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Professor Akbar Ahmed and his team visited 100 mosques across America during filming. - Courtesy
The United States is a country founded on the principles of freedom, justice, and tolerance. These fundamental ideas are revisited in Journey into America, a documentary that explores American identity through the Muslim lens. Professor Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, traveled with a team of young Americans for nine months, visiting over 75 cities and 100 mosques in the United States. The result is an unprecedented effort to understand the nuanced dimensions of Islam in America, and its place within the broader American identity.

Journey into America - the companion to Professor Ahmed's earlier study Journey into Islam The Crisis of Globalization, which documents Ahmed's tour of the Muslim world - is the first consolidated anthropological study on the Muslim-American community. Five Americans were chosen to be part of the team - Craig Considine (the film's director), Madeeha Hameed, Jonathan Hayden, Frankie Martin, and Hailey Woldt. According to Ahmed, the team members were not only instrumental in conducting the necessary fieldwork, but they also acted as his 'guides' on the journey.

That said, the film was also a journey of discovery for Ahmed's team. Woldt, a former honours student of Ahmed's who traveled with him through the Muslim World for Journey into Islam, says this recent study challenged her preconceived notions about her own country. 'I learned so much about my own society by talking to the Muslim community,' she says. 

At one point in the documentary, the team visited Arab, Alabama, where they conducted a small social experiment, dressing Woldt in a full abaya to gauge the residents' reactions. Despite the fact that Arab (pronounced 'Ay-raab') is a small and more homogenous town, people were warm and welcoming, living up to what Ahmed hails as 'southern hospitality.' Woldt adds that the residents of Arab were open to getting to know her as a person, rather than viewing her simply 'as an image or a stereotype.'

Such anecdotes in the film are refreshing because they show how misconceptions persist on both sides of the divide. While ignorance does exist, it does not always come from a place of hatred, but sometimes from a simple lack of exposure. In such instances, there is an opportunity to foster understanding and change perceptions, as was illustrated a number of times throughout Journey into America.

In Chicago, the team encountered a street named Mohammed Ali Jinnah Way, in honour of Pakistan's founding father, the Quaid-e-Azam. Interestingly, the street was commissioned by a Jewish gentleman, a longtime figure on the Chicago City Council, Alderman Bernie Stone. In the film, Stone admits, 'I probably have better support from Muslims than Jews.' He adds, 'My message is that each of us should treat each other as you would treat your own brother.'

In Los Angeles, the city with the largest Muslim population in America, Sheriff Lee Baca calls himself a Pakhtun, having traveled not only to Pakistan but also to the Khyber Pass. Well-versed in Islam, he is an instrumental leader in encouraging understanding among the various faiths in his community.

The film explores the diversity of the Muslim-American community, from a Shia congregation in New York City to a community in Dearborn, Michigan, to the oldest mosque in America, built in 1934 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Ahmed and his team even visited Sapelo, a small island off the coast of Georgia. There, they interviewed Ms Bailey, a direct descendent of Bilali Muhammed, a West African Muslim slave brought to Sapelo in the early nineteenth century. Although Muhammed's descendants have since converted to Christianity, the churches on the island still face east towards Mecca, and until recently, worshippers removed their shoes before entering the church. To this day, the people of the island bury their dead facing Mecca.

These different stories become the interwoven narratives of the documentary, creating a colourful picture book of the Muslim-American community. Despite the nuanced differences between the communities, Ahmed notes there was still an 'overall sense of being Muslim.' Moreover, he and his team were overwhelmed by the tremendous amount of hospitality they received. That generosity and warmth, he says, became a universal thread in their journey. '[Those we met] were so grateful because we were traveling to their homes and talking to them face-to-face, rather than writing about them from afar.' In doing so, Ahmed and his team gave these communities a voice to tell their story.

The question of American identity was another constant thread in Journey into America. In particular, the film sought to address the difficult question of how Islam fit within these parameters in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks. The issue was touched upon in the film's numerous interviews with notable figures, including Noam Chomsky, former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, and Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Ahmed's team also met with Keith Ellison, a Muslim Congressman from Minnesota, who took his oath of office on the Holy Quran. Although he came under attack by some who called this action 'a threat to American values,' the interesting twist was that the copy of the Quran used for the swearing in ceremony was owned by one of the country's founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson.

For Ahmed, the journey was an effort to not only probe Muslim identity in America, but also revisit the ideals of these founders. 'We were hunting for clues of what the founding fathers wanted (for American society),' he says. When the team visited the University of Virginia, they encountered a statue of Thomas Jefferson. In the hands of the third US President was a book dated 1786 and the words, 'God-Jehovah, Allah, Brahma, Ra...' The founding fathers' ideal of religious pluralism was immortalised in the hands of this statue. For America to progress, Professor Ahmed notes, it must rediscover these fundamental values. Journey into America is therefore a definitive study on all of these difficult questions, using an approach that is as humanistic and emotional as it is academic.

Journey into America, produced and narrated by Akbar Ahmed, directed by Craig Considine, is 99 minutes long. It has shown at numerous film festivals, including the Islamic Film Festival, and has screened throughout the United States. The next screening will be at the Washington National Cathedral on October 25 in Washington, D.C. The documentary will also be presented on an independent Pakistani television channel in coming weeks.