'The Domestic Crusaders' Shows Muslim-American Struggle After September 11

Wajahat Ali's mission is to make Muslims every bit as mundane as Irish-Americans, Jewish Americans, and others who once were seen as strangers on America's shores.  Not that he puts it this way. For as a playwright, Ali's first job is to provide a satisfying experience for his public. And he does that in The Domestic Crusaders, taking his audience to the home of three generations of Pakistani-Americans making their way through an ordinary day. But Domestic Crusaders is more than just a work of entertainment. It is also Ali's response to the treatment of Muslims received in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11. At one point, a character in the play solemnly observes, "When those two towers fell, we fell with them."

Ali, 28 and a lawyer, did not start out intending to be a playwright. In 2001, he was a senior at UC Berkeley taking a short-fiction-writing class with Ishmael Reed, the acclaimed poet, essayist, and author. He was also a member of the Muslim Student Association, responsible for community outreach. So in the aftermath of the attacks, he found himself very busy: organizing activities for fellow Muslims, quelling fears, and quashing rumors. "You have to realize that Muslim people were just scared," he says. "[They] didn't want to go out. People had heard stories about some people being hazed. And we would receive these death threats. So I didn't go to a class for about three weeks."

He finally showed up in Reed's class with a short story about two ogres celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. After he read the story aloud, Reed ordered him to stay after class. Ali was anxious. "I think he's going to chew me out for not being in class for three weeks." Instead, Reed told him that he was wasting his time in a short-fiction class. "You're a playwright; you just don't know it yet," said Reed, and commanded Ali to write 20 pages of a play about Muslim Americans, "because I know Muslims, and I'm watching the media, and I'm tired of seeing them pummeled by the media as caricatures."

Reed was wondering what a play about a typical Muslim American family would look like, he told me during a conversation over lunch: "What would happen if you came inside a Muslim household and saw a family, like we saw the Irish-American family in Long Day's Journey [Into Night]  or the Jewish American family in Death of a Salesman? What is it like to be a Pakistani-American, Muslim family?"

When Reed read Ali's manuscript, he was moved and deeply impressed by Ali's use of language and the richness of his characters. "I kept going back to him," Reed said. "I said, ‘Why don't you expand on this?' I kept pestering him."

Ali was hesitant. He knew nothing about formal playwriting. So Reed turned him over to Carla Blank, the writer, choreographer, and dramaturge, who also happened to be Reed's life partner. Blank became the mother to the project Reed had fathered. Under her direction, Ali expanded his draft into a two-act play. Blank oversaw showcase productions in California, and, on the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, The Domestic Crusaders opened at the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York, where it will be until mid-October. Ali is not sure where it will go after that.

Ali's play is not as tragic as Arthur Miller's Death of Salesman, and the family is not as dysfunctional as the Irish-American family in Eugene O'Neill's Long Days Journey, but it is compelling drama, and there is intergenerational conflict,  humor, prejudice, and a dark family secret.  The characters, in other words, are not paragons of virtue, which is intentional.

"I wanted to be very honest," says Ali. "I wanted to be brutally authentic. And when people are speaking in the home, there are no filters. There's no political correctness. So the casual racism comes out; the hypocrisies come out. You know, that's what makes human beings interesting. So I wanted to make the characters flawed. Because a lot of time when it comes to ethnic theater, and even Muslim theater, they want the characters to be propaganda pieces."

So what does it mean to be a Muslim in America? If Ali's play is to be believed, it is not that different from being any other kind of American, which is the conclusion the Pew Research Center came to in 2007, when it published the first comprehensive survey of Muslims in the United States. "The survey shows that although many Muslims are relative newcomers to the U.S., they are highly assimilated into American society. With the exception of very recent immigrants, most report that a large proportion of their closest friends are non-Muslims. On balance, they believe that Muslims coming to the U.S. should try and adopt American customs, rather than trying to remain distinct from the larger society," Pew reported.

It is a simple and rather obvious point: that ordinary people tend to believe in the country that they call home. And there is absolutely nothing remarkable about that. Still, when dealing with a group that is easily reviled, it is a point well worth making.