Hugh Fitzgerald: Al Jazeera Remembers “Islam In America”

A brief article just published at Al Jazeera offered an update to a film about “Islam in America” that appeared ten years ago. That attempt by Rageh Omaar to show the amazing “diversity” of Muslim life in America, from New York and Chicago to small towns in the West, and to trace — and backdate considerably — the history of Islam in America, focused on the outward and visible signs of “diversity.” Sunnis and Shi’a, Arabs and non-Arabs, non-Arabs of a dozen different ethnicities (Persian, Uighur, Malay, Filipino, Kurd, Turk, Bengali, Hausa, Fulani, and so on), women who wear hijabs, or burqas or niqabs, or who go uncovered. And the male Muslims, too, who were shown in the film were similarly various in their countries of origin, with different clothes (an Uzbek man will not dress like a Moroccan, nor a Saudi woman like a Tunisian), different styles of facial hair, even the length of their pants reflecting the fanaticism of their faith (the pants of Salafis extend only to the ankle). And of course the film dwelt lovingly on the dozens of different Muslim cuisines, from Indonesia to North Africa. Much is made of this “diversity,” which in the film is described in rapturous terms: it supposedly proves that “Islam is not a monolith.” And if “Islam is not a monolith,” then, we are supposed to believe, the Kuffars cannot criticize “all Muslims” or hold “Islam” responsible for this outrage or for that.

But what this voyage of discovery — “Islam In America” — left out, in its eagerness to show the great variety in dress, cuisine, mosque architecture, among Muslims in America, was the ideology of Islam. We are shown Muslims in prayer, but not told that the five daily prayers contain a cursing of the kuffars that is repeated 17 times a day. We learn nothing about the 109 Jihad verses (e.g., 9:5, 9:29, 47:4) that command Muslims to make war on Unbelievers, nothing about the verses that command Muslims to “strike terror” in the hearts of the Unbelievers, no mention of Muhammad’s famous remark that “I have been made victorious through terror.” There is nothing, either, about how Muslims are instructed not to take Jews or Christians as friends, for they are friends “only with each other.” Nothing about the doctrine of al‐wala’ wal‐bara’, which means “holding fast to all that is pleasing to Allah, and withdrawing from and opposing all that is displeasing to Allah; namely the Kuffar.” Nor did the film say anything about Believers being called in the Qur’an the “best of peoples” (3:110) and the Kuffar, or non-Muslims, described as the “most vile of creatures.” (98:6).

That film “Islam in America” never sank below the surface of things, with all its the different clothes, the varied cuisine, the manifold occupations, the differing occupations and professions, the variety of homes, and communities (and “here is Dearborn”) of all these cheerful goodhearted striving Muslims, who are as thoroughly American in their way, we are supposed to believe, as anyone else. No difficult questions are asked of them as, for example, what they think of the Constitution, and its First Amendment freedoms, such as that of speech, which permits what Muslims would certainly wish to punish as “blasphemy.” No questions as to whether Muslims must accept the man-made laws of the Kuffar, even where these flatly contradict Islamic principles, as set down in the Qur’an. No questions about the misogyny in Islam, and the proper role of Muslim women, and the power of a Muslim paterfamilias over his womenfolk. No questions about the treatment to be meted out to homosexuals.

And “Islam in America” also failed to ask Muslims about the most important details of Muhammad’s biography, including the consummation of his marriage to little Aisha when she was nine years old. They might, for example, have been asked about what age they think it proper for a girl to be married. They were not asked, either, to comment on the assassinations of Asma bint Marwan, Abu ‘Afak, and Ka’b bin al-Ashraf by his followers, hoping to please the Perfect Man, nothing about how Muhammad took part in the daylong decapitation of 600-900 bound prisoners of the Banu Qurayza, nothing about the raid on the inoffensive Jewish farmers of the Khaybar Oasis, about the torture and murder of Kinana of Khaybar, ordered by Muhammad, nothing about Muhammad’s taking of the Jewish girl Saafiyah — whose father, husband, and brother he had had killed at Khaybar — as his sex slave and then wife.

Instead, in the film there is nothing to disturb Infidels, either about Qur’anic commands or the figure of Muhammad — nothing except, of course, the insistence that Muslims in America have been mistreated by islamophobic bigots. As for Islamic theology, we learn that Muslims are, just like Christians and Jews, monotheists, that Islam is an “Abrahamic” faith just like Judaism and Christianity, that Muslims revere Jesus and Mary (we are not told, however, that the Muslim Jesus and Mary are very different from their Christian originals — Jesus in Islam is only a prophet and not the Son of God; Mary, therefore, is not the mother of the Son of God). In the film there is much mention of the Five Pillars — Shahada (Profession of Faith), Salat (Five Daily Prayers), Sawm (daytime fasting during Ramadan), Zakat (Charity — but only to fellow Muslims, or to encourage those who are close to converting), Hajj (the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca). There are also videos of people prostrate in prayer, displaying their devotion (with the lowest and the highest side by side), and sharing an Iftar dinner with friends and family. These are designed to leave Infidels, the intended audience of the film, with nothing but warm feelings toward Muslims. The jihad of warfare against Infidels was not mentioned. But jihad as an “interior struggle” was presented, described as the “greater Jihad,” as is written in a doubtful hadith. Nor was the status of “dhimmi” mentioned, though this lapse could be excused because the film was about “Islam in America,” where Islam’s writ does not yet run, and there are no “dhimmis” in the classic, Jizyah-paying sense.

In short, “Islam in America” left much to be desired. It is not a film that explains Islamic theology, but misrepresents it, and instead offers a gallimaufry showing various kinds of Muslims, all of them sympathetic sorts, behaving, in their rich variety and smiling goodwill, just as we would want them to behave. Nothing of significance is actually imparted, and yet the unwary audience of Infidels undoubtedly feels that viewing the film has been quite an education, dispelling so much unnecessary anxiety, and that they have learned — well, they can’t quite put into words exactly what they have learned of any significance, so let’s just say, to be charitable….a lot.