The compelling documentary, “An Act of Worship,” chronicles three decades of discrimination and hatred toward American Muslims. By juxtaposing memories of abuse and intimidation with home movies of families celebrating life in America, Pakistani-American filmmaker Nausheen Dadabhoy highlights the cultural and mental health issues that many Muslims – especially young people – have absorbed living in a country that has spoken loud and clear about racism and Islamophobia.
Several interviewees describe movingly how their efforts at assimilation have forced them to “lose their cultural truth”, to discard their religion, headscarf and identity in order to blend in and be less feared. Other segments examine how families were separated or were under surveillance. Dadabhoy chronicles the change in the way Muslims in America have been treated since the days of the Iran hostage crisis, through the 1991 Gulf War, the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, the Patriot Act of 2001, the Boston Marathon of 2013 and the Muslim ban. signed into law under twice-termed President Donald Trump.
In addition to these stories, “An Act of Worship” profiles three young activists – Aber, Khadega and Ameena – who stand up for rights and social justice while trying to maintain a sense of dignity in a country that continues to dehumanize this segment of the population. population.
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Salon spoke with Dadabhoy on the eve of his film’s world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
“This generation of kids born after 9/11 are so much better at being themselves. It’s so cliché, but they are resolutely Muslim.”
I was struck by how the Muslim Americans you interviewed all talked about hiding their religion and culture – as if it was something they were ashamed of – and how their efforts to assimilate and be ” more American” often forced them to lose their identity. and sense of self. One of the subjects of your film crystallizes this when she explains that they “become the very stereotype they were trying to avoid”. Can you talk about this Catch-22?
I feel like this conversation about assimilation has progressed so much. Someone like Khadega and this generation of kids born after 9/11 are so much better at being themselves. It’s so cliché, but they’re resolutely Muslim. There is a lot of me in the film; I’m narrating one of the first voice-over pieces. For my generation – my parents came during the Iran hostage crisis – they got crazy phone calls and were very scared. After 9/11, they received threats. They had neighbors who sent us really nasty letters. I also think it’s important to remember that a large part of this generation of Muslims who came to the United States in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, came after some sort of political upheaval. Otherwise, there were certainly things you couldn’t say about the government. I don’t think my parents know how political this movie is. Their attitude was “Don’t say anything. Don’t rock the boat. Keep your head down. That’s how we’ll stay safe.” A lot of us absorbed that, and my sister was bullied at school for being different, and the only way to alleviate that was to try not to be different.
The film is an exploration to understand why this new generation is so powerful and confident. What happened? I think our community has changed, and they’ve built a lot of power over the last 20 years, so these kids have infrastructure and resources that we didn’t have. My mum went to her first protest in 2020 against the Muslim ban. His generation absorbs what these young children bring into our community. I’m not saying everyone in the community is like that. The people I met had parents who were protesting. It just wasn’t the experience I had.
Likewise, the mental health issues that developed for these Muslim Americans who tried not thinking about identity is very powerful. There is talk of suicide and drug-induced depression. What is your observation of the impact of this on the American Muslim community?
I think there’s a lot of trauma in our community. Which was sad to realize that if I talk to Aber, who grew up in New York — his parents are from Palestine and mine are from Pakistan — there’s a common trauma we can bond over. Sure, there are beautiful things we can bond over, like our immigrant background, but shared trauma is a big part of that. One of the things we realized was that after 9/11, people didn’t say they were Pakistani Americans, but Muslim Americans. It is part of forming our identity in this country. I mean “we” very carefully. The film draws heavily from the setting of parents who came here as immigrants, or [people] who immigrated here. This is from the perspective of the immigrant Muslim community. We haven’t captured the African American or Latin Muslim experience.
“Yes, these terrible things happened but there is also beauty in our experiences. How can we look at them too?”
Part of what we want to do with our film and our impact campaign is to do a lot of healing for our community. How can we begin to decenter the trauma and address it? There is so much unrecognized trauma in the community. We would ask people questions about incidents related to Islamophobia, and they would either brush them off or start crying. How can we begin to address it, recognize it, and heal from it? We hope that storytelling is part of it. Our film is a counter-narrative of our last 30 years, it’s a starting point for people to think about a personal counter-narrative. Yes, these terrible things happened, but there is also beauty in our experiences. How can we watch them too?
What can you say about how people react to or fight against Islamophobia?
I made a movie. I watched the 2016 elections with one of my producers, and I remember seeing a friend the next day, who is a gay Muslim, and he said, “I’m not going back to Pakistan. It’s not an option for me.” He can’t live there openly; he also has a partner here. We have to do something about it. We can do something about it. it was making this movie. Everyone has a different approach. For some people it won’t be activism, but the quiet way they can be who they authentically are or how they just take care of each other in these times of crisis.
Aber in “An Act Of Worship” by Nausheen Dadabhoy (Capital K Pictures)
How did you find the three participants in your film, Aber, Khadega and Ameena?
We found many women working in community organizing spaces and as activists. I worked with CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations, in Los Angeles. My sister was a lawyer in the chapter. His boss was Ameena Mirza Qazi, the film’s lawyer. When the protests were happening at the airport, I saw Ameena in action and was impressed. “Let me put a microphone on you and film you.” Fortunately, she was there. We filmed for many years. CAIR LA helped us find other activists. We went to different communities and asked, “Who were the militants? Literally, every community said, “There’s this amazing young woman…”. Where are the men ? There are women leading the charge, so this movie is going to be about them. They are on the front line. I am not exaggerating.
The film touches on the scarf debate. I liked that an interviewee said that she chooses to wear the headscarf as a form of resistance, which makes it a political act. What do you think about this? It can be so polarizing.
I also wore a scarf. This predates September 11. I wore one when I was in high school, and for me it was truly an act of devotion. Talking to the people who make this movie, for some cultures, mainly Arab cultures, it’s just part of the culture. It has nothing to do with religious devotion. In Pakistan, many women do not cover their hair. They cover it differently. That’s culturally how they do it. In some Arab cultures, you hit puberty and start covering your hair; it’s not religious, it’s cultural. But what happened, and I remember having this conversation with a friend of mine after 9/11, it was very political. I want to be outwardly Muslim. I want to show my faith and let people see that I’m a Muslim and I’m not going to hide it. For some people it was, “I’m going to show them the best part of Islam. I will wear the headscarf and be a good person, so now try to come to me with your anti-Muslim feelings. It’s so unfair, the work you have to do to take on all of this. I haven’t, but I think a lot of women have.
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What message of hope do you have for your community?
Ultimately, my film is about creating a different narrative for ourselves and for us to see each other in all the beauty and nuance of our history that hasn’t really been seen enough in American popular culture and media. . But I also remember during one of the versions of Trump’s Muslim Ban, I was touring with Ameena, and I had read about the ban and I was so depressed and I filmed an interview with her, and I I said, “We’ll be okay.” There are amazing people like her and so many more who aren’t going to let things like this stand. I find my hope in our community.
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