In a world where media narratives are often suspicious and hostile towards Muslims, it can be tough trying to change negative perceptions of Islam and the people who practice it.
The Secret Life of Muslims is one project trying to do just that. Created by Seftel Productions and published by Vox Media and USA Today, the digital docu-series uses humour and empathy to subvert stereotypes and humanise the Muslim-American experience, providing “a counter-narrative to the rampant Islamophobia prevalent in media”.
The episodes features prominent Muslim-American personalities, such as Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammed, MuslimGirl founder Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, and the best-selling author and religious scholar Reza Aslan, as wells as ordinary Muslim folks who share their stories – both good and bad – of what it’s like being Muslim in America.
Take this couple who started the #AskAMuslim campaign in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings:
“Fifteen years after 9/11, American Muslims still face an uphill battle in the national imagination. The current political climate spurred on by constant fear mongering during this election cycle, as well as the saturation of negative stereotypes that flood the news and media continue to make Muslims the target of suspicion and hostility,” said the team behind the series.
It is rare to see portrayals of Muslims on American television that aren’t stereotypes (I’m looking at you, Homeland) – the terrorist, the cab driver, the submissive and ‘oppressed’ woman in hijab. Some TV shows like HBO’s The Night Of are adding more nuanced depictions, trying to illustrate the post 9/11 experience of many American Muslims who face day-to-day harassment and racial profiling.
Iranian-American author Reza Aslan – who serves as one of the executive producers on The Secret Life of Muslims – says the best way to quell anti-Muslim fear is through storytelling:
“Stories have the power to break through the walls that separate us into different ethnicities, different cultures, different nationalities, different races, different religions,” he said. “Because they hit us at the human level.”
For years, Aslan has been a well-known commentator on news networks like CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, asked to weigh in on loaded debates such as “Does Islam Promote Violence?”.
Do you remember this gem of an interview Fox News did back in 2013 that was widely-ridiculed and went viral?
“After about 10 years of being cable-news’ favourite Muslim, I’ve come to the realisation that I don’t think it’s doing any good,” Aslan said. “Bigotry is not a result of ignorance, it’s a result of fear. Fear is impervious to data.”
The academic thinks the influence of pop culture, particularly film and television, is a more effective way to fight Islamophobia. “The only way you’re going to dissipate that fear is by getting people to know someone that they’re afraid of,” Aslan said.
Cue the Muslim version of Modern Family.
Luckily for us, Aslan has just sold a comedy series to ABC Studios about an Iranian-American family whose members each take a very different approach to tradition and identity.
ABC has been on a roll with the success of culturally diverse shows like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, which feature an African-American and Asian-American family respectively, taking a more nuanced look at the questions of race and identity in the U.S.
Aslan encourages people to consider how TV shows like these, as well as Modern Family and Will and Grace, have helped shift public perceptions on social issues, by showing people from minority communities being, y’know, normal, and not caricatures.
He hopes that a TV show centering around a Muslim family will have the same effect, humanising Muslims and breaking down stereotypes.