Even though Muslims have lived on the North American continent since the 1500s, nearly 62 percent of Americans say they don’t know one. In 1996, Muhammad Ali lit the torch for America in the Atlanta Olympics. But in an analysis published in the American Sociological Review, sociologist Christopher Bail states that anti-Muslim bigots “not only exerted powerful influence on media discourse about Muslims in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, but ultimately became some of the most influential mainstream groups in the field. By 2008, these fringe organizations not only permeated the mainstream but also forged vast social networks that consolidated their capacity to create cultural change.”
The inflammatory rhetoric that followed the brutal attacks on the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris last month only highlighted this depressing reality. Some mainstream outlets and personalities sought out “moderate Muslims”—as if they were mythical creatures like unicorns—to vociferously condemn and apologize for the criminal misdeeds of violent extremists. In some cases, these "moderate" Muslims were even blamed for global terrorist attacks committed by a tiny minority, which rationalizes its hate and barbarity with a perverse understanding of Islam.
In using the cop-drama model, we wanted to subvert and reorient both the framing and the pop cultural depictions of American Muslims, which often create a harmful and limiting binary of “good Muslim and bad Muslim.” The “good Muslim” is usually a lonely token, often with a nice jawline and light caramel skin tone, who advances national security objectives, and fights an army of radicalized Muslim Orcs ready to declare violent jihad against America.
But what would happen if, instead of a token, we had a plurality? And they had last names, diverse ethnic communities, personalities, lame jokes, intrusive mothers, annoying but loving families, significant others, hobbies that weren’t inherently criminal, an ability to converse without violent outbursts, and so forth?
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In 2001, I was a 20-year-old senior at UC Berkeley, and it was hard enough just trying to decide on a major. After the Twin Towers fell, I transformed into an accidental activist thanks to my being on the board of the Muslim Student Association, and apparently became an unofficial cultural ambassador for Muslim communities worldwide.
Being a post-9/11 Muslim means having to be a walking Wikipedia on all things “Muslimy,” which necessitates having expertise in Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, Sharia, Arabic, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, the Iron Sheikh, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Hakeem Olajuwon, Hamas, Hummus, Fatah, Fatwas, Salman Rushdie, Salman Khan (the Bollywood actor), the Khan Academy (the online education service), and everything in between.