THE MUSLIM AMERICAN EXPERIENCE
Filmmakers Focused on Faith
Friday, February 29, 2008
Jehan Harney knows the images by heart. Most Americans do. The bearded men in head wraps with ammunition bandoliers ringing their chests. Women draped in heavy cloth wailing over coffins. The grim faces of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
It is all, she fears, that Americans see when they think of Muslims. Muslims with rocket launchers in desert wastelands beamed into their living rooms via television. Muslims on trial as members of al-Qaeda sleeper cells.
"I'm trying to think about any positive Muslim stories in the media," Harney said. She paused and looked up at the ceiling of her Alexandria home, as if scanning the pictures in her mind. Finally, she shook her head. "I can't think of one. The American media don't cover the Muslim community unless a bomb shows up."
Harney, a TV journalist, filmmaker and Muslim, set out to capture a different story. Her short film, "Soul Mechanic," about a Muslim car mechanic and artist in Cambridge, Mass., was selected as a finalist in the "One Nation, Many Voices" online film festival last week. The documentary tells the story of a Muslim mechanic who uses his garage to display sculptures that fuse Islamic, Christian and Jewish symbols.
Festival sponsors wanted filmmakers to get beyond the head wraps and terrorism, to portray the complex and little-understood Muslim American experience. The winning films were announced last week by judges who included Danny Glover, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Mariane Pearl, the widow of slain journalist Daniel Pearl. The films show such images as the lighthearted drawings of a 22-year-old college student who dreams of becoming fat or fleeing to Australia to escape an arranged marriage.
There are videos of a young boy, frowning at a plate, who wants people to know: "Broccoli is my personal jihad." And of a woman wearing a headscarf who declares, "I, too, shop at Victoria's Secret." There are stories of frustration, including a Muslim Boy Scout troop on an outing in Dearborn, Mich., that is stopped by police after someone called 911. And a hilarious warning to fellow Muslims in a comedy: "You thought driving while black was bad -- try flying while Muslim." His advice? "Don't act weird. You're just going to delay everybody."
The diversity of voices -- a Muslim rapper, a lonely Muslim skateboarder in the Midwest, a tense drama about Islamic tradition and the African American community -- is exactly what the festival sponsors, One Nation, say they were after. The organization, a philanthropic collaboration of Muslim and non-Muslim business leaders, was founded in 2006 by retired businessman George Russell, who became alarmed by public opinion polls showing that nearly half of all Americans still held negative views about Muslims, more than in the days just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"The fact that so many Americans were lumping all Muslims together and thinking they were terrorists was a very dangerous situation for the country," said Henry Izumizaki, vice president of One Nation. "If we allow such misperceptions to persist over time, they'll become part of the American fabric."
Harney knows those public opinion polls by heart. One in four Americans admits feeling prejudice against Muslims. One in four favors more rigorous security measures for Muslims, such as special ID cards. Fewer than half believe Muslim Americans are loyal to the United States.
Harney remembers how disheartening it felt to watch ABC's "World News Tonight" when then-anchor Peter Jennings took to the streets, asking: "Why do they hate us?" Jennings, she said, was referring to Muslims.
"After 9/11, even people I considered friends became intolerant of Muslims," she said. "And we Muslims can't seem to express ourselves in a way other than preaching. People keep repeating 'Islam is tolerance. Islam is peace.' But it's not getting through. Not even to me."
Harney sat in the kitchen of her historic townhouse in Old Town Alexandria in front of her laptop computer. As her two young children played upstairs, she said she came to the United States from Egypt 12 years ago to study international journalism at American University. What she has learned, what she has observed about the U.S. media, she said, is the power of storytelling. And since the terrorist attacks, she said, she had been looking for a story that would, even in a small way, counter the onslaught of violent images.