent, objectionable, and illegal then he should be tried and given his day in court. But the other millions of Muslims should not be feared no more than someone that is Italian, French, Spanish, German, English, Chinese, or Japanese background.
My notion would be to offer general rights to all citizens in this country because that is the American thing to do. Furthermore, when these rights are not offered to a group, then those of us that really are American should come out and say that is not what this country is suppose to be about. We should stand up a little bit for people that are not getting their rights because as Benjamin Franklin said “ we either all hang together here or hang separately”. At some point the democratic values that are held so dear by the real patriots of America are all contingent on all of us honoring them for each other. If I don’t have those rights then you don’t have those rights.
What’s in the pipeline for your production company? What can we expect?
I have a new film coming out in winter 2012 about the civilizational art of the Islamic world. We filmed in nine countries. There is beautiful footage of architecture from the Taj Mahal, to Turkey, to Damascus and to West Africa. There is also all the most beautiful objects of daily use from over 1400 years. It’s really a film about beauty.