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“Mooz-lum”: faith flourishing in freedom

JENNIFER S. BRYSON

In the new film “Mooz-lum,” an American school teacher tells a Muslim pupil his name is spelled wrong because there is no “u” after the “q.”  Another little boy, relishing the chance to make fun of the kid sitting next to him, shouts, “It’s a Mooz-lum name!”

Hurdles to faith

“Mooz-lum,” directed by Qasim Basir and produced by Peace Film, follows the life of a young Muslim American from boyhood into college. The lead character, Tariq, wrestles with spiritual meaning and faith against a backdrop of growing up with a father whose religious fanaticism left him emotionally deaf to his wife and children, subjection to abuse as a child at a religious boarding school, and the challenges of being a Muslim student on an American college campus at the time of the 9/11 attacks.

For Tariq and his younger sister, experiences such as harassment by non-Muslim kids at school are just part of day-to-day life.  Their mother watches this in anguish. Their father couldn’t care less. This film, however, is about much more than Muslims. And although public harassment of Muslims by non-Muslims is part of the film, it is anything but an “oh poor me!” story.

“Mooz-lum,” based on actual events in the life of Basir, is a movingly portrayed human story that contrasts the destructiveness of sinister behavior with the way recognition of a Creator greater than ourselves—and greater than the sinister behavior of others—can open the heart to love and forgiveness, and how these can in turn open the gates to reconciliation and healing. Along the way, the film offers an interesting window on ways religious freedom enhances individual spiritual development as well as the flourishing of faith communities.

Invitation to Muslims and Catholics, et al.

This film deserves a broad audience.  In addition to being just simply a good film, with enough power to be emotionally both crushing and uplifting, it offers some much needed building blocks for American society today to develop mutual understanding across lines of faith.

One particular new bridge this film can help construct is between Muslims and Catholic Christians. This film boldly tackles the abuse of children by adult religious leaders, a topic already excruciatingly familiar to Catholics. “Mooz-lum” could serve as an invitation for Muslims and Catholic Christians to share support as well as lessons learned about healing the wretched wounds left behind, and about preventing the continuation of the various forms of this grotesque cruelty.  (And, in addition to Catholic Christians, there may be other religious believers, too, who reach out for collaboration, since, sadly, abuse of children in religious institutions is a tragedy that crosses all confessional boundaries.)

Alongside insight into this darkness, actor Nia Long delivers a terrific performance in her portrayal of a wife trying to love her children and grow in her own relationship with God while dealing with an imperious husband, one who seems pathologically unable to open his heart to her or their children. Her performance alone makes “Mooz-lum” worth viewing—especially for anyone with an interest in female characters in film who are sharp in mind and gracefully strong in heart.

9/11, calibrating a response

Accompanying the primary narrative of horrific child abuse in a religious institution, “Mooz-lum” is packed with substantive subplots. One subplot is the challenge of responding to 9/11.

Here “Mooz-lum” is not fully successful. Granted, one cannot expect a single film to resolve every issue it raises. Still, I feel a nagging dissatisfaction with the way the Muslim characters in “Mooz-lum” quickly wash their hands of the 9/11 attacks by saying they did not represent “real” Islam. I can only hope that non-Muslims seeing this film will realize that other Muslims—such as the founders of the anti-extremist Muslim think tank The Quilliam Foundation—have responded to 9/11 in a far more calibrated way.  They have not only completely rejected such terrorism, as do the Muslims in “Mooz-lum,” but also frankly recognized problems they encounter within modern Muslim communities. In addition, they honestly engage fellow Muslims in order to counter extremist ideologues seeking access both to their mosques and to the hearts of their children.

There is work to do all around.  As a non-Muslim, I was appalled by the responses of non-Muslim Americans in the film toward Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11. This film is a valuable reminder, as I have written elsewhere, that there is a need for Christian intra-faith dialogue concerning Christian engagement with Muslims.

Freedom and honesty

There is another aspect of this film that deserves more attention than it might receive. The context surrounding this story is one of a free and open society in which the government cannot privilege or endorse one religion over another and the culture encourages individuals’ meaningful engagement in matters of faith. For example, the “World Religions” professor at the college in the film, himself a Muslim, challenges his students—no matter what their backgrounds of faith or no faith—to approach the possibility of belief with rigor and critical thinking, beyond the habits of parental preference and cultural identity.

By the time Tariq enters college, he associates religious belief with the hell of child abuse. So long as that is his primary reference point for Islam, he rejects the Muslim faith in which he was raised.  Free of political, societal, or even cultural-identity coercion, freedom enables Tariq to be honest—honest with himself, his friends and family, and not least of all honest before God. Tariq recognizes that the hypocrisy of not-believing while pretending to believe is not an honest option.

And yet it is precisely in grappling directly and honestly with the option of not-believing that Tariq comes to the realization that no matter how hellish his childhood experiences were, God is greater than all of it. Freedom offers Tariq a way to engage in the deepest questions of, “Is this true?,” and respond, ultimately, not in robotic conformity with parental wishes or cultural pressure, but rather out of profound personal conviction and in accordance with his own conscience.

After the screening of “Mooz-lum” I attended near Philadelphia, director and writer Qasim Basir spoke with the audience.  Basir explained that he crashed in 2002, reaching a low point as he completed a degree in criminology, after a life that included some version of the challenges dramatized in the film. It was at that point, explained Basir, that he put his life in God’s hands and made a commitment “to live my life with purpose, to try to make a difference while I’m here.” With neither funding nor formal training in film—just a hobbyist’s experience and a will determined to find a way—he set out to make “Mooz-lum.”

In Basir’s discussion of his Muslim faith and its role in his life today, I was struck by a sense of honesty and deep conviction. Moreover, in the context of the political and religious freedom that characterizes our society, Basir has tackled a topic all too often treated as politically taboo by governments that manipulate religious institutions for political gain, and as religiously taboo by some religious leaders who in other contexts may have subjected Basir to exile or worse for his telling of almost unbearably ugly truths.

In the end, however, human flourishing triumphs. Basir, and the film-portrayal of him as Tariq, grow in genuine faith and in passion to encounter and respond to their Creator. And I expect also that this film, made possible by the openness of a free society, will foster the flourishing of religious communities, Muslim and otherwise. In exposing child abuse by religious authorities, and the possibility of responding to this by inviting God’s forgiveness and love into broken human lives, “Mooz-lum” can help pioneer a path toward the redress and prevention of such abuse. As Catholics have been learning in recent years, confronting internal evil in a faith community, no matter how hard the process, is the only way for a religious community to flourish most honestly—and thus richly—before God. And given how excruciating the process is, perhaps Muslims and Catholics can lighten each other’s loads by helping each other along the way.

Jennifer S. Bryson is Director of the Islam and Civil Society Project at The Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey. She studied Political Science as an undergraduate at Stanford, medieval European intellectual history for an M.A. in History at Yale, and Greco-Arabic and Islamic studies for a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, also at Yale.


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