Oh yeah, she’s a Muslim, too

GetReligion co-founder Doug LeBlanc notified us of this absolutely fascinating piece by Terri Gross for NPR’s Fresh Air. It runs about 45 minutes or so and goes through a new documentary called The Interrupters. The documentary was done by Steve James, who also directed the fantastic Hoop Dreams.

We learn about former gang members in Chicago who stage group interventions for at-risk youth. These men and women are known as “violence interrupters” and they work with CeaseFire, a group that has an interesting approach to targeting violence. Basically, the group believes that violence moves in the same way that infectious diseases do. So they aim to “go to the source” to stop it.

LeBlanc noted that while he didn’t discover an outright ghost, this piece “reflects the maddening ability of Terri Gross to neglect an interesting religion angle in favor of a feminist hobby horse.” It relates to the discussions with Ameena Matthews, who is certainly the most interesting subject of the documentary. From the accompanying article:

The third subject of the film is Ameena Matthews, one of only two female members of Chicago’s interrupters team. Matthews is the daughter of a famous gang member and had been in a gang herself — which, she says, gives her credibility when navigating potentially volatile situations among teens on the streets.

I got so into listening to the piece that I had forgotten LeBlanc’s note. But here’s what he said:

Toward the end of an otherwise excellent interview with one of the interrupters, the intense and fascinating Ameena Matthews, Gross focuses on her scarf. She mentions only in passing that Ms. Matthews is a Muslim and her husband is an imam (or, as Gross puts it, “the head of the mosque that you belong to”). But then Gross interprets the scarf primarily as a statement — wait for it — against being a sex object.

Even after listening for 40 minutes or whatever, as soon as Gross mentioned that Matthews wears a head covering, is Muslim and is married to her imam, I immediately had a dozen questions I was hoping to get answered. Instead, Gross said something about makeup and suggested that the head covering keeps girls from thinking she’s competing with them in the looks department. It was kind of odd.

Of course, Matthews didn’t object to the question and, in fact, joked that Gross’ praise of the benefits of head scarves would be printed up and used to present herself on the street. But what a squandering of an opportunity for an interesting avenue of discussion. The accompanying article has a tiny bit more, but it only serves to make me more curious:

When Matthews was heavily involved in gang activities, it was her Muslim faith, her children and grandmother who served as her own violence interrupters, she says.

“[My grandmother] would step in the middle of raids, asking, ‘Where’s Ameena?’” she says. “Guns were drawn and she’s not even looking at the guns or the gas that was thrown in the building to smoke us out, she’s yelling my name and telling me to get my behind out. … She was there.”

So was her father Muslim, too? And does her religion have anything to do with the work she does now?

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  • Mike

    Seems like reporters are so reluctant to mention the word Muslim that they live with blinders on. They can’t imagine asking how the faith led someone like Ameena to do something positive for her community. We’re fortunate that the piece even mentioned her Muslim faith. Most reporters also have the secular mindset that doesn’t consider that religion motivates someone to do good. It’s so beyond their worldview that the thought of asking about it doesn’t cross their minds.

  • wolfkin

    I don’t know why I was googling Ameena but I was about 35 minutes into the interview and i just decided to see what she looks like. She sounds like an interesting person. This article was one of the first hits and obviously the headline caught my attention because so far I had no idea.. then i read the article and thought you were being a bit dramatic. Then the portion of the interview in question came on and I agreed.

    I have a love-hate relationship with Terry that really was just awkward questioning. Maybe it’s apologist of me but I just assume/hope that when discussing the interview she asked that they shy away from religion. That’s possible right?

  • Jerry

    but I just assume/hope that when discussing the interview she asked that they shy away from religion. That’s possible right?

    wolfkin asked a question I’ve never thought of and I’ve love to have journalists answer: how often do interviewees make that kind of request, if at all?

  • Mike

    In response to wolfkin’s question about whether she asked that they shy away from religion: Sure, that’s possible. It’s also possible that she wanted to talk about her religion but wasn’t asked. However, if I were the reporter and she didn’t want to talk about it, I’d make it clear in the interview that she declined to comment on her faith. You know, just to show that you’re not totally oblivious to an obvious line of questioning!

  • http://www.theinterrupters.com Tim

    Ameena’s religion is not central to the film, but certainly is to her as a person. In the film you will see an extended scene inside her mosque in which she reflects on the importance of her faith to her work. Yes, her father is Muslim. The film does shy away from discussing her faith where relevant, and Ameena would never make a request to avoid discussing. Check her twitter feed – she’s pretty open about her faith.

  • Karen

    I heard the interview and I thought that Terry did a good job of eliciting both her religious motivation and illustrating concretely the advantages of modest dress in Ameena’s work. Maybe I spend too much time around religious women who cover, but the concrete values of not being a sex object make up a significant part of their discussion of religious obligations. And since I hadn’t thought of the effect on girlfriends of male gangbangers, I was glad that she brought it out.

  • Karen

    I also appreciated the fact that Terry interviewed Ameena for some time before explicitly pointing out her faith. In an atmosphere where people rush to conclusions about Muslims, it was refreshing to let people have a sense of what Ameena does and how she accomplishes it before identifying her religion. By showing her in action first, that tends to reduce prejudicial reactions. I also appreciated the lack of “you mean your husband lets you do this” questions which I have heard from less skilled interviewers.

  • David R

    Molly,

    After watching the “Fresh Air” feature on the documentary, I was quite pleased at how Terri Gross handled the “Muslim” issue. She didn’t let her lack of understanding the title, “imam,” affect her demeanor as she address issue of Ameena’s husband being the leader of the mosque, or even of the (umma) community gathered around that mosque.

    This factor, combined with the fact that–for the public–Islam does not play a overt role in the feature, gave this story a wider human intest appeal.

    As for your question about Ameena’s religious background play a role in her work, I would concur with the previous blogger discussing Ameena’s Twitter feed. I will also add that many inner-city Muslims of her “sect” put a high priority on social justice. The dead give-away for me on this point is 1. only her first name being of Arabic origin and 2. that when she alluded to her religious beliefs she did so in a more general pose–choosing the generL title “God” instead of specifically mentioning Allah.

    Furthermore, when Terri Gross asked of a time when Ameena changed her lifestyle from that of the gang violence, Ameena did not allude at all to a”conversion” experice but kept the focus on the work of the interrupters and role in it.

    I think that since the main themes of feature centered on curbing deviance, the level of reporting on the religious undertones was appropriate. The other angle that pleased me was that, while rae was mentioned, the focus remained on the gang lifestyle and deviance rather than on specifically racial issues.


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