How did your personal experience inform your vision for the film and your relationship with the people you interviewed for it? If I’d not been a Muslim filmmaker, I do not think I would have had the amount of access and the depth of interpersonal relationships that I was able to develop with everyone in the film. I think they trusted me the most, primarily because I am gay and Muslim, and in many cases spoke the language, and in many cases understood a lot of the circumstances that people are coming from and a lot of the challenges that they face. So being Muslim in the West post–Sept. 11—which is not necessarily the best thing that can happen to you at the airport—is also a blessing in other ways when you try to go into “Islamic territory” and make a film as a Muslim.
Some have asked, “Why don’t you just get out of the religion?” How do you maintain your faith, and how do you think some of your interviewees do, when faced with such hostility from non-Muslims and Muslims alike? It’s really hard. I wonder about the necessity of faith sometimes in a world where extremists are increasingly controlling all faiths, be it Christianity or Judaism or Islam. I feel that for a lot of the people in the film, Islamic religiosity is not something that comes in isolation. Our religion is a religion of community, and leaving the religion is not really the easiest thing to do when you have extended families, when you have all your culture, your art, your way of looking at the culture, determined in some ways by your religiosity. It’s not easy to leave that.
Were you able to develop strong bonds with people you interviewed? I talk about Mazen, the Egyptian refugee, during the film. Now, here’s a man who in his early 20s was arrested by Hosni Mubarak’s government in Egypt. Mazen was imprisoned for over a year. The newspaper headlines at that time had said that a cult of Satanists that was developing a new religion had been arrested and were, amongst other vices, indulging in sodomy.
He was tortured in prison. He was even raped, as he mentions in the film, and while he was out on bail, he fled Egypt and got asylum in France. And I became almost an elder brother to him; I became his closest confidante for the first two years, affirming with him.
I even shared the same bed with him as he cried all night, and I held him because I realized that this was also a victim of some pretty intense trauma who I was asking to relive that trauma for the camera. So I had to be there to hold him and take care of him, make him feel that his reliving of this trauma was worthwhile. So that was poignant, and that actually led to a transformation in the film itself, where after about two years of filming, he was able to turn around and say to the camera, “Enough is enough, and I really need to show my face to tell this story.”
What hurdles did you encounter while trying to get the film made? The biggest one in my opinion was me being an immigrant in [the United States], being a proud Muslim filmmaker. I have spoken often, even in the press, of the gatekeepers in the industry being mostly Caucasian men with a particular set of principles, or a worldview, that that identity often comes with.
Certainly post–Sept. 11, while there has been a tremendous interest in funders wanting to fund films about Islam, at the same time you’re negotiating minefields because the films that they’re usually interested in fall into the popular narrative of dissing Islam. In my case in particular, I took a lot of Jewish funding for this film, so I was acutely conscious of different political agendas that might operate within that.
And yes, I had to put my foot down. It was a tremendous ideological battle where I really was fighting for something that had not quite yet been defined.
What has the reception to the movie been like around the world? The response has been overwhelmingly positive in the Muslim community. People, especially straight Muslims, have embraced this film, even in Turkey, even in India, and certainly in all the underground screenings that are going on in Tehran, Karachi, Lahore, Palestine, and elsewhere. People are really engaging with this film. Some of my biggest allies in America have been straight Muslims, straight Muslim couples, and friends of mine in Chicago, going to mosque after Jummah prayers, distributing fliers, talking to the imam directly, asking him to engage in this discussion.
I think I have tried really hard in the media to portray this as not Irshad Manji, not Hirsi Ali, not an attempt to provoke, but an attempt to understand difficult discussions and an attempt that works within the Islamic context. n
For more information, check out ajihadforlove.blogspot.com
M. Junaid Levesque-Alam blogs at crossingthecrescent.com, where the full transcript of the interview can be found.