457: Upending Muslim stereotypes, PBS kicks off POV with “New Muslim Cool”

“You guys sound like America’s worst nightmare!”
    Radio host interviewing rapper Hamza Perez.

“I brought my boys up in Catholic schools. I worked two jobs to do that. … It’s kind of confusing for us, but we accept it. My kids are all drug free now, they don’t drink and they don’t smoke!”

    Hamza Perez’s mother.

    “Listen up!” You need to hear this, especially If you think you know Muslims, or Arab Americans, or Latino Americans. Like most of us, you’re probably approaching your daily interactions with friends, neighbors and coworkers based on stereotypes of these communities.
    This is important. Global attention is fixed on the Middle East these days from President Obama’s historic Cairo address to the turmoil in Iran. This week, ReadTheSpirit is helping readers sort out these stereotypes in two ways:
    FIRST: Today, we’re recommending an eye-opening PBS documentary in the “POV” series by Jennifer Maytorena Taylor, called “New Muslim Cool.” It debuts Tuesday night. Check your local listings for airtimes or click on this PBS site to find your local airtime.
    SECOND: Today, we’re offering an early glimpse of a major new book—due in bookstores later this summer—on breaking down stereotypes about Arab-Americans. This is a week-long series of stories appearing at the http://www.OurValues.org Web site hosted by the University of Michigan’s Dr. Wayne Baker.

    Bottom line on “New Muslim Cool”: If you care about religious diversity in American—do not miss this 80-minute film!
    PBS programmers chose it to kick off the new season of the award-winning documentary series, “POV” (for Point Of View). “New Muslim Cool” is guaranteed to intrigue and expand your awareness of American culture. You’ll come away wanting to hug and help this guy who may, frankly, scare you in the opening minutes of the film.
    The main character is Hamza Perez. Immediately, we learn that brothers Hamza and Suliman Perez converted to Islam from a Catholic Puerto Rican family. Hamza admits that he dealt drugs before his conversion to Islam. And, jumping into this new faith, the Perez brothers decide to launch a career as urban Muslim rappers.
    Toggling together a mish-mosh of styles and influences with their shoestring budget as independent performers, they manage to produce quite a show. One example: Early in the three-year journey of this film, we see them jump up on a stage with flaming machetes, which they say are elements from their Puerto Rican heritage.
    While perhaps a little scary, this whole Perez family is so affectionate and kind hearted about their new faith that they frequently laugh at themselves—which wins viewers over in a hurry.
    At one point, Hamza and his brother chuckle at their own need for a lot more education: “We don’t speak English well; we don’t speak Spanish well; and we don’t speak Arabic well!”

    What happens in the course of this three-year saga with Hamza Perez is a strong endorsement of grassroots interfaith work—and a sharp-edged look at the barriers that can be thrown in that path.
    One shocking example: The mosque in urban Pittsburgh where Hamza normally prays on Fridays (the “Muslim sabbath”) suddenly is raided by the FBI. Agents force everyone out of the mosque at gunpoint, line them up along a brick wall, handcuff the worshipers and haul them away.
    The filmmaker provides short background interviews with several key figures, including a newspaper reporter who covered the unfolding story. Why did this happen? It turns out that a convicted felon from the West Coast, who was not supposed to travel without alerting authorities, was crossing the U.S. anyway and attended prayers at that Pittsburgh mosque one day. Police arrested the man elsewhere in the city. But, they also followed up by breaking down doors and rousting everyone at the mosque apparently just to see who else might turn up in such a dragnet.

    Despite this painful incident, Hamza becomes a noted Muslim teacher and poet in the Pittsburgh area. He emphasizes Islam’s respect for Jews and Christians and, drawing on his Catholic background, becomes both a Bible and Quran teacher at the county jail.
    Then, suddenly, another barrier comes crashing down! All three Muslim teachers, including Hamza, are banned from the jail. The FBI explains nothing about the expulsions, despite months of requests from Hamza’s growing circle of friends in the Pittsburgh interfaith community.
    I won’t spoil the fillm by telling you more, except this: Don’t miss this documentary!
    Make sure you pay attention to Hamza’s music as well. In opening scenes, he’s a bit of a wild man on stage. And, three years later? We see him in a studio with his brother almost crooning their rap lyrics, including a song, “I Got My Soul,” that you may find yourself wanting to enjoy again and again. The flaming machetes are long gone.


    EDUCATIONAL MATERIALS FROM PBS: The POV staff provides a very helpful “interfaith discussion guide.”
    NEWS COVERAGE of the Pittsburgh raid: If you want to read a little more about the 2006 raid, here’s a story still available online from the Post-Gazette.


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    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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