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Shabbat at the Farm

Muslims in America, on TV

Last night we watched a fascinating hour of television: an episode of 30 Days, created by Morgan Spurlock. He finds people from one walk of life and places them in a new context for a month, allowing them to really walk a mile in somebody else's shoes.

I didn't see his documentary Super Size Me (I didn't need a movie to tell me that a month of eating nothing but McDonald's will make a body sick), but my interest in the show was piqued when I saw him discuss it on the Daily Show. In the first episode, he and his girlfriend pull the Ehrenreichian stunt of trying to live for a month on minimum wage. (Predictably, they fail. The ep got good reviews, though.) And the episode he was plugging on Jon Stewart sounded right up my alley: it's called Muslims in America.

Spurlock placed David Stacy, a Christian from West Virginia, in a Muslim home in Dearborn, Michigan. For thirty days David dressed as a Muslim, ate as Muslims do, responded to the call to prayer five times a day. And he learned: from his host family and community, from a pair of imams and an Arabic teacher... and from the ordinary experience of interacting with non-Muslim Americans, and seeing those interactions from both sides.

David deals with being frisked in airports (an experience he'd never had until he donned the clothing of his temporary new life), learns about hijab, pines after pork. He attends a Muslim bachelor party. He has heated political conversations with his hosts -- a married couple, doctor and law student, Americans of Pakistani descent -- about terrorism and 9/11. But most of all, he wrestles with his faith, and with Islam, and with whether he can reconcile them in his mind and heart.

How often is an hour of prime-time television devoted to inner spiritual struggle? When his first imam explains to him that Islam is the most recent branch on the tree which bore both Judaism and Christianity -- that though the three Abrahamic faiths pray in different languages and in different ways, they are directing their words to the same God -- David is flabbergasted. "That's...really interesting, I didn't know that," he says. It will become a refrain for him as the month goes by.

The show was particularly compelling to me because I'm about a third of the way through the Qur'an right now. (Several friends and I have formed an informal reading group, to discuss what we're reading and to encourage each other to keep going, and it's proving fascinating stuff.) Because I'm trying to increase my own familiarity with Islam, it was fascinating to watch David increase his.

My only issue with the show relates to one line of the voiceover script (at one point, Spurlock offers a capsule summary of the three Abrahamic traditions, and I thought he oversimplified the Jewish notion of moshiach), but that's pretty minor. 30 Days reminded me of Faking It, though without the competition at the end of the hour -- and with more overt social relevance. Was it made with an agenda? Certainly. I expect Spurlock wanted to humanize both Christians and Muslims in each others' eyes, to show what good can come of reaching for common ground, and to erase misconceptions. I think he succeeded on all counts.

So if you have an interest in interfaith dialogue, or in religious stories, or in watching one man face and overcome his dark night of the soul, keep an eye out for reruns of the Muslims in America episode of 30 Days. There's something on television that relates to religion, and it's well-made, and it resists the temptation to sensationalize -- and that's a rare pleasure indeed.

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