This article is part of a series that will look at the representation of Muslims and Islam in different arenas: media, politics, and culture. Authors will discuss the shortcomings of representation, and invite readers to ultimately question what goals it serves in the first place.
In the third episode of the TV show 911 Lone Star, Muslim firefighter Marjan’s hijab falls off during training. Unbeknownst to her, her luscious hair captures the attention of bystanders, and in an inspirational moment her colleagues surround her to cover her from the public view. But, a video capturing the incident goes viral, and she is ostracized from her mosque.
In the most recent release of Skam Italia, the sole Muslim main character, Sana, briefly takes off her hijab in front of two boys after they encourage her and doll out a drum roll. “So sexy!” one exclaims. In another show, Elite, Nadia stops wearing the hijab regularly (while in the first season, she had stopped wearing it at school due to threat of expulsion). In one scene, she walks into a bar with beautiful hair and manages to snag the rich boy. Meanwhile, her brother Omar’s character arc involves becoming more open with his homosexuality.
Channel 4’s We Are Lady Parts features a punk rock band with Muslim women, featuring weed-smoking, boyfriends, and arranged marriage jokes. In the months leading up to Ramadan 2021, news of a “gay Ramadan rom-com” made headlines, and during the month itself, Netflix’s Why Are You Like This? featured a Muslim woman breaking her fast by saying Bismillah and downing a shot. Far from humanizing Muslims, a starker message is echoed in these shows: freedom means freedom from religious injunctions, epitomized by the ability to pursue every imaginable avenue of physical pleasure.
In an effort to satiate demands of representation, popular narratives force the Muslims into the framework of the larger industry. With Muslim women, as with other women, the fixation on the physical comes to fore. When watching women for pleasure is as easy and accessible as it is now, it is almost an affront to the viewer to not strip naked the people they watch altogether. It takes a hijab falling off for the viewer – and other characters – to realize that perhaps the Muslim woman is, after-all, worthy of being considered equal to other women. They call her empowered, as this challenges a perceived understanding of religious morality, but her empowerment only exists within the parameters of a highly sexualized and liberal paradigm. The irony is also in assuming Islam’s suppression of beauty and sexuality, that media must now nobly take to task – yet far from a rejection of adornment or sexuality outright, the Islamic vision reorients sexuality to the appropriate channels.
This is one illustration of the many attempts to “fight stereotypes” and “normalize” certain norms that dominate the entertainment industry. They are positioned as noble causes without defending the virtue of such norm, and what goals normalization hopes to achieve. Instead, we are told of vague links to empowerment. One may argue that this is not a zero-sum game, and that some representation, however imperfect it is, is better than nothing. While this a pragmatic approach, and often stems from a position of understanding that it will take time for the breadth of mainstream media to widen enough to platform nuanced stories, I caution against becoming placated. Dr. Asim Qureshi, in a review of Dr. Sahar Ghumkor’s The Political Psychology of the Veil: The Impossible Body, writes:
This sits within a larger movement of neoliberalisation of Muslim identity, just one example being the, ‘hijab-wearing Muslim ‘cool girl’ in the west’ [p.237]. The narrative isn’t so much of an escape from the western-gaze, but rather a melting into it. It is through the very act of normalisation, the one does not become human, but rather assimilated. The promotion of diversity through these voices in entertainment and popular culture is supposed to serve a ‘shattering’ of myths, only to perpetuate them through other means – the jouissance, as an act of cognitive dissonance…
Few expect the media to be concerned with theology. Indeed it would be grossly naive to do so, but far from even attempts at framing Islamic modesty properly, the hijab is reduced to a cultural artifact. The authenticity and diversity sought by the media is the kind that reaffirms Western hegemony. One might point out, like in the example of Nadia, that there are women who “choose” to take off their headwear, and that it accurately portrays a personal relationship with hijab. However, this misses the critique of the role hijab plays in these stories, and the scarcity of narratives about the opposite. What of women who, along their journeys, wish to don the hijab? These stories, just as pertinent and real, would require acknowledging the deeply transformative, spritual ethos of Islam. But no such stories exist (unless it is to show some “radicalization” narrative).
So, for example, where the hijab is allowed to exist, it is only within a highly individualistic and secular construction that has no bearing on the values and overall lifestyle of the woman, who is portrayed no different than the average atheist or agnostic millennial. The involvement of Muslim directors and writers in these projects do not absolve these issues, because they still operate within an industry that props up ideologies promoting the self-as-god, overconsumption, hyperindividualism, and glamor, and overwhelmingly the stories follow suit. Researcher Butheinah Hamdah diagnoses this problem in summary:
Liberalism is an increasingly secularizing doctrine, and secularism in turn reinforces liberal principles, as Talal Asad conveys. In Formations of the Secular (2003), Asad shows that the public space has been pre-populated by powers that only invite public expressions of religion as they align with liberal thought. Therefore, only a certain manifestation of religion—one which ‘bends to modernity’s will’—can enter and engage in rational debate within the public sphere. The experience of religion in private life constitutes an essential discursive background with which individuals eventually enter the public space, and as a result, disrupt existing assumptions in the public space in order to be heard. This is the concern secularists have with religion ‘invading’ their domain because religion is assumed to be authoritative and restrictive…
Put simply, there are reasons for wearing hijab, or any action resulting from belief in Allah, that the public will bolster, particularly those against a backdrop of individuality, breaking norms, defiance, beauty, etc. But reasons that refer to an interpretation of normative Islam and how Islamic ethics is a positive force in their lives will be scrutinized. And, what else would we expect – why would an industry largely concerned with singing the slogans of self-truth be invested in doing so?
Link to the War on Terror and the Good/Bad Muslim
As Muslims, we know what Islam demands of us is true and that it is objectively superior to actualize God’s injunctions than to reject them. That is the ideal we are morally obligated to strive for to the best of our abilities, regardless of mankind’s prescription as sinful beings. I believe it is important that both aspects are considered in fictional tales, that there is clarity on the obligations to God while maintaining the uniqueness of the individual experience and the grapple with sin within an Islamic framework. But the former must be established first: the absence of baseline ideals creates suspended characters with no endpoints, or a vacuum filled by agnostic, vaguely humanistic values.
My response to the objection that at the very least it is commendable that stories about Muslims who struggle with aspects of faith and practice exist on TV, or that they make for more interesting/relatable characters in comparison to “boring, simple religiosity,” is once again the framing of the sin. Is the overcoming of the struggle in return to faith as a positive force being considered, or is it part of social commentary on the broad “restrictive,” “judgmental” nature of religion and religiosity? In discussing Islamic and Muslim fiction, Rania Albadry writes that the key component “is not really the ‘unIslamic’ events that take place in [books] so much as how the characters feel about them and what the author voices about them.”
This is not to be overlooked, because the industry and the public usually determine what is extreme or what constitutes fundamentalism on arbitrary standards. Illustrative examples include the SuperSisters scandal in 2019, a ‘Muslim’ platform that accepted money from a UK counter-terrorism program and with a “team…far removed from the principles of Islam, some even disagreeing out-rightly with our beliefs’”, to the exposé of media company This is Woke as “a covert British government counterterrorism programme.” Under a façade of progressive values, these sorts of platforms reveal the odious attempts by the state to surveil and bolster certain ideological strains of belief and practice. They promoted perspectives on sexuality, gender, community organization, and politics that are antithetical to Islamic values – creating a basis to justify their policing of the Muslim community.
See the countless examples of terrorist characters in mass media, and even more subtlety the alternatives presented. In the 2019 Belgian movie Young Ahmed, Ahmed becomes “radicalized by a local Imam”; his teacher represents a “liberal and modern form of Islam” evidenced by her insisting on shaking hands with him; he becomes “dour and unsmiling” while obsessing over memorizing the Qur’an. The 2016 Layla M has a similar narrative, with the eponymous Layla’s radicalization shown to the audience by her opposition to a burqa ban and donning of one. It is not only that Muslims are shown as terrorists or terrorist-adjacents, but the Islamic of evidence as such. More sophisticated narratives, like the ones elucidated at the beginning, don’t avoid this problem, even in their inclusive storytelling, now with the emergence of a new type of Muslim representation: the secular-liberal-progressivism with brown skin representation.
The Storytelling Industry and Reckoning with Religion
The equivocation of the practicing, bland, close-minded and less practicing, interesting, open-minded is a direct extension of the way popular storytelling sees religion as a whole: restrictive, an obstacle to overcome in “finding one’s true self.” The narrative journeys of Muslims in fiction are shoehorned into a pendulum of tradition versus modernity, Western versus strange. Stories illustrating the journey to reconcile the two necessarily entails subsuming Islam under discount Netflix theology with the sirens of self-as-god. Books follow suit, with a burgeoning niche of “Muslim YA” is quickly becoming a force for peddling secular-liberal values cloaked as reformation. Vulgarity, kaba’ir (major sins), and blatantly false creed are justified as innocently challenging stereotypes for the noble good of diversity.
Beyond critiquing, however, is the question readers may be most concerned with: what should we, as consumers and perhaps producers, of media do? Hollywood, Bollywood and other -woods are unconcerned with showing the potential of Islam as the cure for the human condition, but could there be room for aspiring Muslim directors, actors, and writers to reckon with an “Islamic” storytelling from medium to execution to themes?
I do not have the answers – I believe feeble cries for representation are shallowly justified, and the limitless need for entertainment is largely a product of a mollified society. Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (which I reviewed previously) provides a starting point for critiquing not only mass entertainment, but the forms that have turned our primary mode of consumption – previously through televisions and now through social media and streaming services – as vapid and silly.
However, I am still a consumer of select animes, as well as mystery and science fiction novels. Pride and Prejudice remains a favorite for Muslim women (and men!). Some Muslim writers have used storytelling to bring to light the realities of war that so often remains a distant object to apathetic Americans, like Zoulfa Katouh’s As Long As the Lemon Trees Grow. One can better understand the values, times, philosophies of a particular society by engaging their works, or use narratives to teach, guide, and promote our values. Producing strong, evocative stories can be a way to call others to Islam and strengthen love for our deen. If we accept these as adequate justifications to engage in production, then from beginning to end, from the conceptualization of an idea to its execution and medium should fall within Islamic guidelines, even if the story does not explicitly involve Muslims. This would include, for example, production teams and actors avoiding khalwa (isolation, and inappropriate interactions with members of the opposite sex ), the way sin is approached and to what degree it is visually portrayed (sexual activity, vulgarity for the sake of it), etc. Not unlike the exploration of Christian themes within fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings and Narnia, there is an opportunity to seriously engage the Islamic tradition and worldview beyond surface level characters that make biryani jokes.
Lastly, acknowledging the potential of growing, creative endeavor for Muslims, we must realize that dependency on such visual forms of representation are ill-suited to inspiring a truly confident, sincere, and principled community. A visual, material culture is steeped in obsession with the even more-so; mass media’s hegemonic force should not induce a void without which we feel worthless and unacknowledged. Instead, it’s a reminder of the prescription of Islam coming as strange and for Muslims to live in this world as strangers.
 Hamdah, Butheina. Liberalism and the Impact on Religious Identity: Hijab Culture in the American Muslim Context. 2017. University of Toledo, Master’s thesis. OhioLINK Electronic Theses and Dissertations Center, http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=toledo151335793140375.
 A colleague once proposed how animation is a better medium as it can circumvent this problem with filming.
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Hashmi is best known for her project, Muslims Condemn. She is a law student based in the US with a background in Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental Biology and Linguistics. Her interests include the Islamic sciences, cognitive linguistics, and bioethics.