For 30 Days, a Christian from the Bible Belt lived with a Muslim family in Michigan. The result? Heated arguments, religious confusion, and the start of a beautiful friendship.
Spurlock single-handedly took on the world’s largest fast-food chain with his first documentary, Super Size Me, which saw the filmmaker eat nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days.
The documentary was nominated for an Oscar in 2004, and although they deny the film was a motivating factor, McDonald’s has now stopped the Super Size option in the US.
“After the test screening of Super Size Me, we knew we had something great that tapped into something visceral and personal in people,” says Spurlock over breakfast in a Los Angeles diner.
“We don’t get any happy Muslim stories. We don’t get ‘Here’s a great thing a Muslim did today’ and I wanted to do a show that would demonstrate what it is like to be a Muslim in America”
Inspired by the debate that raged following early screenings of his McDonald’s epic, he sought new subjects to put under the microscope. Top of the list was being a Muslim in post-9/11 America.
“We don’t get any happy Muslim stories,” he says. “We don’t get ‘Here’s a great thing a Muslim did today’ and I wanted to do a show that would demonstrate what it is like to be a Muslim in America.”
The stage was set: Spurlock would take an ordinary American – if such a thing exists – and have him live with a Muslim family, observing all their customs, for one month.
Finding the participants was not easy, Spurlock on one hand being careful to weed out those looking for Reality TV-style fame while at the same time trying to find a Muslim family who did not feel they were walking into a trap.
“As with most communities, the Muslim community is very tight knit and very protective, especially in post 9/11 America,” says Spurlock. “They scrutinise any journalistic integrity and you can see why, with what’s happened.”
Dave Stacy had initially thought
The guinea pig in this experiment would be Dave Stacy, a 33-year-old insurance sales executive from West Virginia.
Stacy is described in the show as a “beer-drinking, pork-eating American”. As a practising Christian with no knowledge of Islam, Stacy admitted – before embarking on his 30-day journey – that he had felt reassured after 9/11 when he saw Muslims profiled at airports.
When Spurlock pressed him for what came to mind when someone said the word “Muslim”, Stacy replied: “A man with an AK-47, at war with someone.”
The scepticism was not only on Stacy’s side.
“We were worried that this was someone very opinionated about Muslims,” says Shamael Haque, a first year resident in neuropsychiatry at Henry Ford hospital in Detroit.
Haque, along with his wife Sadia Shakir, who attends the Thomas Cooley Law School, put these reservations aside and opened their Dearborn, Michigan, home to this stranger from the Bible Belt.
“I had a lot of sleepless nights, the days were 15 hours of heated debates, often about global economics and politics, something which – like many Americans – I don’t know that much about. It was information overload”
Dave Stacy, who lived as a Muslim for 30 days
During his 30 days, Stacy lived, ate and prayed with his Muslim hosts.
He also read the Quran, tried to learn Arabic and visited a halal slaughterhouse. In one very tense scene, he went out on to the street to petition Americans into signing a bill to stop the profiling of Muslim Americans.
Looking back at the experience, Stacy recounts how he would often hear shouts of “Faith Traitor!” and “American Taliban!”, while in Muslim areas he was approached by people who, as Stacy says, “thought the whole show was a conspiracy to make them look bad”.
Stacy was dressed most of the time in a salwar and kurta, something which initially bothered Sadia Shakir Haque.
“I did think ‘Why are you wearing this clothing when none of us wear this?’ It’s not realistic,” she says.
But the producers were adamant that Stacy make this change in his dress as well as grow a beard. Their insistence on this point certainly created a more eventful trip to the airport where Stacy, dressed in his new Pakistani attire, felt what many Muslims have gone through at airports since the September 11 2001 attacks on the United States.
He was stopped for the first time in his life, searched, and stared at throughout the journey.
Stacy laughs, looking back on the flight. “A lady sitting next to me on the plane was so nervous she couldn’t knit,” he says.
During the daytime, while the Haques were at work, Stacy took regular meetings with a local imam. But their sessions did not produce the clear answers and explanations Stacy was searching for and he started to look elsewhere.
Morgan Spurlock says Americans
Enter Ameer, his Arabic teacher. In the fun and relaxed atmosphere of an English speaker trying to get his mouth around Arabic pronunciation, Stacy made his first tentative steps into understanding the religion.
“Ameer initially was there to teach me Arabic but it was so much more,” says Stacy. “It’s so strange for me, as fond as I am of him, to think that he was one of the people I was vilifying. It’s really opened my eyes.”
That is Stacy talking now, but at the time the amount of new information was almost too much.
“I had a lot of sleepless nights, the days were 15 hours of heated debates, often about global economics and politics, something which – like many Americans – I don’t know that much about. It was information overload. At night I had time with my thoughts – thoughts I had not had before.”
In one scene, Stacy is clearly taken aback to learn that Muslims are part of the same monotheistic tradition that he follows himself.
It seemed to highlight simultaneously how little most Americans know about Islam, and how much work American Muslims still have to do in taking control of their image.
“We need to make a better effort in how we are represented,” says Sadia Shakir Haque, echoing a point she made in the documentary. “We take it for granted living in Muslim communities, and we must not forget how we are perceived by those outside it.”
Sadia Shakir Haque’s experience living in Miami’s melting pot, where it was common to see Jewish women – not to mention the Catholic nuns on her college campus – covering their hair, helped her give some context to Stacy while educating him on the hijab.
“I explained to him that Muslim women were continuing that sense of modesty.”
A dinner discussion where Stacy questioned why Muslim Americans had not come out more strongly and condemned the attacks on the World Trade Centre created one of the most illustrative scenes on the divide of viewpoints.
“There are deeper issues about Muslims in that region (Middle East)… We can’t just say these people are crazy. We need to ask what would make them so crazy that they would do that”Shamael Haque, Stacy’s host for 30 days, speaking about 9/11
Shamael Haque’s view was that in post 9/11 America the key questions were simply not being asked.
“There are deeper issues about Muslims in that region, and what would lead a person to do something as irrational as that. But if people do ask questions, then they are viewed as unpatriotic,” he says.
“We can’t just say these people are crazy. We need to ask what would make them so crazy that they would do that.”
Stacy was clearly uncomfortable facing up to this question.
“I had these feelings that I was being unpatriotic,” he says, but adds that since the documentary was finished he has found himself engaging in political discussions more often.
Stacy’s other major obstacle was praying in a mosque, something which he said at the start of the documentary he would not be willing to do.
Spurlock says: “For me the best line of the episode is when Dave is conflicted about going to his first juma and he is overcome with emotion and goes to Imam Husseini and says, ‘I just don’t know if I believe this, what you’re saying.’ And the imam replies, ‘David, you’re here to learn, not to believe.'”
A participant in another of Spurlock’s documentaries in the series quit before the end of his 30 days, but Stacy lasted the course, eventually taking part in the prayer at the mosque.
Stacy and the Haques have kept in contact and are planning on meeting this summer.
“We expected him not to know the principles,” says Shamael Haque. “But he was very receptive, open to learning.”
Where the rest of the nation is concerned, Spurlock ends with some harsh words.
“We can’t demonise six million American Muslims. There are 270 million Americans out there and the last time I checked, Timothy McVeigh wasn’t a Muslim. So I think that we just need to preach a little tolerance”
“We’re a country where 15% have passports. We don’t think beyond our borders so why should we think beyond our own towns? We are in this protective world. We’re a nation that doesn’t read newspapers, we don’t read books.
“For me, that’s why a show like this is important, to get some information out there to educate people. We can’t demonise six million American Muslims. There are 270 million Americans out there and the last time I checked, Timothy McVeigh wasn’t a Muslim. So I think that we just need to preach a little tolerance.”