Documentary Islam in Europe Contributes to Much-needed Interfaith Discourse
By Elisa R. Frost
Last month, I witnessed the screening of ‘Journey into Europe,’ a new documentary produced by Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, at an event hosted by the Pakistani Embassy.
At the screening event, Ambassador Jalil Abbas Jalani praised the breadth of Ambassador Ahmed's accomplishments as a civil servant, diplomat, author, and filmmaker, concluding that he "has yet to come across somebody who would combine so many traits and qualities into one individual." He then discussed the challenges and dangers posed by extremism and said that Ambassador Ahmed's film will help promote, "co-existence" and fight ignorance with knowledge. He called the film "timely, because intolerance and extremism is something that is flourishing. And from our perspective extremism and intolerance flourish in an environment of ignorance."
This event, which was hosted as part of the Pakistani Embassy's Public Diplomacy and Cultural Outreach program, was attended by the likes of Dr Inayat H Kathio, Honorary Consul General of Pakistan; Anita Mcbride, former Chief of Staff to Laura Bush; Ruqaiya Najjar, producer at CCTV America; Professor Bram Groen, Professor Michael Brenner, and Professors Kamran and Nassem Rizvi. Together, we sought to gain a better understanding of the past and present so that we could create a better future. Ambassador Ahmed helped create this understanding both in his film and the discussion afterwards.
The film took us on a journey through history starting in Andalusia, Spain and concluding in modern times, portraying both those with prejudices against Islam and those seeking to promote better understanding. Despite an honest portrayal of the views and ambitions of those of the right wing throughout Europe, the overwhelming message of the film was optimism. Professor Bram Groen explained after the film that what we are seeing is the initial stages of reconciliation, because conflict must surface and be discussed before you can get to negotiation, concluding that "this film is an important piece of this puzzle." Professor Michael Brenner adds that this film provides an "enlightening picture of Europe" and that we must share this message with Europeans.
Journey into Europe invoked these feelings, both of concern and hope, throughout the audience. The concept of La Convivencia is something that Anita McBride said would stick with her. La Convivencia refers to the period of coexistence between Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Andalusia, Spain. It was a period of intellectual enlightenment, producing great inventions, scholars, and architecture. However, she also reflected, "What concerns me is how many citizens in Europe don't know that concept about their continent." Meanwhile, Saad Haque, an American Muslim who spent the past year living in Europe, said that he previously looked at the continent with "a lot of anxiety" but would now walk away with hope. The overwhelming sentiment among the audience was that we needed to get the message out to educate people.
I too strongly connected with concerns of the tragedy of a lack of education. In the film, Hanna Whiteman, a Muslim woman at the Grand Mosque in Grenada, explained that history books started history in 1492 with the fall of Grenada. This erases the rich history of co-existence from education in Spain. Such omissions from education are responsible for the ignorance that leads to intolerance and hate. This reminded me of the near omission of education I received on Islam while growing up, despite being educated in a post-9/11 world when knowledge about Islam has become imperative.
I grew up in the small town of St. Helens, Oregon knowing no Muslims. With the nearest mosque 30 miles away I was dependent on school for knowing all about Islam. The first time I learned about Islam was when I was in 7th grade during a short unit of world history. I remember the content being relatively positive; however, the emphasis was on the territorial expansion of the Islamic Empires. The next time I was exposed to Islam was during a 9th grade Global Studies class, where Islam was only discussed in the context of human rights violations. That was the last time I learned about Islam in high school. I graduated high school with almost all of my knowledge about Islam dependent on a short unit of middle school history.
It was my own pursuit of knowledge that led me to focus on Islamic Studies in my undergraduate and graduate coursework at the American University and while studying abroad at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. It has been only through focusing on Islam in my tertiary studies that I have learned about the rich history and culture shared by Muslims. I am driven to continue pursuing deeper understanding, because I know that a lack of knowledge allows people to be swayed by some biased parts of the media, which, as Ambassador Ahmed stated during the Question and Answer session after the film, equates Islam to terrorism. This is not Islam.
What I have learned is that Islam does not teach hatred and violence. Islam teaches peace and acceptance. It is the obligation of those of us who have pursued knowledge and learned the peaceful message and history of Islam to educate others. And this film, Journey into Europe, reminds us of this. As guest Avideh Shashaani reflected, this film "really provokes us to think more deeply and see what our role can be."
(The author is an MA candidate at American University, Washington, DC in the School of International Service)