This inaugural AMERICA REFRAMED: UNFILTERED blog post is authored by David Felix Sutcliffe director of ADAMA (co-director of (T)ERROR with Lyric R. Cabral). He comments how Islamophobia has largely gone unchecked but sees hope for tolerance and understanding from insightful letters he read from students in response to his film. He was so taken with the students’ candor that he went to visit with the 7th grade class in New York City.
Last month, Amine Aouam a 34-year-old Muslim immigrant from Morocco, was attacked by a group of white people in downtown Philadelphia. Amine had greeted the group in Arabic: ‘Masaa al-Khair’, which means, ‘Good evening’. In response, one of the individuals punched him in the back of the head. The knockout left Amine unconscious. Of his assailant, who has yet to be identified or arrested, Amine says, “I don’t want this guy to go to jail or get banished. I just want to ask him, ‘Why did you do this?’ ”
Why? The question behind Islamophobia is an important and urgent one. Yet, it has been utterly ignored, though its answer surrounds us daily. There, on the evening news, in films and television shows: Middle Eastern men in turbans, rocket launcher on their shoulder, bombs strapped to their chest. Whether it’s Homeland or CNN, the screens are stained with the following edict: Muslims equal terrorists.
Earlier this month, a class of 7th graders in NY wrote letters of support for Adama Bah, the youngest known Muslim American detained in a domestic terrorism investigation. In 2005, Adama was arrested by the FBI, and accused of being a “potential” suicide bomber. She was held without evidence for nearly two months in a maximum-security detention center before public pressure prompted the government to release her. No terrorist charges were ever filed. For the next three years, Adama was ordered to wear an ankle bracelet and live under partial house arrest as she underwent an excruciating immigration battle to remain in the country. Shortly after her release, her father was deported to Guinea, Africa, which then forced her to drop out of high school to support her four younger siblings.
After watching ADAMA, a documentary I made with her and her family as they went through this ordeal, these 7th graders decided to sit down and write letters to Adama. Here’s a sampling of some of their thoughts and reactions:
“It…made me feel sad watching your video. It must be terrible being accused of something you did not do just because of your religion (Muslim).”
“…the things that happened in the movie were and are completely horrific and I have so much sympathy for Adama and her family.”
“I learned from the film that immigrants are treated badly and so are Muslims because of their religion and where they come from.”
“We all believe you and your family are a very brave group of individuals.”
Wanting to meet the boys and girls who had written such beautiful, empathic words, I visited their classroom a few weeks ago. For nearly an hour, they asked questions, and I did my best to answer them. Almost everyone raised their hands, either with an inquiry, or just to state how angry they were at the government, and how sad they felt for Adama and her family. One boy said he too was Muslim, and also African, and that he was afraid he’d be arrested, like Adama, ‘for no reason’.
At another point, a young girl with braces and pigtails raised her hand and said, “In afterschool, everyone talks about how Muslims are bad, and that they’re all terrorists.” For a moment, the classroom went silent, shocked by her bluntness. “After I saw the movie, I went and told them that it wasn’t true. But,” she added, “They didn’t believe me.”
This little girl’s action, her resistance, is cause for hope. The swift dismissal she encountered is a reminder of why more perspectives are so desperately needed. After all – how can we expect her classmates to believe her when their TV screens and Facebook feeds are flooded with Muslim boogeymen proving otherwise?
It has been ten years since Adama’s arrest. Sadly, as one of the young students wrote: ‘Our class is beginning to realize how this experience relates to the present.’ The backlash from the November terrorist attacks in Paris, accompanied by Donald Trump’s rise on the national stage, has led to a dramatic spike in anti-Muslim hate-crimes. Countless Muslim-Americans have shared stories of being the targets of Islamophobic violence. Syrian refugees fleeing war have been deemed unwelcome by 31 US states. In the last few months, perpetrators – or, as some would say, terrorists – have vandalized mosques across the country. Even the KKK has recently announced they are recruiting to “fight the spread of Islam.”
It is impossible to undo the trauma inflicted upon Adama and her family, just as it is impossible to erase the fist that landed in Amine’s skull, or any of the other poisonous acts of anti-Muslim hate that have taken place recently. But perhaps if more Americans had greater access to evidence – stories, news, songs, films, made by and about the 1.6 billion Muslims existing on this planet – perhaps ‘Good evening’ in Arabic wouldn’t translate into a punch. And perhaps more people, young and old, might listen to, and be inspired by young folks like Adama – brave, proud Muslims whose stories bear evidence not just of humanity, but heroism and beauty.
David Felix Sutcliffe is a Sundance Award-winning director and producer. His most recent film, (T)ERROR (co-directed with Lyric Cabral) is the first to document an active counter-terrorism investigation and was nominated for a 2015 Spirit Award. His work as a filmmaker has been supported by funding from the BBC, ITVS, IDA, the Tribeca Film Institute, and the Sundance Institute.
ADAMA will be nationally broadcast Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 8/7c (check local listings) as part of the fourth season of WORLD Channel’s AMERICA REFRAMED documentary series, and will stream nationally online at www.americareframed.com beginning Feb. 24.