In the four months since Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Abdelfattah's moved from Cairo to Phoenix, he's had to navigate through all the typical culture shocks, such as new food and new social norms. But perhaps the most jarring thing he's had to come to terms with is the recent surge in anti-Arab rhetoric led by presidential hopeful Donald Trump.
“Coming from outside, you have all these high expectations about what the United States stands for in terms of human rights,” he said. “I was like, 'What? What? We are in 2015, and this is a leading candidate for one of the two biggest political parties in the United States?'”
So when Trump came to Phoenix this month, Abdelfattah decided it was the perfect time to launch a project he'd been toying with: a video series called America and I. Although he simply set out hoping to give friends and family back home a glimpse into his new life, by Monday, Abdelfattah's first episode had been viewed more than 61,000 times on Facebook and YouTube, and had been picked up by the New York Times.
In the humorous seven-minute video, filmed by his wife, Egyptian-American journalist Jenny Montasir, Abdelfattah wanders about, microphone in hand, talking to Arizona Trump supporters.
One woman, upon learning Abdelfattah was from Egypt immediately demands, “Are you Muslim?”
Jon Ritzheimer, one of Phoenix's most infamous anti-Muslim protestors, makes an appearance, of course, wearing his signature “Fuck Islam” T-shirt. After Ritzheimer informs him he supports Trump's push to put a stop to Muslim immigration until “we can figure things out,” Abdelfattah asks bluntly, “That's discrimination based on religion, right?”
“Uh, yeah,” Riztheimer replies with a shrug. “Sure.”
Abdelfattah's goal, he said, was to try to “make sense” of how Trump supporters think.
After his first peek into the topic on Fox 10 News (where a Trump fan declared, “We have a problem in this country! That problem is Muslims!”), Abdelfattah fell into a funk for several weeks. The most troubling part wasn't that Trump was targeting Arabs like him, he said – although that was obviously an affront – but that “even in the United States, there is such hate and discrimination.”
Fifty-five percent of Americans have an “unfavorable” opinion of Islam, according to a YouGov poll conducted earlier this year. Among those over age 65, that jumps to 70 percent. A majority of Americans, however, don't have any personal experience with Islam. YouGov reports that 68 percent don't “happen to have any friends who are Muslim” and 87 percent never have been inside a mosque.
“How can you make these judgments if you haven't mingled with average Muslim families and seen how Islam informs their everyday behavior?” Abdelfattah said. “All of the holy books, the Bible included, contain some pretty violent stuff. Does that mean all Christians or all Jews go about doing violent stuff?”
Abdelfattah, who worked as a correspondent for CNN and other Western media outlets during the Arab Spring, doesn't see much difference between Trump supporters and extreme right political groups in Egypt, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Exchange the words 'Muslim' and 'America' with 'Christian' and 'Egypt,' and I could literally find exact quotes from Muslim Brotherhood supporters,” he said. “Right wingers everywhere are the same.”
Abdelfattah hasn't chosen a topic for the next episode of America and I, but, he said, he doesn't expect all the videos in the series to be political.
There are a lot of things he really loves about Phoenix, he said.
“The sunsets here are probably the best I've seen anywhere,” he said.
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