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Telling Our Own Stories:
Changing Representations of Islam in Popular Culture

Faiza Hirji
McMaster University

Many Muslims may feel as though American popular culture only discovered an interest in the topic of Islam on September 11, 2001. Indeed, after 9/11, representations of Muslims and Islam increased dramatically in news media, books, television, film, and online. However, many of the trends witnessed after 9/11—representations of Muslims as terrorists, of Muslim men as violent extremists, of Muslim women as victims—have their roots in longstanding mythologies about Islam. These trends, I would argue, are especially problematic in the twenty-first century, when major political events seem to be shaped at least partly by popular culture depictions and social media conversations. Even the most media-literate individuals may find their ideas about race, religion, class, gender, and any number of other topics that relate to identity influenced by popular culture.

For many years, Islam was represented across popular culture in ways that were inaccurate or oblique: shadowy villains, arrogant oil-rich sheikhs, veiled women, exotic seductresses of the harem. Some were not explicitly named as Muslim, but could be interpreted as having ties to Islam. However problematic these representations are, Muslim audiences have at times embraced them, drawn, perhaps, by a lack of alternatives. This willingness on the part of minorities to tolerate popular culture depictions that may insult, caricature, or demean them is not unique to Muslims. Representation does matter, even if audiences are not always conscious of this fact or cannot articulate why their sense of self is affected by misleading portrayals.

As the Muslim diaspora grows and attention on media depictions of Muslims increases, the landscape of popular culture has changed in some countries, though not enough. The days of media featuring no Muslims, or very few, seem to be over. Now, Muslims and others interested in balanced representation fight to correct inaccurate representations, and to create opportunities where Muslims can produce their own narratives. Overcoming a popular culture apparatus that commonly aims at simplifying stories and offering archetypes is no easy feat, however, especially given the long history of misrepresenting Islam in media and scholarship.

Sheikhs, Seductresses, and Mysteries: Islam in Popular Culture

It's difficult to pinpoint the exact origins of such misrepresentations. While negative beliefs about Islam likely stretch back to its earliest days, perhaps becoming more fraught during the time of the Crusades, it may be the travelogues written by Orientalists which serve as the most obvious precursors to the media depictions that now abound. In travelogues and works of art, writers and painters documented what they saw (or thought they saw) in the exotic lands of the Orient: mysterious women living a secretive existence, multiple wives serving the whims of a dominant man, primitive cultural practices and simple binaries such as dominant men/silent women, virginal European women/overly sexualized women of the East, modern West/backwards East. These tropes became cemented in academia and mainstream media more broadly, informing many subsequent representations over the years, at least in North America and Europe.

One of the challenges of representing Muslims accurately in different forms of popular culture is the lack of representation among those who control production. Newsrooms, film studios, and television production companies in North America and Europe have not been places where many Muslims could historically be found, and when they have been present, it has not usually been in positions of power.

However, in places such as India, where the prolific film industry known as Bollywood churns out hundreds of films a year for consumption by an increasingly global audience, Muslims are actually well represented. Some of the most famous actors, composers, and producers in the industry are Muslim, and yet the narratives in the films that concern Muslims are highly colored in ways similar to what is found in North American and European media. Muslims are often sidekicks, villains, or terrorists. Significant exceptions do exist, as in the case of popular films such as Veer-Zaara (2004), a story of star-crossed lovers of different faiths, but some of these exceptions seem to require Muslim characters to demonstrate an overwhelming sense of loyalty to India, as in the films Fiza (2000) and Fanaa (2006).

Similar themes can also be found in North American cinema and television: good Muslims do exist, but they must prove that they are indeed good. A good Muslim is modern, liberal, and loyal to the nation-state above all. Ironically, the standards set for Muslim (or Muslim-seeming) characters now are higher than those that are set for many other characters in popular culture, where misogyny and others forms of discrimination may abound.

Many of the representations available to the North American public that evoke Islam are not, factually speaking, about Islam itself. In 1984, Jack Shaheen published The TV Arab, which looks at a wide range of television images and portrayals of Arabs, by implicit association with Muslims—in the earliest representations, Muslims and Middle Easterners were often conflated. The trends he identified at that time (simplistic portrayals of wealthy sheikhs, poorly educated barbarians, enemies of the West) continue now, even if the specifics have changed. For better or worse, current portrayals capture some of the diversity of Islam, acknowledging that Muslims can come from Middle Eastern, South Asian, African, African American, or other backgrounds, but what this also means is that the threat can come from anywhere. Critics assailed 24 when it chose to depict a seemingly all-American family as the home of a sleeper cell, implying that no Muslims, however upstanding they might appear, could be trusted. 24 managed to offend on multiple levels, and its influence was widely felt, as when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia argued that torture was justified because 24's Jack Bauer had used it with success. 24's employment of Muslim stereotypes was echoed, to varying degrees, in other North American shows such as Homeland, Quantico, and The Border, but some of these shows also tried to engage, however superficially, with different portrayals. Nonetheless, simple binaries continued to emerge, and characters who seemed to suggest depth or complexity were killed off or otherwise removed from each series.

Voices Emerging from the Third Space: Muslims Making Popular Culture

While many challenges remain in terms of how popular culture represents Muslims, the tide may be turning. Determined groups of Muslim artists in different fields are working to correct what they see as harmful representations and open up places for dialogue about uncomfortable issues. In the same way that Homi Bhabha (1994) once argued that true creativity can emerge from the third space—that liminal, in-between place of not-quite-belonging so often occupied by immigrants and their offspring—these Muslim artists keep finding ways to challenge hegemonic narratives. In reality television, situation comedy, drama, stand-up comedy, and film, they have taken on starring roles. These productions are not without problems, but they nonetheless contribute to an ongoing dialogue about what Islam really is.

In 2007, when Little Mosque on the Prairie debuted on the Canadian public television network CBC, it attracted international attention for its attempt to showcase a diverse array of Muslims tackling touchy issues in a lighthearted way. While CBC's inclusivity garnered many positive headlines, various aspects of the show provoked criticism from viewers. Little Mosque on the Prairie was diverse in some respects—characters traced their ancestry to countries such as Lebanon, Nigeria, and Pakistan—but the form of Islam depicted was relatively homogeneous and played into stereotypical notions rather than offering useful alternatives. More problematically, perhaps, television critics complained that the show was simply not very funny. And while the concept attracted praise and American television stations expressed interest in picking up the show, there seemed to be some general resistance in North America to the idea of a gentle situation comedy that "normalized" Muslims for the rest of the population.

Similar issues arose with All American Muslim (2011‒12), a short-lived reality show on the cable network TLC. Some initial controversy dogged the show as a conservative group threatened to boycott it, again based on the belief that media should not present Muslims as normal people leading everyday lives, but rather as a threat to American society. However, the show went on, and like Little Mosque on the Prairie, All American Muslim did seem to indicate that Muslims lead very ordinary, mundane lives. Despite the show's attempts to conjure drama out of everyday moments, emphasizing the ways in which Muslims have different considerations than other Americans—fasting during Ramadan, even when it coincides with major football games; Muslim women's refraining from shaking hands with men—All American Muslim generated very little excitement. In fact, the show seemed to try a little too hard in a number of areas, highlighting the deep patriotism of its characters. Whatever the reason for its unpopularity, ratings were low and the show was cancelled after a single season.

Nevertheless, All American Muslim seems to have paved the way for other reality shows starting conversations about differing viewpoints among Muslims such as Muslims Like Us (2016‒), a BBC program whose model is now being recreated on Australian television. The show features Muslims with very different—sometimes extremist—interpretations of the faith and ethnic backgrounds living together, and addresses the considerable chasm between their respective beliefs.

In more lighthearted fare, Muslims have made appearances in comedies beyond Little Mosque on the Prairie, as is the case in the BBC’s Citizen Khan (2012‒), which focuses on the longsuffering family of the bumbling title character. Created by Muslim Adil Ray, Citizen Khan has enjoyed consistent popularity but attracts mixed reactions from critics: some have suggested that the show promotes stereotypes about Muslims, but others argue that it offers a much-needed platform for British Muslims to poke fun at themselves.

Such a platform does seem necessary, and this has been addressed in stand-up comedy as well, with troupes, tours, and specials including Allah Made Me Funny (Bryant Moss, Azhar Usman, Mohammed Amer), The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour (Dean Obeidallah, Ahmed Ahmed, Aron Kader, Maz Jobrani), The Muslims Are Coming! (Obeidallah and Negin Farsad), The Kardashians Made Me Do It (Shazia Mirza), All Atheists Are Muslim (Zahra Noorbakhsh) and The Khawatoons (Faiza Saleem), whose title is a portmanteau of "cartoons" and the Urdu word for "ladies." While these comedians do aim to make audiences laugh, there is also a strong concern for social justice and an attempt to challenge preconceptions about Muslims—their very existence alone provides a compelling alternative to the dour images of extremists who shun music, dance, and other forms of entertainment as un-Islamic. Muslim comedians Dave Chappelle and The Daily Show's Hasan Minhaj use their prominent platforms to engage with political and social issues and misconceptions, even if they prefer not to discuss religion directly.

This progress may seem marginal compared to the many negative or inaccurate depictions so frequently seen by the public, but excitingly, mainstream media are waking up to the idea that Muslim empowerment matters. In 2013, Marvel Comics debuted an American Muslim female superhero, Kamala Khan, who turns into Ms. Marvel. A Ms. Marvel movie is currently under development.

Muslim actors such as Riz Ahmed and Mahershala Ali have also earned major industry awards and critical acclaim, and like the comedians mentioned previously, these actors regularly exercise their right to speak up about social issues.

Being a Muslim artist is still far from easy: the individuals mentioned here have spoken frankly about the prejudice and ignorance they experience in the television and film industries, but as more Muslims become recognizable fixtures in popular culture, they will have a collectively louder voice, and with it, a greater ability to promote the diversity of Islam. Such developments may not yet feel like enough to correct centuries of intolerance, but significantly, these public figures are already serving as role models to the generation of Muslims growing up now, which is, if nothing else, a meaningful start.

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