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.