Find out more about Anisa Mehdi's latest projects by visiting her Web site.


Anisa Mehdi

on being an American Muslim,
pre- and post-September 11

Anisa Mehdi

EXPLOREFAITH: Having been raised by a Muslim father and Christian mother, can you describe how these two influences shaped who you are today?

ANISA MEHDI: This is such a welcoming nation that people come from all over, and many of us are descended from immigrants. Both my parents are immigrants to the United States. My mother came as a 6-year-old from Nova Scotia, Canada. Her father, who was a minister in the Baptist church, was invited to come to serve a congregation in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

My father was born in the city of Karbala, Iraq. Karbala is the city where the grandson of the prophet Muhammad was murdered—he and his family—by rival Muslims in the early days after the death of the prophet, when the fights for power were emerging among the early Muslims.

His family moved sometime later to Baghdad, where he and his brother were among the top students in their classes and received full scholarships from their country to study abroad in the late 1940s. My father came to the University of California at Berkeley, where he got his Ph.D. in American Constitutional Law. My mother earned her Masters at Berkeley, and the [two of them] met at the International House there. They ended up volunteering with the American Friends Service Committee, the Quakers, working with migrant farm workers and people who were canning peas. I remember stories about working in a pea cannery

My mother had always been interested in international things. They were good friends, and you know how things grow from friendship to romance. Apparently my Nova Scotia-born grandmother was a little surprised when she discovered that this tall, dark handsome man from Iraq was courting her daughter.

EXPLOREFAITH: Your mother must have been very open-minded.

ANISA MEHDI: Tremendously. I think that comes from the learning she got from her parents—the grounding that she got from them, that you want to embrace the world and the people who are in it …God’s creation.

EXPLOREFAITH: Do you see your parents’ experience as the reason that, as an adult, you have focused in large part on helping non-Muslims understand Islam and Muslim culture?

ANISA MEHDI: I credit my parents with teaching me to keep my mind open as well and teaching me that learning and communication are very important. They kept up their ties with the Quakers for some time, so non-violence was very important too, which fit in very well with their Christian and Muslim practices.

EXPLOREFAITH: Did you practice both religions in your home?

ANISA MEHDI: Neither of my parents was particularly religious. We gave thanks before we ate dinner but there weren’t long prayer sessions at home, and there wasn’t that kind of environment that you hear about nowadays in some devout families. When we moved to New York, my mom found a United Methodist church. We attended church not so that we would be indoctrinated into Christianity, but so we would be learning history and literature, and, forgive this term, the mythology and lore of Judaism and Christianity.

I firmly believe that if we’re going to be literate human beings we need to know the stories. Just like we need to know Zeus and Hera, we need to know Moses and Abraham, and we need to know the literature that comes out of this great biblical tradition.

We were going to Sunday school to make friends, to learn about the stories of the Bible, to learn music (I had a fabulous music director at this church; I’m a flute player and continue to be and he was very nurturing). We were always encouraged to explore our own spirituality. We were never told: This is what you need to believe.

Simultaneously, we were learning about Islam. We went to the big celebrations during the two great holidays of the Islamic calendar: The Eid after the month of Ramadan fasting and the big Eid Al-Adha, which is the feast at the end of the Hajj. [For that celebration] during the 60s and 70s in New York, people would gather in big hotel ballrooms and have communal prayers, and they’d give kids coins and candy and big meals.

We also went to Muslim Youth Camp, where we learned the format of Islamic prayer. We’d wake before dawn and pray—we’d make all five prayers during the day. We’d also have classroom sessions and play—go swimming and all the stuff you do at camp. It was when I was in Muslim Youth Camp as a 14- or 15-year-old that I really felt that I was Muslim.

EXPLOREFAITH: How did your faith influence your life and outlook at that time?

ANISA MEHDI: In Islam, the two central themes were: God is indivisible; God is One. There is no intermediary between the human being and his Creator. With Christianity I had always had trouble with the Trinity Mass and the intermediator, who was Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is a prophet of Islam, and I have tremendous respect for him. Many times I’ve said to people: “If people had only listened to Jesus, God wouldn’t have had to have Muhammad come as an additional reminder of His commandments.”

Muhammad could have lived a peaceful life. He wouldn’t have had to suffer the persecution that he did in Mecca, when he received his revelations… If we had only listened to Jesus. But we didn’t!

I really felt connected to God, but I also knew it would be very hard to be a Muslim in American society in the late 60s, early 70s. I thought, “Well, I’d better just stay Christian because it’s easier.” It was hard enough for me already because I was Arab-American.

My father was maybe not religiously devout but politically, he was extremely so. He was the first Arab in this country to start talking about the Palestinian question; that was before the PLO was even conceived. Starting in the late 1950s, early 1960s, he was raising the roof in the New York media about Palestinian human rights, civil rights, oppression of the Israelis, [posing] the question, "Can a real estate deal that was made in the Bible legitimately apply today?"

My sisters and I were already picked on enough because of my father’s politics and being Arab-American in the New York City public school system…by friends, their parents, by our teachers. So coming out as Muslim on top of that…I just didn’t have the guts.

EXPLOREFAITH: Yet your documentaries explore Islam and Muslim life. What has compelled you to step to the forefront and pursue these projects about Islam? Are you responding to the focus brought about by the terrorist attacks?

ANISA MEHDI: Although [the terrorist attacks] was the big red flag for most Americans, the degree to which Islam and Muslims were misunderstood in this country was already well apparent to me. I knew from what I experienced as a youngster that the issues of racism and discrimination were already in place well before September 11. So I started my work before then.

Anisa Mehdi at workI think it was because I’d had training in journalism. I got my degree at Columbia, and I’d had many years working in newsrooms and as a correspondent. I covered the arts for a dozen years, so I had the skills. Then in the early 90s, a new need presented itself to which I could apply my production and communications skills and my writing ability. I began to cover religion because I knew a lot about religion that other people didn’t know, not from having been indoctrinated but from having really studied it from a more objective point of view. At that point, I had still not committed myself fully.

The moment I committed myself fully, publicly, as a Muslim woman in America, a Muslim-American, was the day my father died. He expired in my arms, and at that moment I knew there was Paradise. I knew that although the spirit left the body, the spirit still lived.

For me, that was confirmation of God. And that made me a Muslim. I don’t know why it made me a Muslim instead of a Christian. It was just that the acknowledgement of God’s mercy was right there. My father’s spirit had left his body, but it was still intact. By then I was in my forties, I was an adult; I was ready to take whatever backlash came my way.

EXPLOREFAITH: Many non-Muslims view Islam as a religion of strife and war, jihad and violence against Western society. Is it harder for you personally to be Muslim post September 11?

ANISA MEHDI: It hasn’t been harder for me per se, because I was really toughened up throughout my entire childhood. [People used to talk about] Arab terrorists. Now it’s Muslim terrorists.

I’m so thoroughly American. I know all the Rogers & Hammerstein…jazz…rock and roll. I’m totally integrated into American society, so people are a bit… surprised, that’s someone who’s so American like me could be a Muslim. So even [my] being [Muslim] offers an alternative to people’s thoughts.

I’m really not a threatening individual, so people feel free to engage with me in questions. Sometimes I’d rather not talk about this stuff; I’d rather talk about [the musicals] Oklahoma or Carousel. But I think because I am such a homegrown girl, that allows people to engage with me the way they might not otherwise…including being aggressive with their questions. But my training keeps me from losing my temper in those circumstances.

EXPLOREFAITH: How has the current climate of tension and the news of one terrorist attack after another affected your relationship with God and how you practice your faith?

ANISA MEHDI: Is it Alcoholics Anonymous that has the saying, “Let go and let God”? There’s been a lot more of that. I realize how small and insignificant my part is in the whole, and that I can’t possibly comprehend the whole. God gets to do that; none of us does.

I have had an extraordinary surge of faith in spite of what should be me saying, "There can’t be a God," as a result of all this. I’ve had this surge in faith because I realize that I don’t know the whole story and I’m never going to. I can do my part. I am required to do my part. But I have to believe, and I have to have faith that the bigger picture is in God’s hands.

I deeply believe in God’s mercy. I trust in God’s mercy. It would be nice to know when I get to the other side of life, what it was all about, and have some of those questions answered. But I really just have to have faith in God’s vision for the world.

EXPLOREFAITH: When you talk about your “part,” how would you articulate what you think that part is?

ANISA MEHDI: In communication. In sharing what I can through documentaries or NPR [National Public Radio] or in the speeches I give or this opportunity with explorefaith. And in my personal interactions with friends and family. Also in whatever way I can to bring, at least in my small circle, joy and beauty and those other gifts that God’s given us so that we will appreciate our time here on earth.

EXPLOREFAITH: Do you see the different forms of religion as different avenues to the same God?

ANISA MEHDI: Well, there’s only one God. So…absolutely. There’s only one God to get to.

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