|The late Zia Rahman, right, is pictured on the DVD cover. His efforts led to the building of the Voorhees mosque.|
When Stephanie Daniels and her husband Mark Smith came up with the name for their documentary “Talking Through Walls,” they asked themselves what the people in the film were trying to do.
“They were trying to reach through and communicate,” said Daniels, a Jersey City-based filmmaker whose movie chronicles the building of a mosque in southern New Jersey. But, she added, they were reaching out “across a great divide.”
While the mosque was ultimately built in 2006, planners – and supporters from across the religious spectrum – faced overt hostility from those who feared that building a mosque would somehow breed terrorism.
Daniels’ company, o7 Films – run with her husband, who serves as co-producer and director of photography – began work on the 2007 documentary at the urging of the Washington, D.C.- based Spark Media.
Both Spark and the Unity Production Foundation – which, according to its website, fosters films and educational campaigns “that increase understanding and dialogue among the world’s spiritual and cultural traditions” – felt that the New Jersey story was an important one to tell.
That story begins with an appeal to the Voorhees planning commission by longtime town resident Zia Rahman, a Pakistani Muslim. Rahman, said Daniels, was seeking to build a mosque in the town to accommodate the handful of families who met in his basement each day to pray.
The planning meetings, however, “were brutal,” said Daniels, whose film is based on interviews and transcripts. “They didn’t expect that kind of outcry,” she added, noting that some of the comments voiced at the meeting were “incendiary and inflammatory.”
Many of the local Muslim families were professionals – “people with major degrees, including a nuclear physicist” – who had come to the United States in the 1970s, she said. Since the nearest mosque was some 45 minutes away and they would need to travel there and back five times a day to pray, as required by religious law, they were seeking something closer.
Daniels said “an anonymous flier appeared in town, suggesting that those coming to pray at the mosque might have connections to terrorists.” But, she added, “support came from an unlikely source.”
Local Buddhists, Christians, and Jews banded together, calling themselves the Coalition for a Multi-Faith Democracy. Even as Rahman’s health failed – he subsequently died of a brain tumor – the coalition kept up its efforts.
“Talking Through Walls” demonstrates how democracy can be tested and still work even in challenging times, said Daniels, noting that some of the opposition to the mosque targeted not just the immediate area but neighborhoods all over Voorhees.
She pointed out that communities are generally averse to change and, with an eye toward traffic and parking, “don’t like having big community things in their neighborhoods.” Still, she said, while this is a problem faced by synagogues all the time, “the fact that this was a mosque complicated the issue,” which deteriorated into an ideological battle.
The coalition, she said, was spurred by a commitment to freedom of religion.
“The Jewish community also became involved because of our own experiences with persecution,” she said, pointing out that the film begins, and ends, with Rahman addressing members of a synagogue.
Today, the mosque is “a vibrant community center where children play,” said Daniels, explaining that Rahman “was really trying to allow non-Muslims to understand his faith, particularly after Sept. 11.”
Spreading this kind of understanding “is perfect for religious leaders right now,” she said. “They’ve got the audience, the ears of their flock. There’s a huge role for religious leaders of all the faiths to come forward and put forth a message of cooperation and understanding.”
Daniels said the Voorhees episode is “exactly identical” to what is happening in New York City with the mosque and community center proposed for the site near Ground Zero.
“It’s really crazy,” she said. “There was a mosque there for 30 years.”
Noting that her Jersey City home was “literally in the shadow of the World Trade Center,” she said that while she appreciates the dimensions of that tragedy, “you have to allow something positive to come out of it, to allow a new kind of understanding to grow.”
“We have to find a way to live together,” she said. “We’re a multicultural society.”
Daniels, who said her film “Gefilte Fish Chronicles” “is turning out to be for Passover like what ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is for Christmas,” noted that HudsonJewish – which “fills a wonderful need” – recently approached her about screening the mosque film.
She credits the Hudson County organization with helping to foster Jewish communities throughout the area, noting that, in collaboration with the group, she sponsored a break fast for interested local Jews after Yom Kippur.
“It was nice,” she said. “People just came.”
Daniels said her film is important because “those of us who were born here, where we celebrate freedom, may not remember what it feels like” to be misjudged.
“It doesn’t feel good,” she said.