We often regard 9/11 as the pivotal moment in which people’s views about Islam and Muslims changed. Notwithstanding the fact that it was indeed a huge moment, the views about Islam and Muslims did not come from nowhere. In By the Dawn’s Early Light: Chris Jackson’s Journey to Islam (Cinema Guild 2004), Zareena Grewal examines the racialization of Islam and the scrutiny of American Muslims’ patriotism long before September 11 2001.
In March 1996, Mahmoud Abdul Rauf (formerly Chris Jackson), an all-star guard for the Denver Nuggets and an African American Muslim convert, was suspended by the NBA for not standing for the national anthem. Until then, Abdul Rauf had earned national headlines only for his record-setting free-throw shooting game and overcoming Tourrette Syndrome. The sudden NBA suspension and the media interest that immediately followed sparked a national debate about race, politics, religion, and freedom of speech with Abdul Rauf at center-stage. The media controversy pivoted on the question of what it means to be American and un-American, particularly for Muslims, and reveals how so many contemporary political anxieties about patriotism, racism, political correctness, freedom of speech, and Islamophobia have histories deeper than 9/11 and the War on Terror. Tracing his evolution from a media darling and icon of the American dream to an “un-American foreigner,” this timely film documents the history of anti-Muslim racism and xenophobia through a simple, poignant story of one man’s spiritual journey turned public trial.
Zareena Grewal is an historical anthropologist working on race, gender, religion, nationalism, and transnationalism. Her first book, Islam is a Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority (NYU 2013). By the Dawn’s Early Light: Chris Jackson’s Journey to Islam, is her first film.