Proud to be American

Muslim girls US identity comes first for Muslims in BBC Arabic and Persian's documentary

With a sister who wears the hijab and a cowboymad Muslim father who dresses like John Wayne, Seema Jilani enjoys a diverse family life. The Texas-based paediatrician, who has worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan and written extensively on health and social issues, is an engaging contributor to a new BBC documentary, American Muslim: Freedom, Faith and Fear.

Other participants include a fashion designer, an imam, a comedian, a Marine, a Republican congressman and a forthright newspaper columnist - all with something to say about Muslims who live in the Land of the Free. The illuminating 60 minute tv programme, to be accompanied by a World Service radio documentary, emerged from a competition that invited proposals for a collaborative project between BBC Arabic and BBC Persian.

'The original idea was to concentrate on the Bible Belt where there are fascinating similarities between devout Christians and devout Muslims,' explains BBC Persian reporter Karen Zarindast. The remit later broadened out and the resulting programme, commissioned by Global News, will be shown on BBC World News, BBC Arabic and BBC Persian in the run-up to the tenth anniverary of 9/11.

To get their material, Zarindast, along with BBC Arabic reporter Sam Farah, producer/director Darius Bazargan and cameraman David Wilkins undertook a three-week road trip across the US earlier this year - from Ground Zero in New York, then west to California before heading back to Washington DC.

Stop offs included Carmi in Illinois, home to 5000 people, 17 churches and a lone Muslim family, and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, Dearborn in Michigan, home to the largest Muslim community in the US (30,000) and a mosque as big as any in the Middle East.

The majority of the interviews were in English, with a few conducted in Arabic and Persian. 'Doing three language versions of the programme was pretty complicated and involved lots of planning and organisation,' says Farah.

Originally from Lebanon, he went to university in the US in the mid-80s and this was his first trip back. 'It was interesting to return after so many years, and I have to say that I fell in love with the country all over again.'

It's a familiar sentiment. 'Everyone we met, from the most recent Muslim arrivals to the surgeon who left Pakistan 30 years ago, told us how much they loved America,' says Farah. Zarindast, who moved to the UK from Iran 15 years ago, and travels regularly to the US, where her mother and brother now live, was also struck by Muslims' loyalty to their adopted land.

'American identity comes before anything else,' she observes, adding that it's different in the UK where even fourth generation immigrants often describe themselves as Muslim first, Pakistani or Bangladeshi second and British third.

'Muslims in America are better integrated than in Britain,' Darius Bazargan notes. 'The country is more of a melting pot where people go to escape repression and really value their freedom.' Not that Muslims' love of the States means they are always loved equally in return, he points out. 'There seems to be more Islamophobia now than immediately after the 9/11 attacks.

'Attitudes have hardened since the election of President Obama. People know they can't express anti-black opinions but think it acceptable to be anti-Muslim. In fact, [in the case of politicians] their ratings can go up if they appear to be anti-Muslim.'

In another side of the story, the documentary features white Americans who have converted to Islam as a reaction against Western materialism and the constant pressure to look slim and attractive. They include a woman who used to make her living photographing people in nightclubs and is now a devout Muslim.

What you might call a step changeā€¦

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