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,
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.
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
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.
Your mother must have been very open-minded.
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.
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?
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.
Did you practice both religions in your home?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
How did your faith influence your life and outlook at that time?
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.”
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!
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.
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
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
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?
MEHDI: Although [the terrorist attacks] was the big
red flag for most Americans, the degree to which Islam and
misunderstood in this country was already well apparent to me.
I knew from what I experienced as a youngster that the issues
and discrimination were already in place well before September
11. So I started my work before then.
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
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
had still not committed myself fully.
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?
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.
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
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.
When you talk about your “part,” how would you articulate
what you think that part is?
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.
Do you see the different forms of religion as different avenues
to the same God?
MEHDI: Well, there’s only one God. So…absolutely.
There’s only one God to get to.