News and Features

Brotherhood: America’s Favorite Muslim Fraternity

Dylan Hollingsworth. It’s a name you might know. (Art&Seek caught up with him last year when he was working on a movie about a man displaced from his home in a California water tower by Banksy’s graffiti art.)  Now, Hollingsworth and his creative partner, Wheeler Sparks, are working on a documentary that has the potential to change how we think.

The New York Times is talking about it. Huffington Post. Public Radio International and NPR. The film is called Brotherhood. The plot: the creation of Alif Laam Meem (ALM), America’s first Muslim fraternity. For over six months, Hollingsworth and Sparks have been directing, producing, and living alongside the members of ALM, students at the University of Texas at Dallas, working to create what could quite possibly be the most sincere portrait of young American Muslims to date. In fact, what could be the only film that has documented of the lives of first-generation American Muslim youths.

Alif Laam Meem

Alif Laam Meem

Their story is what Hollingsworth and Sparks want to tell, because these men are just like any other men living in their 20s in America. They are coming of age. Staying up all night long studying, trying to graduate from college, figuring out a social life, learning how to live on their own, balancing their budgets, meeting girls, deciding on their futures. These are things that we all go through, but when you have the stigma of being “different” hanging over you, balancing that burden can leave you without a place to call “home.” Especially in college when image matters, reputation is hard to beat, and if you don’t have a circle of friends to call your own, it can be quite lonely. Even lonelier when you are “not-American.”

I use that term in quotes for a reason, because the men of ALM are as American as you and I. And even I am not “American.” I’m first-generation Greek. I remember going through the naturalization process with my parents, being in the same room with them as they were sworn in as American citizens. I was born here, but they were not. I am American, but I know what it feels like to have that constant pull back “home.” And to not look like everyone else you go to school with. To have a slight accent and to bring your friends home and they giggle over the way your parents talk and still have teatime. I know what it’s like to want to search out others who are just like you. And the men of ALM are doing that.

In February of 2013, Alif Laam Meem (ALM), the first national Muslim fraternity in American history, was started at the University of Texas at Dallas. For most of the young members, it is a hub for traditional Muslim values that not only gives them the freedom to make the most of their college experience, but also aligns them with peers of equal purpose.

Many of the guys in ALM are first and second generation Muslim-Americans. Many have not traveled, and wonder what other parts of the world are like. Most of them make each of the five daily prayers, or at least try to. They are genuinely interested in becoming better Muslims, and pursue that desire in part through the liberal institution of their fraternity. Through ALM, each member joins the others in the midst of life’s greatest challenges. Each members’ presence strengthens the collective desire to engage life through love and service toward friends and neighbors, as well as one another. The goal of almost every fraternity.

There is a “kind of loneliness and isolation that many young Muslims feel while trying to live an upright lifestyle in a world that isn’t upright,” said Hollingsworth to me during an interview. “They weren’t creating [ALM] for press; they did it to have a place to be.”

Each initiated member sought ALM as an expression of their desire for authentic Muslim community in college. The members lean on one another to remember rituals, hold one another accountable and learn what it means to live in community. Drastic differences of opinion exist, but the members’ singular willingness to accept one another as they are empowers the group as a whole to face issues often considered taboo in faith communities: Domestic violence, say, or alcohol and drug abuse. The foundational philosophy of their brotherhood aims to balance the community with a broad spectrum of culture, opinion, and belief.

Calling awareness to this social situation in American culture is extremely relevant right now as our country grapples with how to handle the Muslim influence. We are still a shell-shocked and insulated community when it comes to opening our hearts and minds to anything that is not “American” in nature. But what is “American” anymore? We are the melting pot we publicly claim to be. We don’t have anything that we can really call our own, that you can point to and say that is what it is to be “American.” It is being defined and redefined daily, and that is what is so interesting and fascinating about living in this nation, and it’s that quality that allows the freedom for these men to create a home away from home away from home for themselves.

ALM Alpha and Beta Class, November 2013

ALM Alpha and Beta Class, November 2013

And it is that ability that Brotherhood is exploring. “It’s so interested to see what happens when we separate ourselves from the past and start to look forward, or to just live in the present,” says Hollingsworth, “you can see all sorts of possibilities…I really think what these guys are doing, pushing against the older generation, not just from the non-Muslim culture, but from their own community, while being respectful, is fantastic. They are truly going about life and doing things in a different manner, but one that is no different from anyone else their age.”

But what they are giving future youths and us from any culture is a model for how to create something out of nothing. They are showing how unconditional love can be giving regardless of someone’s actions. Because they are having to overcome obstacles and prejudices that they don’t understand. Some of these men have never been to the “homeland” nor do they speak their native tongue. They are having to deal with hate-mail, hate-videos, mean tweets, and other forms of bullying all because they happen to have dark-skin and follow a faith that is not Christian.

“The guys are phenomenal, through humor and compassion… they diffuse and separate from all of these horrible things being said about them,” said Hollingsworth.

ALM at UTD.

ALM at UTD.

Those qualities will all come through in Brotherhood. The film will follow the men of ALM as they explore their own confrontation with how to live as Muslim Americans, as well as the challenges of living by faith in a secular society. The film is a true labor of love, as Hollingsworth and Sparks and the members of ALM have given up their time, lives, and money to fund this project. But to give the project its final push, they have launched a Kickstarter campaign. With only a few days left, you could become a part of this project. They are trying to reach a goal of $50,000. As of this morning, they are at $42,000 with 3 days left. Check out their campaign here, and if you are so inclined, donate. Your contributions will enable them to simultaneously start post-production and continue shooting for the remainder of the year. That way, when Spring 2015 rolls around, they will have a film ready for festivals and distribution. And spring rush.