The Chinese philosopher Laozi said that “the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Often for the memorable journeys, the company one keeps matter much.
The unforgettable “Journey into Europe” also began with a single step into the German Embassy in Washington. Instead of Laozi, it was Dr. Stefan Buchwald, Director German Information Center, who welcomed the guests to a special presentation of the documentary by Dr. Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University.
Braving the winter weather and the January snow storm, Washingtonians gathered to hear the famous scholar – who also is an anthropologist and served as a diplomat – speak about Muslim immigrants and Europe. In a little over an hour, Dr. Ahmed took everyone in the auditorium on a remarkable journey – going from country to country and introducing fascinating personalities while illuminating on the challenges they face and the accomplishments achieved.
The Sun drenched Andalusian region serves as the setting for unfolding the story of modern immigrants from Muslim countries. The cities of Cordoba, Granada and Seville loom large in this documentary and radiate romance.
Andalusia plays an important role in the minds of Muslims. For many, it is like paradise lost to hostile powers and it engenders resentment with a strong feeling to rewrite history. It is not uncommon for extremists to use the loss of Andalusia to Christian powers in Spain as a rallying cry to rebuild an imaginary caliphate.
The documentary will surely disappoint the extremists’ vision of the world because the representatives – civic and religious leaders – of Andalusia expressed remarkable appreciation of the contributions to education, culture and science during the Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula.
More appreciation of these contributions comes from the interviews with Sicilian municipal leaders who educate the viewers of the documentary about the Arabic painting made for the Norman Kings in the Palazzo de Normanni, which was once the palace of the Emir during Muslim rule in Southern Italy, in Palermo.
The challenges faced by Muslim immigrants in France are presented artfully through the interviews in Marseilles, a pivotal city in Southern France. As a viewer, one feels the anguish of ordinary Muslims living in France who face the dilemma of dealing with the angry alienated young community members. You will hear about the ambition to build a grand mosque in Marseille – adding to the charms and projecting the size of the Muslim population of this beautiful southern French city.
Crossing the English Channel, the documentary shines some light on the lives, struggles and the success of the Muslim Community both in Ireland and the United Kingdom. Through the interviews of Muslim parliamentarians and municipal leaders across these lands, the viewers will learn that a number of these immigrants and their off springs have become a part of the fabric of the society while many still struggle to find a place in it.
Diplomats, educators, scholars as well as religious leaders – Christian as well as Jewish – appear in various segments of the documentary to provide a balanced perspective on their views about the contributions Islam – the faith and its adherents – have made through the ages.
“Journey into Europe” takes the viewers from Denmark to Germany and beyond, educating all the way. Each stop along the way provides an opportunity to pause and reflect. For those willing to engage in health self-criticism, there is plenty of material in the documentary to ponder over.
As the cameras hover back to Cordoba, Spain, I recalled the opening of the Basharat Mosque in Pedro Abad – built by Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in 1982 and then visiting again in December 2011. When Germany came into focus in the documentary, I compared my own recent travel to Frankfurt and meeting German family friends like Christiane and Juliana Spiegel along with extended family members in Germany. Through the documentary and from personal experiences, one appreciates the commonalities more than any differences.
In this era of hypersensitivity, it is useful to compare documentary scenes and the dialogue with one’s personal experiences. So as the cameras were moving so were the recollections of personal journeys into Europe over the decades. I do recall enjoying the privileges of offering Friday prayers in a library room in Geneva and at the beautiful Ahmadiyya Muslim Community mosque in Zurich Switzerland – without any fear of persecution or any obstacles.
Gifted with his anthropological studies, diplomatic skills and storytelling abilities, Dr. Ahmed successfully engaged the distinguished audience at the German Embassy but also subsequently at the Cosmos Club. Through original ideas and hard work, his team is able to narrate a story that is unlike the ad nauseam headlines repeated on cable news channels.
Photos courtesy of Dr. Hans Spiegel.