Journey into America: re-release

Akbar Ahmed seeks to discover the Muslim community and the nature of American identity

Tyler Brazitis November 20, 2019
Tyler Brazitis is a graduate student studying peace and conflict resolution at American University in Washington, D.C.

Journey into America, a documentary film about Islam in America by Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani high commissioner to the United Kingdom and Ireland, and the current Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, is being re-released for its 10th anniversary. It features new and never before seen footage while engaging with and evaluating changes in the American political climate. The new footage includes appearances by Americans including socialite Joanne Herring, whose efforts to aid the Afghan war against the Soviets in the 1980s alongside Congressman Charlie Wilson was depicted in the film Charlie Wilson’s War in which Julia Roberts portrayed her.

In Journey into America, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, a Muslim professor, sets off on a journey into the heart of American society with a team of young researchers. They seek to discover the Muslim community and the nature of American identity by visiting more than 100 mosques in over 75 cities. Through this unprecedented adventure, the team conducts interviews of countless Americans in their homes, schools, and places of worship.

Viewers will embark on a journey that reaches into the depths of the American soul and emerge with a moving picture of what it means to be American. Ahmed and his team assemble a remarkable narrative that weaves together the complexity of the thoughts, fears, and hopes of Americans across the country. They visit community and religious leader representative of all the major Abrahamic faiths, underscoring the purpose of the film —spreading knowledge and building bridges. Ambassador Doug Holladay says of the film, “I think you’re the first that I know that has really tried to capture the rich texture of America. I think it was a brilliant idea and I think it's going to be broadly watched and it's going to be very influential.”

Journey into America is a shining example of how building bridges between different communities allows for a celebration of diversity, identity, and a quest for Ilm, the Islamic ideal of knowledge. Former American University President Cornelius Kerwin remarks that “this is likely to be one of the most definitive works to date on the Muslim experience in the United States.”

I am a young scholar of Islam, and help teach and interact with other students of Islam alongside Ahmed. The beauty of Ahmed’s monumental Journey into America lies in its pursuit of the idea that America is not a monolith, it means something different to each of its citizens. I taught history at the secondary level for three years, and Ahmed’s message about the pursuit of Ilm is critical in this time of great division. It is important for people of all ages to view this film for precisely that fact. Ahmed revisited Journey into America during a time where there is more to learn about the mingling of cultures and pursuing what it means to be an American going into the future.

I felt the film to be a remarkable exhibition of the plurality within America, and the spirit of the film really shines light on the necessity of continued dialogue between Americans and the Muslim community.

I watched the film with my mother, who noticed, “It seems like Americans don’t know much about Islam or the Muslim community. We need to seek out ways to engage with that community and get rid of the fear Americans have of belief systems other than their own.”

Ejaz Rahim, one of Pakistan’s most prominent authors noted, “The whole rainbow of America is (in the film), but also multiple layers of clouds of past, present and future storms in the American skies.” The complexity of the dialogue between civilisations as portrayed by Ahmed is vast and ripe for development.

Frankie Martin, a Journey into America team member, remarked about his experience rendering the re-release edition, “I re-entered our fieldwork through the extensive footage, I appreciated again the mammoth scale of the project and the contribution it has made and will continue to make with the rerelease of the film and the new edition of the book. I am proud that a decade on Journey into America is still making an impact and has much to teach us.”

The great American dream is to have the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Journey into America stresses that we live in a critical time where building bridges will lead us into a better and brighter future. I highly recommend that anyone who desires a behind the scenes look at American identity watch this film. Journey into America ignites a desire for greater cooperation and understanding between cultures in America.

For me, this film illustrates one of the greatest opportunities Americans have in the coming years; it is integral that we build bridges with the Muslim community- and there is no better way than to engage in dialogue within our neighbourhoods, towns, and communities.

Barbara J Stephenson, Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in London, introduced Ahmed in her welcome address at a showing of the film at the US Embassy, “I’m guessing most of you know Ambassador Ahmed’s background pretty well. For those who don’t, I apologise to him — because, to be frank, it’s impossible for me to fully do justice here to his countless achievements, honours and awards. Perhaps the easiest thing is to say that for all his other accomplishments, Professor Ahmed is — quite simply — one of the greatest scholars of Islam in the world today. Where there is greater understanding there is not only tolerance but — even more important — there is hope…for me, [Journey into America makes] the essential discovery: that you can be an American and a Muslim and it diminishes neither your national nor your religious identity.”

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