Peace, Equality, Islam

head scarves

Most Americans don't think of peace and equality when they think of Islam, especially not since September 11. But they just might after watching "Muslims", a new PBS documentary made to illustrate what it means to be Muslim in today's world. The two-hour documentary debuted earlier this month and will re-air on PBS in the coming months (check your local listings) as part of The Television Race Initiative's year-long public awareness campaign, The Islam Project.

Though many Americans denounce Islam as the faith of terrorists and suicide bombers, few seem to know much about the religion that one fifth of the world's population adheres to. The producers of Muslims have set out to dispel many of the popular misconceptions about Islam through interviews with Muslims living in predominantly Islamic countries -- Iran, Malaysia, Egypt, Turkey, and Nigeria -- and in the United States, where Islam is currently the fastest growing faith. Interviewees range from traditional Islamic scholars and the president of the Supreme Council on Shariah (Islamic law) to feminists and reformers who argue for an interpretation of the Qaran (Islamic holy text) that would allow for more rights and social freedoms.

The film illustrates a fact that very few Americans know -- that only about 13 percent of the world's Muslims are Arab. With the recent barrage of news coverage in recent months featuring mostly Arab Islamic extremists, Arab countries, and even Arab American communities, it is fascinating to finally have examples of Islam as a diverse religion and way of life. Some of us may know this, but it's a different thing altogether to get to see it. In the film, people of Middle Eastern, Asian, and African descent are all given the chance to define their own experiences as Muslims, and to combat the stereotypes. The variety of settings shown in "Muslims" also give viewers some needed perspective: shots of Nigeria's bustling market places, Turkey's beautiful Haggia Sophia mosque, and shots of both the urban and tropically idyllic parts of Malaysia remind viewers that Islam is truly a world religion.

The timely Islam Project, which will also include the airing of a film called "Mohammad: Legacy of a Prophet" later this year, is meant to "promote understanding and knowledge of Islam and thereby help decrease acts of prejudice and discrimination." While the film will surely show Americans some of the complexities behind the faith, it never strays from a very traditional documentary style, which might make it less appealing to the people it appears to be targeted towards--those who wouldn't take the time to read about Islam.

The people in the film are shown living their daily lives, at home, at work and school, and for that reason alone, the film is a rare and refreshing alternative to the way Islamic society is portrayed by the mainstream American media.

Shots of Nigeria's bustling market places, Turkey's beautiful Haggia Sophia mosque, and shots of both the urban and tropically idyllic parts of Malaysia remind viewers that Islam is truly a world religion.

"Muslims" went even further in its attempt to objectively portray Muslim people and their religion by featuring a number of Osama Bin Laden sympathizers. But, it was equally refreshing to see that they were only a part of the documentary and not the focus. Instead, the film tried to focus on some of the larger issues behind their anti-Amercianism and put them in a more sympathetic light, something that mainstream media would never dare to do.

Overall Muslims is an admirable attempt to offer insight on an ancient religion in a relatively short amount of time. But I wonder if the film would be more effective as a two or even four part series instead of a single, jam-packed two-hour docuntary. Even the longest attention spans are put to this test during the film, especially towards the end.

Two hours is a long time to stay seated and attentive, yet it isn't nearly long enough to allow interviewees to make statements that go beyond glossing over the issues they discuss. Having multiple episodes, with each focused on a specific topic, would also help improve the overall lack of depth in the content matter, another problem caused by the film's length.

So much of the film is devoted to women's rights within this patriarchal religion that a separate episode dedicated to the woman issue would have been appropriate. Throughout the film you hear from women on many points of the spectrum. There are the women caught up in strife: A Malaysian gynecologist who professes that she had to ask her husband for permission before choosing her career but who believes that adherence to Islamic traditions benefits family life, several Turkish university students who are told they cannot attend school in their head scarves and a Malaysian woman fighting for the right to divorce her husband since he married a second wife. And then there are the activists, like a group of Iranian Muslim women who write for a feminist, an women's rights advocate in Malaysia. These women's experiences are representative of the larger issue of the interpretation of the Quran, the holy book at the center of the Muslim religion. They believe that Islamic law is based on human interpretation and that the interpretation, rather than the religion, discriminates against women. Both women feel that Islam contains potential for equality and not the empowerment of men at the expense of women's rights. The interviewees are all coming form interesting places, but many of their words stay on the surface of the issues, and, other than the one example about a man's right to marry up to four wives, never delve deeper into scriptures from the holy text.

The film raises other interesting points and succeeds at illustrating the ways that Muslims live lives that so fully integrate religion and a sense of history with the choices they make in their daily lives. This is something that many non-Muslims, especially Americans, have a hard time relating to. In one segment, a group of Muslim Americans who are trying to establish a Mosque in a small Midwestern suburb are shown meeting with a group Christian church officials.

The film raises other interesting points and succeeds at illustrating the ways that Muslims live lives that so fully integrate religion and a sense of history with the choices they make in their daily lives. This is something that many Non-Muslims, especially Americans, have a hard time relating to.

In this scene, we are told, the two groups discussed the similarities between Christianity and Islam, but the audience isn't partial to hearing about these similarities. It would have been interesting if the speakers had elaborated on the comparison between the two religions. In fact, it brings into question just what a similar 2-hour documentary on all of Christianity today might include.

In one of the only scenes involving young people, the audience meets a young Iranian American woman who visits high schools to educate students about Islam. "What are the first things that come to mind when you think of Muslims?" she asks. The students volunteer words and phrases like "owners of corner stores," "Arabs," and "turbans." She then proceeds to clarify some of these misconceptions and expands on what it is that makes Muslims unique. At this point, I came to conclude that although "Muslims" is informative, it gets dangerously close to speaking to the audience is if it were made up only of people who believe that all Muslims ARE either turban-wearing terrorists or shop-owners, without actually digging into the subtler differences and complex territory that is necessary when you're portraying an entire religion with one film.

Philana Woo is a Junior at Lowell High School in San Francisco.

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