beliefnetA young Muslim recognizes her immigrant community’s struggle in Gangs of New York

Interview by Paul O’Donnell

Asma Gull Hasan admits she might not have seen “Gangs of New York” had we not asked her to be part of this year’s Oscar series. She left the theater thinking the producers are marketing the movie all wrong: instead of “once upon a time in America,” the posters should read “A drama for our times.” At age 27, Hasan, the author of “American Muslims,” has become one of the country’s most recognized Muslim voices, dedicated to dispelling myths and stereotypes about the wildly diverse and quickly expanding Islamic community in the United States.

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 no one 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.

In the movie, the political boss, Tweed, is very interested in Irish for his own reasons. Is there a parellel there as well?
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