About a decade ago, the New Jersey chapter of the Muslim American Society (MAS) released a video titled “I am a Muslim” that aimed to sensitize American viewers to a friendly, apolitical image of Islam in response to rising Islamophobia across the United States.

The video, which amassed millions of views, features a young man named Muhammad nervously proclaiming that he does not like falafel, has never ridden a camel, and “knew who his wife was” before he married her, among other claims. Citing the various social and scientific accomplishments of Muslims, Muhammad eventually abandons his shy demeanor and shouts about his love for Islam to dispel the notion that the religion is incompatible with American values.

In the years since the video’s release, an entire genre has emerged, based on the same premise as the MAS video and dedicated to “humanizing Muslims.” On September 15, 2015, for example, Buzzfeed released a video, titled “I’m Muslim, But I’m Not…” in which Muslims stare into a camera and reveal that they are not angry, dangerous, homophobic, Jew-hating terrorists, all to the tune of a jangly guitar. One person claims “I’m Muslim, but I don’t hate America.” Another simply says, “I’m Muslim, but I don’t look like one.”

The most recent (and bizarre) addition to this trope is a video by director Tara Miele titled “Meet a Muslim,” published on her YouTube channel on June 3, 2016. Much like the Buzzfeed video, Miele introduces us to a number of Muslims attempting to shatter certain stereotypes by, for example, announcing they are gay, drink alcohol, and “really love Christmas movies.” Miele’s montage is undoubtedly well-intentioned, but the execution is so incredibly poor that it effectively Others, instead of humanizes, Muslims.

This is because Miele’s video, like Buzzfeed’s and MAS’s, attempts to make Muslims “relatable” by focusing almost exclusively on moral, cultural, and political qualities that resonate with, and therefore appease, mainstream American culture. By labeling oddly unrelated things—like falafel, violence, and expressions of theological conservatism—as distinctly “Muslim stereotypes” that must be “broken,” these videos create the parameters of a “moderate Muslim.” Only these Muslims are “good” and “American enough” to warrant acceptance. The “bad” ones are those who identify with the things rejected in the videos.

So when, for example, the MAS video says that Muhammad met his wife before marrying her, it implies there is something strange or problematic about arranged marriages. Is there really something wrong, however, with bearded, camel-riding, falafel-loving, alcohol-shunning, conservative Muslims who meet their fully veiled wives through arranged marriages and who passionately campaign against the U.S. government’s crimes? Of course not, but these videos unwittingly imply that there is something to dislike, if not fear, about them. They also marginalize the many Muslims around the world who identify with these “bad” qualities. 

In their various iterations, these videos are ultimately a very sad attempt to prove Muslims are worthy of the same respect and belonging that all other people should have. While these videos aim to show the viewer that Muslims are a culturally and ethnically diverse group, they do so without saying anything about Islam itself, letting the viewer’s biases about the religion guide her conclusions. If anything, by identifying Muslims exclusively with nondenominational factors, these videos take a step in the direction of secularizing Islam, which Muslims must steadfastly reject.

The American Muslim community’s impulse to defend itself against a political culture that is increasingly hostile toward Islam is completely understandable—and necessary. In the way Malcolm X, the African-American Muslim leader, once urged his coreligionists not to wait idly by for liberation to come, and, instead, take concrete steps to accomplish this themselves, Muslims must continue on this path today. The whitewashed, “humanizing Muslims” industry is certainly not the way to accomplish this.

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  • mastqalander84

    Good points raised here. I’ve been making similar critiques about this as well:

    https://muslimreverie.wordpress.com/2015/04/04/islamophobic-ads-on-septa-buses-are-not-free-speech/

  • Sam H

    Thanks for your article. I agree that these videos are problematic, as they present conservative Muslim views and practices as “other” or “un-American.” However, there are many Muslims who take issue with arranged marriages, with the veil for women, with homophobia in Islam, with Islamic supremacist thinking, with patriarchy and sexism, and so on. It is valid to for these progressive/liberal Muslims to want to distance themselves from conservative interpretations and practices of Islam. Muslims in the U.S. are not monolithic and should not be forced to embrace practices under the guise of unity. Just as liberal Protestant Christians separate themselves from conservative Baptists or Catholics, so can liberal Muslims draw lines against the conservatives.

  • mastqalander84

    But how do you determine who is a “progressive/liberal Muslim”? Even within progressive Muslim groups, there are differences. For instance, I am against homophobia and I don’t believe Islam condemns same-sex relations. The issue I take with these videos is that they focus on a singular representation/narrative where Muslims are only seen as human beings when they are portrayed as being Americanized. What about Muslims who are not U.S. citizens? Are they less human? Is it less outrageous when they are killed by U.S. drones and imperialism?

    It’s important to see positive images of Muslims, especially when we’re so frequently demonized in the media, but the typical liberal response to Islamophobia is to present palatable images of our community. Will they show the queer-identified Muslims who are actively speaking out against white supremacy, imperialism, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and other systems of oppression? Will they show the Muslims who stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter against anti-black racism and police brutality? Will they center on the voices of Black Muslims, who have been resisting assimilation in the U.S. for hundreds of years? Will they show the Muslims who stand in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples against settler-colonialism? Will they show the Muslim feminists who fight against misogyny within the community and against the sexual violence and heteropatriarchy of the State (which authorizes informants to spy on our communities and engage in sexual relations with Muslim women in order to obtain information)?

    I agree, Muslims are not a monolithic group, but you cannot deny that liberal responses to Islamophobia have frequently relied on this Good Muslim/Bad Muslim binary.

  • Sam H

    Good points. Yes, the good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy is problematic, as is the lack of nuance of the intersectionality of identities. The problem a lot of progressive Muslims face is how to criticize unjust practices within the Muslim community without seeming like an ‘Uncle Tom’, while at the same time calling out the injustices of a racist, neoliberal, militaristic American/Western system without having to defend unjust Muslim practices. Sometimes you have to side with the Western liberals against misogyny, homophobia, and religious supremacism, and other times with the Muslim/minority communities against racism, imperialism, settler-colonialism, and unrestrained capitalism. In either case, you end up alienating one group or another. And of course, the corporate-dominated Western media do not want to hear criticisms of their own entrenched interests, so videos like the ones you point out would be very agreeable to them.

  • mastqalander84

    Hmm, but fighting against misogyny and homophobia are not exclusively based on western liberal principles. Muslims — as well as non-Muslim people of color, women of color, and LGBTQ people of color — have been fighting against these forms of oppression for a very long time. And these are all struggles interconnected with the other forms of oppression that you mentioned (i.e. racism, imperialism, settler-colonialism). For instance, it’s impossible to resist and challenge settler-colonialism without also challenging sexual violence and misogyny.

    I don’t think it’s an “either or” scenario — there are many who simultaneously challenge oppression within the community and outside the community. That’s one of the problems that many women of color feminists pointed out about BOTH anti-racist activism and the mainstream (white) feminist movement: the former centers on the experiences of men of color and the latter focuses on the experiences of white women. What both do is marginalize and silence the voices of women of color who have to deal with BOTH racism and sexism. So, I don’t think it’s about “picking sides,” but rather about our need to advocate intersectionality.

    You’re right though about the western media not wanting to highlight on the Muslims who are vocally opposed to State oppression.