Basir’s Mooz-lum brings cultural fears rather than religious differences to light

From left to right: Qasim Basir, director; Nia Long, played Safiya Mahdi; Evan Ross, played Tariq Mahdi; Dana Offenbach, producer; Roger Guenveur Smith, played Hassan Mahdi

The problem began when Tariq Mahdi decided at a young age to sneak out of his Islamic school to go trick-or-treating on Halloween. He got caught. It was really when the whippings began that he started to lose faith in Islam.

Tariq Mahdi, the protagonist of the film Mooz-lum, which debuted in New York City on September 17 as part of the Urbanworld Film Festival, is at the crux of the US-Muslim-war-media whirl that has intensified over the past few months. The film, written and directed by Qasim Basir, features Danny Glover, Nia Long, Roger Guenveur Smith, Summer Bishil and Evan Ross in the lead role as Tariq Mahdi.

The film is based on director Basir’s own life, which included his parent’s divorce, his strict father’s custody over him, his enrollment in an Islamic school, whippings from an abusive teacher and his avoidance of Islam during his college years. Tariq’s well-intentioned father, Hassan Mahdi (played by Roger Guenveur Smith gets custody of Tariq after his divorce with his wife (played by Nia Long), while his daughter, Taqwa lives with her mother.

Hassan Mahdi’s devotion to Islam is not just faith-based; it is, more importantly, a fear that his son will lose his Muslim identity if allowed to become too “American,” playing into the all too common stereotype that being Muslim and being American must be two opposite concepts.

Nia Long and Evan Ross having a laugh at the Mooz-lum press screening.

“Several times in the movie, my character says ‘Put on your seatbelt’ to his family,” says Smith, explaining his character. “This man is just a concerned, benevolent, desperate father who is afraid for the next generation.”

This fear is not without basis. Nor is it alone. Many immigrant parents fear that their children will become baseball-playing, burger-eating American children, with no sense of their own culture. But this fear is on the other side too. Many American parents worry that their children will be one day living in a place that burns American flags for fun.

Evan Ross, who played Tariq in Mooz-lum, said that the film taught him about crossing boundaries to overcome these fears.

“Young people need to step outside their comfort zones, whether their parents like it or not.”

What is hard to see, however, is that these fears arise from the view the media gives each of us of the opposite party. When Muslims think of America, they think of Bush politics, McDonald’s and, recently, Jersey Shore. And, let’s face it, no one want their kids to be a combination of those three things. When Americans think of Islam, they think of 9/11, headscarves and jihad, none of which are desirable concepts to us.

In a recent Gallup poll, almost half of Americans said that they feel at least “a little” prejudice towards Muslims. And 80% of Americans believed that people in Muslim countries have a negative view of the U.S. With our minds already made up, how can we progress?

We can, by taking Taqwa as an example. Taqwa, in Mooz-lum, is Tariq’s little sister, who was brought up by her mother. Taqwa was (gasp!) allowed to go trick-or-treating, concerts and other social events with her friends while growing up; in college, she, wise beyond both her and Tariq’s years, is the one that helps cajole Tariq into an Islam that is spiritual and vibrant.

Tariq eventually learns how to see Muslims as people, not stereotypes, which is what Basir intends for the audience.

“It’s almost comical how stereotypical Muslims have become,” he said. “I would just like this film to be in the current discussion going on so that, hopefully, the discussion can go from fear and ignorance to enlightenment.”


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