Seeking a creed of decency
Mustafa Davis lost his way, badly, as a young man. But he found himself as a Muslim and is now striving to demonstrate the simple truths that link people of all backgrounds.
THIS is a story of love and of life and of God, of resurrection and redemption, and yet of lingering pain and ongoing struggle. This is a story of the search for identity and meaning; of anger and joy. And this is a story that might help reduce some of the fear and misunderstanding of Islam, negative sentiments that have flourished since the terrible, terrifying day that will be known until the end of time as 9/11.
Mustafa Davis is a Muslim American filmmaker and photographer doing beautiful, empathetic work that invites people to examine culture, faith and humanity.
He came from some of the harshest streets in America, tried to commit suicide at 18, lost his liberty, his friends, his sobriety, his very way. And then he got it back, and so much more, becoming a father, husband, artist and gentle man.
Almost dead, almost gone, the young man then called Brian Davis lay on the floor in a pool of vomit and the fog of wilful overdose.
Saved by fate, perhaps by divine intervention, he pledged himself to a life of helping others in the name of God, dishonoured his pledge for a time and slipped back to drugs and desperation before fate intervened again, bringing him to Islam with soulful serendipity that is set out in the transcript of our interview at theage/com.au/opinion/the-zone, where you will also find a short video, also on our iPad app, of him in our TV studio. The first link below will take you to his work in still and moving images and in music.
Five years later, Brian became Mustafa, and Mustafa is here in The Zone, during a national tour of lectures and workshops and film screenings, with a narrative that underscores the fundamental similarities between faiths when they are honoured in peace rather than fanaticism. With its subtext of the love and respect, at one point tragically trampled, of a son for his atheist father and that father’s love for his damaged son, it helps reminds us that the ethic of treating others as we would like to be treated is not owned by any religion; it must be the creed of any person who seeks to be decent.
Mustafa Davis’s documentaries and short films look at topics including the orphans of Malawi, the role of street culture and music in America, communal spaces, poetry, passion – they are all about people’s stories.
He set off on a pilgrimage to find his identity as a Muslim, having struggled with pressure from people who held that he could not be both an American and a Muslim, a position he rejects. ”I’m not only a Muslim. I am also half German and half black American. And I am a filmmaker and a father and a husband and a friend and a soccer player and an artist, and all those things help me view the world.
”I’m from California; I’m the quintessential American. I’m the most American that you can be. And I tried to shun that for way too many years.” He travelled some of the poorest parts of the world for more than a decade, seeking and recording. ”I saw a lot of destitution, a lot of suffering and then I realised that people I knew back home didn’t know about this.
”They didn’t know these stories. They didn’t know that these people existed. And so I wanted to turn my camera on them and tell the stories that would not otherwise be told. I think that’s the main thing that drives me.”
His own story includes rejection by his family, estrangement from his friends and the pain he caused his father, his enduring hero. The heart of his story, though, is about converting to Islam.
”[I suffered] the weight of not believing in a higher power, or not believing in something to come, which translates into not understanding your purpose in life, not understanding what you’re here for, what you’re supposed to be doing.
”It’s literally like someone is pushing on your shoulders … I remember the moment that I converted, that weight lifted. And it has not returned since, and so that was the first moment in my life that I ever felt free.”
There is much misplaced fear of Islam. To think that Muslim clerics en masse hate America and the West and would seek to impose their faith on the world is as ridiculous as thinking that all Catholic priests are paedophiles.
”I have travelled the Muslim world and have never met those type of people who have that ideology that want to kill Americans or want to blow up the West, and so I wouldn’t apologise for them. But I would say – and this might be controversial for some Muslims – that within the Muslim tradition, there are bad people, just like within Christianity there are bad people.
”After my studies I realised really all I needed to know about Islam my grandmother taught me: don’t steal, be nice, treat others as you want to be treated, and these are fundamental, universal truths that people of many faith backgrounds are just tossing aside.”
Mustafa Davis was raised in Sacramento, California, the son of a German mother and black American father, believing Islam to be ”a religion for Arabs”.
”I grew up as a child of the ’80s and we watched films like Back to the Future and the terrorists were always Libyan, and so that was pre-9/11 and that’s what I thought of Islam. I thought that they were warmongers, they were Arabs and hated the West and they strapped bombs on themselves and blew people up.
”I think 9/11 exacerbated the problem that was maybe already there.”
While he wants to dispel some of those untruths, he says it does not drive him. ”What drives me is trying to be a better human being and to show people that meet me that I am a Muslim and I hope that I have a positive influence on them.
”I think that if more people do that, it would put more positivity into the world and the negativity will kind of dissipate a little bit.”
But his early days as a Muslim brought him an excruciating insight into how religious fundamentalism can poison life.
”After I converted, I got overzealous – like many converts to any other religions do. Christians call it holier-than-thou syndrome. In Islam we call it fanaticism. But it is the same concept.
”It is a disease; it’s not positive and nothing good comes out of it. You just become arrogant and self-righteous.
”You think you’re better than other people and it is the polar opposite of what religion is supposed to do. You self-justify and think that this is correct. It’s the same type of mentality that causes these people to do these bad things, and it is not religious at all. It is not spiritual.”
It led him to do the thing he regrets most: he rejected his father for not believing in God; told him he did not want to listen any longer to his advice.
”I hurt him as deeply as you can probably hurt somebody, because I was his best friend as well. We had plans and dreams and things we were going to do and I stole that from him in my arrogance that day and I attributed it to religious righteousness and I thought I was right in doing it.”
So he is seeking to rebuild that relationship. ”That is not only the most difficult thing that I have ever had to deal with in my life, it is the most difficult thing daily, because I remember it every day and I wish I could take it back, but I can’t.”
But perhaps this weight, too, can be lifted. Mustafa Davis’s father has become his business manager, but the former closeness has not – yet – returned. The ultimate truth here is that forgiveness and compassion are not owned by religion; they are human values. And so the man who has voyaged from destitution and despair to Islam might one day find enduring peace as the result of the benevolence of an atheist. And who is to say where a God might be in all of this?