Is art imitating life or life imitating art? Two years ago, when I began writing "Mosque Alert," I had no idea that my play about a proposed Islamic community center in downtown Naperville—and the controversy it evokes—would premiere against the backdrop of the most overtly Islamophobic campaign season in American history. For candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, poll numbers soar with each call to ban Muslims and police Muslim neighborhoods. Likewise, I could never have predicted that my play would coincide with a dramatic increase in Islamist violence; bloody attacks on world capitals are now a weekly occurrence, it seems.
"The vulgar discourse, the scapegoating of Muslims and immigrants, and the conflation of Islam with ISIS—all of these things are contributing to a significantly worse climate than existed in 2010. And worse than what existed shortly after 9/11," Khoury says. "Donald Trump has made this play more relevant."
Ted Cruz says that US law enforcement should step up its policing of Muslim neighborhoods in the US. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Brussels, and Donald Trump reiterated his call to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
A new play, Mosque Alert, looks at life for three fictional families in Naperville, Illinois, whose lives are forever changed by a proposed Islamic Center on the site of a beloved local landmark.
Highland Park native Rengin Altay, who plays Emily Baker, said she was drawn to the project because it is "telling a story of diversity and tolerance, and acknowledging prejudices that we don't even know we have. We all make judgments all day long."
Altay noted that throughout our country's history, we have always been afraid of "the others." Who those others are has changed throughout history. Now it's the Muslims.
Jamil states, “Mosque Alert gives voice to multiple American perspectives and exposes the fears at the heart of intolerance. For example, Mosque Alert was initially inspired by the Ground Zero New York mosque controversy and a communities’ fear and racist attitudes towards Muslims.”
Throughout the years since 9/11, Muslims and Arabs have been subjected to a cultural zeitgeist which has been spiraling out of control with unsettling truths, especially about 9/11. Mosque Alert, actually developed out of Silk Road Rising’s live theatre and online videos that tell the stories and primary events through Asian Americans and Middle Eastern Americans.
"I should thank Donald Trump," says playwright Jamil Khoury. "If Mosque Alert was relevant when I first started, that relevance has since exploded. Today the play exists within a cultural zeitgeist animated by fears of immigrants, fears of Muslims, demographic anxiety attacks, and calls to erect walls and impose bans—a more optimistic read is that of one big messy America struggling to work it out for the better."
"Mosque Alert" is based on five years of comprehensive research and script writing with more than 25,000 co-creators and 2,500 individuals who attended in-person events. The result: a play where race politics, xenophobia, whiteness, Islamophobia, sexuality, Muslim identity and the shift toward a more diverse American spiritual landscape all have an equal place at the Naperville inner table.
“Mosque Alert” is a new play that has come out of a national civic engagement process, looking at difficulties faced by Muslim Americans when they attempt to build houses of worship. In this segment we learn about Silk Road Rising’s impetus to develop this project.
Theater productions often exist squarely in the realm of fiction, but one play set in Naperville is blurring the lines.
Reality and story collide in "Mosque Alert" as the play challenges suburban responses to the integration of Muslims -- and their houses of worship -- into established communities, creators say.
What would happen if a mosque was built in the heart of downtown Naperville?
The creators of an evolving work of fiction inspired largely by the recent effort to open an Islamic worship center just outside Naperville have begun an 18-month residency in the city. They plan to gain community input aimed at answers to that rhetorical query.
Malik Gillani, founder and executive director of the Chicago theatrical production company Silk Road Rising, told the City Council Tuesday that the stage production, titled "Mosque Alert," features three fictional Naperville families, two of them Muslim.
"The premise of the play is that the Muslim families wish to turn the old Nichols Library on Washington Street into an Islamic house of worship, but they face challenges when securing zoning," Gillani said. "We are creating this play in response to the challenges that Muslims have faced across the country, including in Naperville, when trying to build Islamic houses of worship."
The melding of ethnic, religious and social traditions has always fascinated Jamil Khoury. Born to a Syrian father and Polish mother, the playwright and filmmaker grew up in Mount Prospect and later settled in Chicago, where he founded the theater production company Silk Road Rising. He wasn't very familiar with Naperville, until the city emerged as the setting for his most recent play, "Mosque Alert."
"There continues to be a backlash against Muslim Americans that began immediately after the attacks of 9/11; a backlash most manifest today as resistance to the building of mosques in U.S. cities and towns," Khoury explains on the theater company's website.
"Mosque Alert" explores the issue through specific focus on two fictional families – one Muslim and the other Christian – living in Naperville.
"Both the families and the proposed mosque featured in this play are fictional; however, they draw heavily on real-life events, including the Ground Zero Mosque controversy of 2010, and mosque zoning denials in unincorporated parts of Naperville ... and real-life arguments used against mosques," said Ethan Grant, development associate at Silk Road Rising, in a news release.
"The initial catalyst for 'Mosque Alert' was actually the summer of 2010, the so-called Ground Zero mosque in New York City," said Khoury, founding artistic director of the Chicago theater group Silk Road Rising. "It (the proposed Ground Zero mosque) was about reconciliation, healing and interfaith dialogue (but was) shot down, particularly in right-wing circles, with such vociferous response."
Khoury said he's seen the same response elsewhere, including in unincorporated land near Naperville. The Irshad Learning Center in 2010 took to court its attempt to win DuPage County's approval of the needed conditional use permit for a worship center on property it owns on 75th Street east of Naper Boulevard, just across the city border.
Chicago playwright Jamil Khoury is using the internet to develop a new script about the fight to build a suburban mosque. Khoury is the Founding Artistic Director of Silk Road Rising, a theater company that brings awareness about Middle Eastern and Asian Americans. Khoury’s latest play, Mosque Alert, is not yet finished. But every step of the writing process, from first ideas to the development of scenes, is available for everyone to see and share comments about online.
For their new production "Mosque Alert," the theater group Silk Road Rising has created a new process of playwriting. By applying the social media concept of crowd-sourcing, the company seeks to make its audience "co-creators" of a new play dealing with the concept of Muslims and Christians living side-by-side in America. Silk Road posts videos online of characters and situations from the play-in-progress and asks for feedback.
Silk Road Rising cofounder Jamil Khoury says the uproar over Manhattan's Ground Zero mosque inspired both his new play in progress, "Mosque Alert," and his attempt to crowdsource the playwriting process via a Web page.
"I wanted to start a conversation," Khoury says. And he did.
He started with six monologues, each of them anchored in a character and steeped in issues that include homophobia, immigration, and women's rights. Then he let them crash into each other in "conflict scenes" resulting in lines of dialogue like "Muslim men should be the ones wearing veils—over their dicks."
Jamil Khoury wants to talk with you about mosque politics. He wants to talk with you about the marginalization of Muslim-Americans in the wake of September 11th. In fact, the Silk Road Rising Artistic Director wants to talk about a lot of issues with a lot of people, more than can fit inside a theater. So, he's decided to do something unprecedented. In a medium in which the writer is often seen as God, an unquestionable font of dramatic genius, Jamil Khoury is crowdsourcing his play on the Internet.