By Ras H. Siddiqui,
California: Many people in this country are not aware that South Asians came to the United States over a century ago. They gravitated to California and more specifically in the Yuba City and Live Oak areas near the state capital of Sacramento long before British India was partitioned in 1947 into what became India and Pakistan. The vast majority of these immigrants were Sikhs but they also contained a significant Muslim population and the Hindus amongst them ranked third in terms of numbers. The Muslim Mosque in Sacramento has catered to community needs since 1947 but distance and the need for catering to an aging population of worshippers, growth in numbers due to family reunification, other forms of immigration, plus marriages outside the community necessitated the building of more localized Mosques, like a project started in the early 1990’s in Yuba City.
This Yuba City, California Mosque was fast approaching completion when it was burned down in 1994 by one or more arsonists. The people responsible were never caught and punished but the pain that the community went through to rebuild again was very real and needed to be conveyed somehow. That happened when this tragedy became the topic of a documentary named “An American Mosque” by filmmaker David Washburn (DW), who is trying to get this film aired all across America via Public Broadcasting (PBS) television stations. Ras Siddiqui (RS) attended a screening of this film at the Salam Mosque in Sacramento recently. A short but candid interview with David is presented below:
RS: What inspired you, a person from a Christian- Jewish religious background to make the documentary “An American Mosque”?
DW: I was deeply affected by anti-Muslim rhetoric following 9/11. I thought, “Here we go again,” just the next minority in a long line to be cast as the “the enemy.” It happened to Japanese Americans after WWII, I know because I have written about it and researched this history here in California. Of course, my own background as a Jew, tells me that this bigoted language, Islamophobia, is dangerous and is the first step towards dehumanizing a group of people and ultimately results in violence. We have witnessed this. To counter this trend, we need to tell stories that show our common humanity to reduce the distance between members of different faiths. That’s where I can play a role as documentary filmmaker.
RS: How long did it take to complete this project from inception to completion and what hurdles did you face?
DW: This project started in 2007. One of the biggest hurdles was a lack of reporting on this story. I went into the archives of all regional and state newspapers. There was very little to help inform my storytelling prior to meeting community members and to learn who I could interview. So the research took a good deal of time.
The new Yuba City Mosque rebuilt and thriving since the year 2000.
RS: How were you received by the Muslim community in Yuba City when you contacted them?
DW: I was never turned away by a single person. Everyone understood this was a story worth telling. I did, though, take some time to covey who I was and how I was going to tell this story — meaning from what perspective and using what materials and interviews. For all of the community members who participated, this was really the first time they recounted their story in-depth and most certainly the first time on camera. This is an uneasy process because there is still some sadness around the event. For these reasons I had to proceed delicately, which means over a good deal of time. You can’t just force people to participate, if you know what I mean.
RS: You are in the process of obtaining community funding to take this film to all PBS stations in the United States. Can you explain that process for us here?
DW: I have launched a nationwide campaign to help bring this film to audiences around the country. I have been approved for distribution by the National Educational Telecommunications Association to offer this film to over 300 PBS stations. But this process is not automatic. Now, I have to do a tremendous amount of work to contact each PBS station and convince them to broadcast An American Mosque. This takes resources. I have hired a veteran PBS consultant to run my communications campaign. We are aiming for broadcasts next Ramadan when everyone should learn about the American Muslim experience. This is a grassroots campaign. I need donations from around the county to help pay for expenses going forward into the summer. People can go to my website www.anamericanmosque.com to learn more and donate online. This is a great opportunity for people who are fed up with ignorant stereotypes of Muslims to make a difference and support positive and inspiring portrayals of Muslims on television. It’s really that simple.
David Washburn presents An American Mosque.
RS: The documentary has a message of global interfaith understanding. After airing it in the U.S. will you be promoting it for viewing overseas?
DW: I would like to distribute this film internationally, especially in Pakistan and India. The community in the film is Pakistani American. Audiences in South Asia need to see what is happening in the United States. And although the arson was tragic, the response by many non-Muslims was extremely supportive and people should see this to deepen their understanding of interfaith relations here. Also, to learn that a non-Muslim filmmaker cares to tell this story is important — it is an interfaith project at its core. As religious institutions are attacked around the globe, we need to show an alternative, that faiths need to find common ground and mutual respect going forward.
RS: Why did you name the film “An American Mosque”?
DW: I wanted to juxtapose two institutions that are considered incompatible by some ignorant people. It is a bit provocative. But this is the point, mosques are being constructed everywhere in the United States. If they are not American, what are they? The idea is to state boldly that we are a pluralistic society with every kind of house of worship, each one as “American” as the next.
David Washburn with Kids at SALAM February 7, 2014.
RS: To conclude here, one starts thinking positively about the relationship between faiths (even on the global level) after viewing this short documentary. This article purposely focused more on the filmmaker than this well-made film itself which would have revealed its content. It deserves a much larger audience and its online “Crowd Funding” effort ( www.anamericanmosque.com ) can make that happen with everyone’s support. Once you are on the website please click on “indiegogo” logo to donate before April 7, 2014.