Recently a young writer and filmmaker named Layla Merritt wrote to me about work she has been doing researching and working on a documentary that is dear to her heart. While the film is in development, she created a rough cut trailer and uploaded it to YouTube -- it is above. The first day it was on YouTube, she received a serious distribution inquiry from California Newsreel, the premier distributor of education films in ethnic studies films to institutions. But after that, Layla began receiving harassing emails and threats from angry Muslims around the world, who said things like "I can get to you easily, Jew."
Her film doesn't actually attack Islam, but it does highlight the absurd oppression and tragic challenges that American girls face in when they are kept in Islamic communities. Black From Islam also uses the girls whom Layla interviews to make case study comparisons to women in the Islamic Middle East who have been profiled by New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof. Two of Layla's interview subjects grew up in the secretive Islamic group Jamaat al-Fuqra in American cities. A group that originated in Pakistan, Jamaat al-Fuqra is suspected of complicity with the beheading of Daniel Pearl. Layla explains her intention in making Black From Islam this way:
Black From Islam: African American Women Defectors from Islam
Black From Islam, a film by Layla Merritt, is a one-hour, educational documentary. It features interviews with three ex-Muslim women, two experts, and an informational reference. During the heat of Black Nationalism in the 1970's, African Americans converted in droves to Islam. Black From Islam identifies the historical routes African Americans have taken to Islam in America, rejecting the slavery-linked dogma of Christianity. It closely examines the cultural differences of how Americans live as Muslims in America, through the experiences of three American women. Communities such the Muslims Of the Americas (MOA) are highly reclusive. They live as large families on private compounds or buildings. They practice polygamy and home-school their children; they arrange their daughters marriages. This way of life, virtually foreign to most American teens, is a reality for some American girls who grow up Muslim. Black From Islam takes an intimate look at non-secular, Muslim-American communities through the triumphs and tragedies of the women who left them.
The audience for Black From Islam includes scholars, students, libraries, institutions, African Americans, women, Americans, and internationally, anyone with an interest in the movement and spread of Islam. Says Merritt: "I have been contacted by many Muslims, some who identify with the character in the film and some who are angry and make unsolicited threats. Because the stories of the MOA are so powerful and have never been told before, I expect this film to cause quite a controversy and I realize it's dangerous for me, but I hope that in America I will have enough freedom to take the risk."
Research and Storytelling
Historically, black Americans were drawn to Islam in rejection of oppression. Islam offered a way of life and support community that was about education, respectability, honor, etc... and many poor blacks were attracted to that. At various points during the 20th Century, there were peaks of conversions to Islam by black Americans. The first was in 1930, when an Afghan who went by the name Wallace D. Fard created the Nation of Islam. The second was the 1940's, when Pakistani Muslims spread al-Fuqra, now known as the Muslims Of the Americas. Black From Islam's most powerful aspect is the interviews with former Muslim women. During the rise of Black Nationalism during the civil rights movements of the 1960's and 70's, African Americans converted in droves to Islam.
The three women interviewed are daughters the converts (if possible, one of the mothers will join her daughter in an interview, but that's not confirmed yet). The women were raised in Muslim sects as children and defected. The film closely examines cultural differences in how Americans live as Muslims in America. Communities like the Muslims Of the Americas are highly reclusive. They live as large families on private compounds or buildings. They practice polygamy and home-school their children. They arrange their daughters' marriages. This way of life, virtually foreign to most American teens, is a reality for some American girl who grow up Muslim. The result is often difficulty co-existing as both Muslim and American, and extreme culture shock.
The story will unfold beginning with the import of African Americans to the Americas. The historical research will be accompanied by commentary from Dr. Jocelyne Cesari. The cultural expert will provide commentary on the political and cultural movements affecting African American religious demography, leading up the 1970's and the peak of Black Nationalism. The film will examine various acts of violence from Islamic groups such as the NOI and al-Fuqra through the stories of Jalila, Yasmina, and Alia. The film will explore the positive and negative aspects of these religious sects for African Americans. It will make ties to the oppression of women in Islam, using the testimonies of the three women as case studies to compare to oppression of women and terrorist foment in Middle East, drawing on research by New York Times journalists and authors of Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wuddun.
Layla has recently secured interviews with the girls from al-Fuqra. This group has rarely been exposed. They are polygamists who occupy secluded land, and the girls are often molested by their stepfathers. Because the group condones and even encourages violence, many defectors are afraid to speak out, but Layla has finally found a girl who is willing to talk. She was so damaged by what she experienced with al-Fuqra that she became a porn star before obtaining her education and building the confidence to move forward.
The trailer doesn't have any of the al-Fuqra/Muslims Of the Americas interviews in it, but that is a huge part of the documentary. Layla is the first person in the world to get insider interviews from former MOA members. It's virtually impossible, because they are afraid of action against them. But Layla needs funds to finish this project.
Layla Merritt is a woman of courage. I am impressed by her perseverance and professionalism. And now she needs money to buy copyrighted images and pay for advanced editing expenses. Please help. Watch the trailer and you will see how worthy a project this is. And then please donate to Black From Islam by clicking the donate button below.