On a 13,000 mile road trip across the country during the month of Ramadan, comedian Aman Ali and filmmaker Bassam Tariq visited mosques in 30 states, with the hope of exploring and telling the stories of diverse Muslim communities across the United States. They shared photos, videos, and stories on their blog, 30mosques.com, attracting considerable media coverage for their project. On Monday evening, Ali and Tariq gave a presentation in PAC 001 before a group of about 25 students.
“I think they have such an important message to portray to people about Muslims in America—giving such a realistic approach to [representations of Muslims] so that they’re not just this depiction of ‘the Muslim’—that there is variety and diversity within the Muslim community, and I think they show that really well,” said Hira Jafri ’13, who first heard about Ali and Tariq’s trip on CNN and then invited them to visit campus.
Last year, Ali and Tariq did a similar project in which they visited 30 mosques in 30 days, but all within New York City. They are considering the possibility of a “30 Mosques, 30 Countries” trip next year.
According to Ali, the timing of the trip during the month of Ramadan, when participating Muslims fast every day from dawn to sunset, had special significance.
“Ramadan is all about going to the mosque and not just worshipping but bringing people together from all walks of life, and around plates of food,” Ali said.
The first day of this year’s trip featured a stop at the Park 51 Islamic recreational center, or “Ground Zero mosque,” which has been the subject of much recent controversy due to its proximity to the former World Trade Center site in New York City.
Ali and Tariq met and spoke with a security guard at the center, and were surprised when the guard told them that he had not witnessed any protests at the site, mostly just media attention. After praying in Park 51, Ali said that doing so felt no different for him than praying in any other mosque.
“The people who have been yelling the loudest—this does not have any effect on them,” Ali said. “Few of the most outspoken supporters of the center actually go there, and the lack of protests on-site seems to indicate that there is not major opposition to the center within the immediate community,” he said.
Some of the most interesting experiences and stops along the way were unplanned, such as when Ali and Tariq were pulled over by a police car in Alabama.
The police officer who pulled them over questioned the validity of Ali’s driver’s license. When Tariq mentioned the purpose of their trip, the officer asked him what he thought about the “Ground Zero mosque.” Hoping to avoid trouble, Tariq pretended to oppose the mosque, after which the officer allowed them to continue on their way.
Another unexpected stop was Ross, N.D., a rural town of 48 people in which the first known mosque in the U.S. was built. The structure was made by a community of Syrian farmers, who took advantage of the U.S. Homestead Act and relaxed immigration restrictions in the early 1900s to acquire pieces of land in the U.S. after leaving Syria, often to avoid being drafting by the Ottoman Empire to fight in Serbia. For over 100 years, Muslim communities like this one have coexisted harmoniously with other communities within the U.S., a frequently overlooked face, according to Ali.
The trip featured many Muslim communities that challenge the typical conceptions or stereotypes of Muslims in the U.S. Along the way, Ali and Tariq visited a mosque in Coatesville, Pa. with a congregation that Tariq described as mostly white, vegan, and “proto-hippie.” In Salt Lake City, they met a Muslim man who is married to a Mormon woman. Furthermore, the mosque visits demonstrated the ethnic diversity of the Muslim diaspora in the U.S., as Ali and Tariq met with what were originally refugee communities of Bosnians in Boise, Idaho; Somalis in Minneapolis; and Cambodians in Santa Ana, Calif.
Ali and Tariq emphasized that the purpose of their trip was not simply to paint a positive picture of Islam in America, but instead to also draw attention to some of the “ugly truths” that are not often discussed. For example, they talked with the director of a mosque in Las Vegas about what the director described as a failure of Muslims to reach out and support each other socially and economically, resulting in some members of the community being forced to take jobs which conflict with their religious beliefs—such as working in casinos—out of necessity to provide for their families.
“We didn’t have a mission in terms of pushing any kind of ideology, or preaching to anybody about Islam, or converting anybody, or even trying to change perceptions,” said Ali. “We just want to tell good stories about Muslims and give people an authentic representation of what Muslims in America are like, both positive and negative.”