Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" recreates the infamous Five Points ghetto in lower Manhattan during the Civil War. There, Irish immigrants are forced to battle nativist thugs while being dragged into a war that would free the slaves and, they felt, threaten their economic survival.
What parallels did you find between the Irish immigrants in "Gangs of New York" and Muslim immigrants today?
The movie is very reflective of what's going on today. We even have a war that noone knows why we're fighting, and that we're not sure we want. Not only the war in Iraq, but the war on terror in general. The war on terror is really a war for Islam--I mean, it can be perceived as war against Islam, but it's a war against the terrorists' version of Islam, for the real Islam. As an American I want America to survive and as a Muslim, I want the real Islam to survive.
You also see the same anti-immigrant attitude. The Irish people were trying to escape the famine, just as a lot of Muslim immigrants are fleeing negative situations in their own home countries. They didn't come to stick it to the natives here. The Irish came because they had to eat. Muslims are fleeing political persecution. So they are coming to America not just for the necessities, but for ideological reasons. When Americans say, "You don't belong here and you should go back home," it's very jarring. Muslims' textbook understanding of what America is is upset by that.
Today, of course, the Irish basically have been accepted. It's a very American story. In the same way, the story of Islam in America is not that this ancient religion has come to the West. I don't believe that. It's a story of America. American history is about groups who come here and how they become American, how they remain true their culture and are true to their new American culture.
What struck me also was how diverse the Irish were. They had all these strange names--one group from deep in Ireland spoke Gaelic so no one could understand them. Muslims are like that. We all come from different backgrounds. African Muslims are very different from Pakistani Muslims and Arab Muslims, and yet everyone wants to treat us as one group, just like Bill the Butcher lumped the Irish all together, as different from him. At one point he says, "Until you pray to the same God I do, I'm not going to accept you." You get that a lot as a Muslim. As in the movie, obviously, we all pray to the same God. The Irish didn't believe there was an Irish Catholic God and Muslims don't believe there's only a Muslim. This is our way of praying to the God.
I don't think the Republicans and Democrats know what to make of us, but they see an opportunity. The movie drove home this point that politicians just want votes, and the people who really care about America are those who have these prejudices--the nativists. The politicians don't have a long term vision, they just want the votes.
And yet the politicians seem to help immigrants make the transition, by trading votes for a share of power, as when the Irish got to run their own candidate for sheriff.
The Muslims aren't that powerful yet. We haven't reached that level of recognition. Though in the last election, four major immigrant Muslim organizations endorsed George W. Bush, and according to some statistics, had they not voted for Bush in key states, the election would not have been as close as it was. Bush himself respects Muslims, because he respects religiously sincere people. But I think the way he gets that past his supporters on the right is by saying that Muslims represent a lot of votes.
Religion and violence mix pretty freely in the movie.
Well, religion becomes a political factor, not a spiritual factor. Leonardo DiCaprio's character isn't really religious-he throws the Holy Bible into the water as soon as he leaves the orphanage. And if any of the characters were asked what their religion wanted them to do, they wouldn't have been fighting. The same goes for Muslims today. People choose to be violent. If they use religion to justify what they're doing, it 's not the fault of the religion. It wasn't Christianity's fault that Bill the Butcher is violent.
It's interesting too that these gangs were all fighting for leadership in this ghetto, for the right to say, "We're the most powerful tribe." The Taliban were the most powerful tribe in Afghanistan, and they were beaten by the Northern Alliance, which is another tribe. Those tribes are ancient, they predate Islam. These guys in "Gangs of New York" also identify more with their gangs than with their religion. Religion becomes a part of how they justify what they do. In Afghanistan, they become Muslim, but stick with their tribal practices and assume that it's part of Islam.
And all these tribes know how to do is fight. In the movie, they had these competing firefighting companies who start fires, then fight with each other [over who puts it out]. Then they loot the houses and fight over the loot. It's just a cycle of violence. They've been at war with each other for so long that that's all they know. When the federal troops come to stop the mob at the end, it kind of cleaned all the gang violence out. Leonardo DiCaprio says, "You wouldn't even know we existed." Maybe that's what America's doing right now in Afghanistan, trying to bomb these gangs out of existence.
DiCaprio's character adopts a Catholic church as his headquarters, and his cause. Do Muslim immigrants become more religiously oriented when they come here?
I think so. America's a country where everyone is identified by a set of markers--religious markers, cultural markers, economic markers. As Muslims one of the ways to identify ourselves---and strengthen the American fabric--is to gain those markers. There are Palestinians, South Asians, Africans and so on--those are cultural markers.
But we recognize that the most powerful marker is the religious one. We can do more by exploiting that religious marker than by any of our cultural markers. So mosques are developing into cultural free zones, as sites of integration. Some of it, too, is the influence of American culture, where on Sunday, Muslims see the whole neighborhood go to church, and we say, look, my religion is important too.
The draft riot at the end of "Gangs of New York" is a kind of a huge event that makes the gangs ask, What are we fighting with each other for? Was 9/11 that kind of event for American Muslims?
Since 9/11, most American Muslim groups are more behind each other, but as we get further away from 9/11, it lessens. We're going back to our old gangs, with our own views. But hopefully we'll keep enough of the old unity to propel us to the next level of achievement in American society, which is of course where the Irish went.