At home in Detroit, 10-year-old Mohammad plays video games with his little brother and watches a video about the Hajj to Mecca. Mohammad attends Al-Ikhlas Academy, one of 14 traditional Islamic schools in the Detroit area, which has the largest Muslim population in the U.S. The school is run by Brother Nadir Ahmad, who says, “Since 9/11, children have been harassed, walking to the mosque, [and] have been attacked…These things do create some level of fear in the youngsters.” Later, in his office, Ahmad watches a YouTube video of anti-Muslim preacher Pastor Terry Jones, in which a copy of the Koran is burned; Jones is planning a demonstration in Detroit in the coming days.
Al-Ikhlas is a safe haven for the students, an escape from this kind of discrimination; 16-year-old Aisha recalls that she and her little brothers used to get jumped almost every day when they attended public school. As we see, the students here are, in many ways, typical American teenagers. 18-year-old Abdullah, who was born and raised in Detroit, plays a game of football in the schoolyard, while a group of girls discuss Justin Bieber – their girly shoes and lace gloves peeking from their burkas.
On a local radio station, Terry Jones says he’s not “against” the Muslim religion, but calls for the halting of immigration, the deportation of Muslim immigrants, and the monitoring of Mosques. Back at Al-Ikhlas, Dawud Walid, a Muslim Rights activist, speaks to students about Jones’ impending protest in Detroit. “We have to keep our cool and use our minds,” he says. “We, as Muslims, are never allowed to take the law into our own hands.” He concludes with a lighthearted reminder to the students: “Get off of Facebook tonight and do a little studying.”
Later, Mohammad reflects that “This community has a lot of good people, but some people who don’t like Muslims. They say Muslims are dirty and terrorists. It kind of makes me feel bad.” At his afterschool Koran study program, Mohammad says his goal is to memorize the whole Koran; he already has about 250 pages memorized. Another student, 15-year-old Hala, who is proud of her Yemeni background, says wearing her head scarf makes her feel special, although “Sometimes it does get creepy. There are people who stare.”
The day of Terry Jones’ protest, Walid, speaking to the press, says that Jones is misguided and looking for notoriety. Back at Al-Ikhlas, Brother Ahmad tells a group of students, “I hurt for you…these are adults, and their main aim is to destroy your life. Their main goal is to destroy your future. We have to be strong now.” Jones’ protest ends up drawing a few dozen supporters but even more counter-protestors, who carry signs that read, “I ♥ Muslims.” But the crowd, mostly young men, becomes increasingly agitated. Walid tries to diffuse the situation, but there are arrests.
Later, Abdullah sums it up to racism: “He’s trying to separate Christians and Muslims, and that’s not a good idea.” Later, local religious leaders hold an interfaith meeting to show solidarity with the Muslim community, extolling virtues of unity and peace. Ahmad says he remains optimistic about Muslims’ future in America because of the core goodness in people. As for Mohammad, he enjoys a picnic by the lake with family, happily listening to his iPod.
Credits: Directed and Produced by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady; Editor: Maeve O’Boyle; Cinematography: Tony Hardmon and Craig Atkinson; Producer: Sadia Shepard; Original Music: T. Griffin. For HBO: Supervising Producer: Sara Bernstein; Executive Producer: Sheila Nevins.