The call for increased representation of Muslims within the mainstream media and pop culture is an ever-present one. It’s a way to counter everything from profiling and stereotypes to hate crimes and outright islamophobia. In addition to that, the upswing of positive or normalized Muslim representation in the mainstream has been encouraging, right? Especially considering the seemingly endless news coverage of new terrorist attacks and retaliatory hate crimes dominating social media in the past few weeks.
It is encouraging – until our community falls into that same old false black-and-white dichotomy when we react to how we are represented in the media. With the year drawing to a close, let’s look at just three notable examples of 2015.
Buzzfeed. Arguably one of the most popular platforms among social media today, the Internet media company has entire threads, tags, and sections dedicated to Muslims. From tips on what to have for suhoor in Ramadan to posts on hijabi struggles, Buzzfeed usually gets a nod of approval from the Muslim community. But one of the most contentious posts was the testimonial-style video, “I’m Muslim, But…” It’s bred countless responses and comment wars, most of them unfortunately aimed at why we can’t even consider those people Muslims based on their self-professed acts.
Apple. The tech giant with a distinct brand and reputation for clean and sleek products. Their ads are no exception, and while usually accompanied by the buzz about their latest releases, the Apple Music ad also had another item of interest – the feature of hijabis using the service while out jogging. Muslims and music usually lead to an opinionated debate, but the reactions to this video seemed mostly centered on the ‘integrity’ of her observance of the hijab.
H&M. The clothing retailer garnered a huge response to their “Close the Loop” campaign, and not for their green initiative. Featuring one of the first hijabi models in the West, along with a representation of other minorities in the industry, her mere 2-second appearance in the video ad sparked waves of excitement and criticisms alike. Much of the negative response has tackled whether the Muslim concept of modesty is compatible with modeling for the fashion industry, especially for the hijabi.
In all of these reactions, there is one constant: in negative responses that don’t directly address the content, there is inevitably an attack on the identity of the Muslim. If we’re going to continue to push for representation of Muslims within the mainstream, we have to reconcile ourselves with the fact that it won’t always be on our own terms and understanding of what Islam is.
None of this is to say that you cannot disagree with the representation; I loved witnessing the dialogue on whether the H&M model was truly representative of diversity or just a corporation cashing in on the commodity of diversity. On whether the “I’m Muslim, But…” video indicated that a Muslim identity was not homogenous, or if adopting some of those ‘buts’ was assimilating to expectations of the West. On whether featuring a hijabi in an Apple Music ad was another way of normalizing Islam and its symbols without making ‘Muslim’ the sole identity, or just a token nod to tap into a potential audience.
But with all that said, moving beyond this criticism and trying to delegitimize the Muslims themselves reinforces the idea that there can only be one ‘true’ Muslim voice. In our claims that the hijabi listening to music is ‘just wearing a scarf on her head’, or the Muslims in the Buzzfeed video ‘aren’t even Muslim’, or the H&M model ‘doesn’t understand the concept of modesty’, we’re still not able to criticize a concept without attacking an identity. It seems that the cries of “You can’t paint Muslims with one brush!” are forgotten when it comes to our own communities.
It’s not just Muslims; the general public often falls into the good or bad, right or wrong way of seeing things. Muslims are no exception. But if anything, the representation of Islam is only made better if we don’t have such a black and white definition of it, and take it upon ourselves to somehow decide who’s ‘actually a Muslim’ in the comments below a video. If anything, being able to differentiate between an action and the identity of the person doing it is exactly what we’ve been arguing for so long.
And all of this is specifically supported by Prophetic example. Prophet Muhammad PBUH said: “If a man addresses his brother as, ‘O’ Disbeliever’ (Kaafir) it returns to one of them; either it is as he said or it returns to him.” If a Muslim calls a Muslim a Kaafir, then one of them is a Kaafir – but if it is not the one being accused, then it is the one who is making the judgement.
When Muslims in the public eye are either put on a pedestal or torn down, when their identity and faith come under attack with every disagreement, and when we cannot accept representation that isn’t specifically on our own terms, how can we claim that Muslims are ready for the mainstream?
 Sahih Bukhari 10/427 and Sahih Muslim 60, Narrated by Ibn Umar