How do we React to Representations of Muslims in the Media?

I recently discovered a podcast called #GoodMuslimBadMuslim that was started towards the end of 2015 by Taz Ahmed and Zahra Noorbakhsh. Honestly, I’ve listened to only the first episode, but it sent me on a spiral of overthinking which sent me back to my blog.

On a slight tangent, I was reading reviews for this book: That Thing We Call a Heart. Follow the link for the synopsis please, I will just say that it sounds like that the protagonists are Muslim girls behaving in ways that would be frowned upon in most Muslim communities. (I’m trying to avoid any absolutes here.) One review in particular caught my attention – a Muslim girl who was extremely offended by the depiction of Muslim girls in the book. I find this reasonable. She likely holds her faith in very high esteem and takes its teachings very seriously, and seeing an author treating in what might feel like a cavalier manner to her can be offensive.

However, the review seemed to imply that she felt that this sort of book is offensive and shouldn’t be written. To be perfectly honest, this doesn’t surprise me. I was googling for reactions from Muslim outlets to the Master of None Season 2 episode “Religion” (but couldn’t find any), but I am genuinely curious to know if there are people who were offended by it and feels an episode like this should not have been made. We know that several Muslim communities have displayed outrage at media that are critical of Islam, I don’t wish to go into that right now. What I’m curious about right now is how Muslim communities feel about portrayals of “Bad Muslims” in mainstream media.

Getting back to the podcast, there was something Zahra said that struck a cord with me. When she interacts with white American folk (who may or may not be overtly Islamophobic), they tell her that she’s the “good” kind of Muslim (I guess what they mean is that she is not trying to blow things up and/or not trying to force her religion upon others). She find this strange because, in the Muslim community, she’s considered the “bad” kind of Muslim. She describes herself as a “pork-eating, alcohol drinking, pre-martial sex having” kind of Muslim. Basically, she does stuff that Muslims aren’t supposed to be doing. I will rephrase her description as “a non-practicing and non-adherent Muslim who intends to remain that way”. (There can be different kinds of “bad” Muslims – not practicing is a different kind of “bad” than not adhering to some core tenets of the faith. But Muslims are encouraged to accept and help others who have “gone astray” but intend to do better. Although those of the ostracizing mentality don’t tend to remember that.)

This presents a dilemma. Will the Western world only be accepting of these non-practicing and non-adherent kinds of Muslims? (See this article I had linked to in a previous post.) When we speak about how important it is to have representations of all kinds of Muslims in the media, we also have to face the question of should these “representative” Muslim characters be depicted as eating pork and drinking alcohol and having pre-marital sex? The Big Sick definitely went that route. I haven’t seen any backlash to the movie with regards to the depiction of a man unsure of his faith (depicted from a secular lens), but I haven’t seen the Muslim community embracing the film either.

The question I am asking is – even if we have more representations of Muslims in the media, can we do it in a way that will make the devout Muslim communities feel included?

I am thinking of two shows featuring Muslims characters who wear the headscarf – Little Mosque on the Prairie (it’s hilarious and I highly recommend it up to Season 5) and Quantico (I only watched 2 episodes of this and wasn’t all that interested). One aspect of both shows that I found interesting was that the headscarf-wearing characters were often shown in scenes when they are in private without their headscarf. Contrast this with Oscar winning Iranian movies like A Separation and The Salesman, in which the female characters are never depicted with a bare head. If devout Muslim women wish to see themselves represented on screen, do they feel comfortable seeing the actress bareheaded in some scenes? Because even though the character is in private, can you really feel the character represents you if the actor is going against something you believe in while depicting that character? (I know the logic is hard to follow, but you get what I’m saying, right?) (And also I’m thinking less about those Muslim women who don’t care whether other Muslim women choose to cover or not. I’m thinking about the ones who constantly judge me for choosing not to cover my hair.)

I don’t have any kinds of stats or reads on what Muslim communities want to see represented in media. For all I know, the devout Muslims avoid the haram Western media. Mainstream media won’t even consider appealing to them because they are less than 1% of the U.S. population (possibly less than 0.1% even). (I can draw an analogy with the “Christian film” genre – made for a specific devout Christian audience. Think of a movie like God’s Not Dead. That kind of movie is unlikely to have mainstream appeal.)

But there ARE tons of Muslims who wish to see themselves represented on the screen. Some of them are the secular non-practicing kind, and some of them are the devout and practicing and possibly more liberal-minded kind. The secular folks would surely like to see more portrayals like those in Master of None and The Big Sick and The Night Of.  Note that all of these portrayals are through a secular lens. I’m curious to know if devout Muslims feel a lack of representation because of this secular lens.

(But like I said with the example of the Christian film industry – there just isn’t a large enough Muslim population for creating an equivalent industry. There was one film I watched that could fit the bill – Mooz-lum, which explores the issue of a young man struggling with his faith depicting his problems in a very honest way, but I would say it was depicted from a religious lens.)

And now that we are getting more representations of these non-practicing non-adherent secular Muslims in Hollywood, are those portrayals causing offense? That review I mentioned at the beginning of this piece would suggest so. I understand why they wouldn’t want to embrace depictions such as this – they don’t wish to condone this non-practice. Even worse, they don’t want there to be a redefinition of what Islam is. (This is a complicated topic – there is the whole topic of how Islam is actually quite diverse in how it is practiced in various regions of the world so can you really “define” what it is anyway? I won’t get into this topic.)

But I do think Muslim communities need to be honest about how they feel about these non-practicing and non-adhering members of their community. I get the sense that they usually like to pretend these people don’t exist. If that is really the case, it is no wonder that when such characters are depicted in media, they will feel like it is an “incorrect” depiction of a Muslim, when in fact, lots and lots of people like that do exist, whether the Muslim community likes it or not.

Most importantly, secular Muslims face Islamophobia (especially at the airport) just as much as devout ones do. Yes, the ones with the beards and headscarves experience the brunt of it, but the systemic prejudices are also felt by those who bear Muslim names or a brown skin color (even though Muslims come in all colors). Farid Zakaria appeared on this podcast where he mentioned that he is secular and doesn’t identify with Islam, but since the rise of Islamophobia and the stereotyping of Muslims as people with beards and headscarves, he felt the need to start talking more about his Muslim heritage. Even though he has many Muslim critics who accuse him of being an infidel and of insulting his heritage by having been a public wine critic.

I’ve been very rambly, but let me try to synthesize what I am saying. There has been an uptick in the representation of Muslims in the mainstream media, Hollywood or otherwise. And more often than not, these representations skew towards those who lean secular. And that’s because these stories are told through secular lenses. These stories may depict secular Muslims of Muslim background of whom devout Muslims might not approve. These stories may also depict devout Muslims through a secular lens, of which devout Muslims might also not approve. I am sure media will be produced for devout Muslims, but that will remain niche. Can this gap be bridged? I don’t know. But I would hope that in an ideal world, it can. In the meantime, I am rooting full steam ahead for positive representation of Muslims in the media, secular or devout, practicing or non-practicing.

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