Film on Islam at the National Cathedral in Washington
By Brianna Curran
Left: Ambassador Akbar Ahmed introduces Journey Into Europe. Right: A section of the distinguished gathering with Reverend Dr Carol Flett and Begum Zeenat Ahmed seated in the front row
“I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation,” presidential candidate Ben Carson stated when asked about America’s religious pluralism and its relation to government. As Islamophobia continues to plague Republican presidential debates and as anti-Islam rallies occur throughout the country, Islam has reached its pinnacle in receiving harsh criticisms from politicians, civilians, and the media alike. But a religion whose doctrine calls for peace, tolerance, and love should never be the subject of torment and controversy, and these criticisms shed light on the lack of understanding that the West has for Islam and for Muslims. As the United States and Europe have been called upon to provide refuge for hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing unrestrained terror in their home country, it is imperative that these regions begin the conversation about Muslim identity, true Islam, and its compatibility with the West.
I attended one such event on October 15 th at St. Alban's Parish, a prestigious organ of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. As one of the most prominent symbols of Christianity in the United States, it is unusual to associate DC's architectural tribute to European Christianity with Islam. However, as I learned last week, the Cathedral's leadership and parishioners have made it a priority to extend their hand to the Muslim community and enrich their understanding of Muslim identity in the West, and they achieved this through presenting a screening of Ambassador Akbar Ahmed's most recent cinematic venture, Journey Into Europe. As Ambassador Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and former Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland, and his team travel throughout Europe's most historic regions, they explore the intricacies of European identity, seeking to answer the question, "Is Islam compatible with the West?" The answer, as the documentary shows, is overwhelmingly yes.
With a full house, the event included such VIPs as the BBC's Jane O'Brien, former Pakistani Senator Akbar Khawaja, Paul Smith, Director of the British Council, as well as senior German diplomat Stefan Bress and directors from the Muslim Women's Association of Washington, DC.
Reverend Dr Carol Flett introduced the event and Ambassador Ahmed, speaking passionately on the vitality of interfaith dialogue and mutual understanding between religions in today's globalized society. Reverend Flett understands this imperative step, as she and Ambassador Ahmed have worked together as friends and colleagues since the September 11 attacks to build interfaith bridges, helping the community to create the first Abrahamic Summit in DC together. She opened the film by highlighting the Syrian migrant crisis and the urgent need for Europe to recognize Muslims' positive contributions to society and to understand Islam, so that Europeans can welcome their new neighbors with open arms and make strides towards peace.
Following Reverend Flett's introductory speech, Ambassador Ahmed discussed the wide scope of cultures throughout Europe. Many people were very accepting of Muslims and of immigrants, and welcomed them into their countries without a second thought. However, there were also those who led anti-Islam protests, who defaced mosques and harassed peaceful Muslims living in their neighborhoods. Ambassador Ahmed took great care in his field research to incorporate the entire spectrum of sentiments on Islam and immigration in Europe, a feat that took months of dedication.
The response from the packed audience was unanimous: exuding empathy and enthusiasm, the spectators praised the film and inquired as to how they could get involved to make a difference.
"Ambassador Ahmed, I thought, had reached the pinnacle of his career with his last work, The Thistle and the Drone. How very wrong I was. This work is a step even further to test people to learn about religion. It is ilm – everything is based in knowledge," Ziad Alahdad, a former director of operations for the World Bank said.
"I have no words to express, it is not about any one set of religions, it is about pure humanity," Senator Khawaja expressed.
"Your film is a compelling, gracious, thoughtful study and we’re proud to be involved in it,” said Paul Smith, USA Director of the British Council of his participation in aiding the development of the film.
For myself in particular, I was incredibly moved by the film. I was taken on a roller coaster of emotions, feeling inspired by Muslim Parliamentarians and their courage in giving the minority population a voice in government; I was infuriated and hurt by leaders of far right-wing parties who unfairly equated Islam with terrorism, and who expressed these views by storming mosques and harassing Muslims. I teared up with empathy as Amadou, a young 16-year old refugee from the Gambia describes his dreams of education and work, and his reality of starvation, homelessness, and brutality from strangers. I felt truly swept up on this journey into Europe, and motivated to do my part in spreading tolerance towards Muslims.
As an American millennial, I view today's society as a turning point, and a critical one. My generation is faced with a choice between using our unique access to information in a manner that advocates for tolerance and inclusion, or using it to enhance the voices of those that promote hatred and hostility towards the "other." This is the dilemma that the world faces today, and I believe that it is imperative that we amplify the voices of those like Ambassador Ahmed and the passionate audience members who participated in Thursday's discussion.
Finding our humanity and our equality has been a challenge since the beginning of time, but today is different. Today we can read about the stories of hardworking and peaceful Syrian families and their treacherous journeys towards freedom from thousands of miles away; we can see the photos of children barely surviving and donate at the click of a button. Today we have no excuse to generalize, we have no excuse to fear what we do not understand. The information is at our fingertips, and it is critical that we take the opportunity to learn, to grow, and to appreciate our differences.
As people in a position of influence like presidential candidates Ben Carson and Donald Trump continue to shed a negative light on Islam, it regresses this progress of acceptance that peaceful Muslims and non-Muslims have made over the years. In order to move forward in a positive manner, it is necessary to start this conversation and work to understand each other. As Journey into Europe delves into the complexities of Islam, immigration, and identity in Europe, we can all take away the purely human experience that is shared equally throughout the world: the desire to be loved, to be accepted as you are, and to be happy.
(Brianna Curran is a senior at American University studying International Studies with a focus on Peace and Conflict Resolution strategies in the Middle East and North Africa)