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Faith and Freedom: Religious Minorities in Egypt and the U.S.

By Calvin Skaggs

Documentary films root themselves in the ground of truthfulness. We filmmakers base our documentaries on the premise that if we look clearly enough at a subject and edit thoughtfully all the material we collect, we can put on film a new set of truthful insights.

Today few subjects need new insights more than religious conflict. Look at the headlines:

66 People Killed Exiting Church in Nigeria….Settlers Torch West Bank Mosque….Egypt’s Copts Fear Islamic State….Woman Jailed in Denmark for Wearing Niqab

As founder and president of Lumiere Productions—a film company that has been creating a diverse array of films that engage hearts and open minds for over 25 years—one of the premises of the films I make is the belief that true freedom of religion—the freedom to worship as one pleases, or not; to change religions if one chooses; and to publicly identify with one’s religion without negative repercussions professionally or economically—is a cornerstone of representative democracy.

Yet most minority religions cannot claim all three of these prongs, even in progressive democracies.

In the U.S., it is Muslims who are struggling to move us one step further toward true freedom of religion. Though 62% of Americans say they have never met a Muslim, recent polls show between 39% and 49% say they do not trust Muslims. Since 66% of the U.S. media coverage of Muslims focuses on fundamentalist or militant groups, Americans tend to associate Muslims with violence. As a result, as one Muslim said to me, when people find out you’re a Muslim, they want you to “apologize for something you didn’t do.”

In contrast to the U.S., where Christians tend to dominate the culture but are largely required to abide by our laws, some Muslim-dominated countries offer little pretense of freedom of religion. In Egypt, for example, one can see a jobs advertisement headed “Coptic Christians need not apply.” Indeed the 2011 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life ranks Egypt in the top 5% of all countries with “both government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion.” In sum, religious minorities around the world suffer from mild to severe repression or persecution as they try to live their everyday lives and practice their faiths.

Lumiere’s film Faith and Freedom will show the hurdles such minority religions face and the ways they strive to leap them.

In order to allow our audience to empathize with how some practitioners of minority religions feel, we’ll go inside the lives of several members of two religious congregations–a Sunni mosque in Paterson, New Jersey, and a Coptic Orthodox Church in El-Matariya, Cairo, Egypt. We’ve chosen to explore individual lives in depth on the premise that being able to live one’s everyday life fully is the foundation of an open society. It means being able to live your life as you define yourself, not as others define you, and being able to assume a life free of unwarranted prying or interference by government or other institutions. As one of our characters from the Paterson mosque explains, “We’re being defined by others; we’re not being allowed to define who we are.”

Yet we believe that being allowed to define who you are is essential to true religious freedom.

The verité filmmaking we prefer doing will allow us to spend time with selected men and women who attend the Paterson, NJ, mosque and a handful of members of the Coptic congregation in El Matariya. We’ll see them at their jobs, on the basketball court, cooking and eating meals with their families, worshipping together or praying alone. The characters will be showing their own lives and telling their own stories.

We believe this kind of filmmaking can take viewers at least one step toward feeling what it is like to live in another’s skin, even one different from oneself. In an era in which Americans fear our economy might never recover and fear our political system grows ever more dysfunctional, in which greed plagues our bankers and pedophilia our priests, it is tempting to roll all our fears into one form: Islamophobia. The long-denied possibility of true freedom can also push Egyptian Copts to be even more fearful of Muslims, or Muslims of Copts. But once we can begin to conceive of, indeed to undergo the experience of living in another’s skin, then perhaps we can begin to overcome the fears all human beings seem to harbor.

Then perhaps our film will be a small bridge over the chasm of religious conflicts that divides each of our countries, and the world.

This is why I began producing films nearly two decades ago on the porous border between religion and politics in the U.S., the first example being a 6-hour documentary series on the rise of the American religious right after World War II: With God on Our Side. Since then I’ve produced other films on American evangelicals’ interaction with American culture and politics—for PBS, Channel 4 UK, Arté, and various U.S. cable channels. Producing other films having nothing directly to do with religion also led me to Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Russia, where religious strife simmered constantly behind the story I was telling, whether it was based in Kano, Kandahar, or Chechnya.

 

I make these films foregrounding or backgrounding religion because I want to understand how other people’s minds work. I want to get to the heart of how religious differences drive economic and political forces that seem to have little connection with religion. I also make these films because they fulfill me personally. They are premised on my belief that a person’s religious needs are at the heart of his or her identity, whether or not he or she exercises or nourishes the needs. They are also premised on my belief that the three Abrahamic faiths’ core principles dedicated to monotheistic worship, the cultivation of human spirituality, and the furtherance of human justice unite them far more than theological nuances differentiate and divide them.

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Calvin Skaggs, founder and president of Lumiere Productions, has produced or directed over 30 dramas and documentaries for television and theatrical exhibition. His first theatrical feature, On Valentine’s Day, was the official American entry in the Venice Film Festival; his hip-hop drama Fly By Night won the Sundance Filmmakers’ Trophy in 1993. He has executive produced two major documentary series for PBS—With God On Our Side and Local News—and produced numerous films for Discovery, PBS, HBO and Channel 4 UK. Before founding Lumiere, Skaggs earned a Ph.D. from Duke University, and served as Professor of English and Cinema at Drew University.