Pop Culture, Shattered Faith — March 14, 2011 at 7:00 am

Aladdin, 9-11 and Lovable Muslims

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In 1993 Aladdin was just another Disney story of a prince and a princess. Sure it was set in the Theocractic Iran, the main characters were part of a Muslim aristocracy, and justice was measured out with the sword. But that didn’t seem to matter back then. Aladdin was just another profoundly human tale of rags to riches, love conquering all, singing, dancing, and celebrity voice-overs. And maybe it relied on some over-the-top stereotypes, but what Disney movie doesn’t?

Post 9-11 Disney would likely think twice before releasing a blockbuster with all Muslim characters.  In fact, it is nearly impossible to see Movies, TV, or News with well rounded Muslims. Why isn’t Al-Jezeera, one of the most respected news outlets in the world, part of the American 24 hour news cycle? Even the most tokenizing shows on TV (Glee, Modern Family, and the Simpsons) rarely if ever feature a lovable Muslim.

This problem was on full display last week as Congressman Peter King, Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, held a public hearing examining: “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response”.

My friend Deeqo Mohamud told me, “American Media suffers from Islamophobia, and as a Somali American I, like so many Muslim American who live this Country, are constantly reminded that we don’t belong in because of our religion.”  American media has such a powerful impact on how we view race and religion. We need to hear stories about profoundly human and lovably diverse Muslims, or else voices like Representative King’s will will the day.

Here are a couple of my favorite Muslims in Media:

1) Brother Ali

2) Persepolis

Thanks to Deeqo Mohamud for helping contribute to this article.

6 Comments

  • Nice post Nate.

    The cultivation that happens through media is very influential yet often underestimated. We as consumers of media must not turn off our intellect and critical thinking skills when being entertained? Rather, we should be asking, how are these images forming us and those around us.

    I also gotta give a shout out to some other American Muslims (Mos Def, Lupe Fisaco, Ice Cube, Q-Tip, and Fareed Zakaria).

  • I disagree with the term “Islamophobia” as a characterization of the very real, but over-generalized fear of radicalized Islam. A phobia is, by definition, irrational and indicative of a mental defect.

    Clearly, out of the millions of Muslims worldwide, only a tiny fraction represent an immediate threat. Most would make fine neighbors. But the world’s Muslim cultural centers continue to spawn news-worthy events that spotlight the hard reality of the threat they pose, however unrepresentative of the whole it may be.

    A culture that tolerates (if not incubates) the kind of thin-skinned rage unleashed this past week over the burning of a Koran, is not ready for full participation in the global community. The murder of twenty, who were in no way connected with the burning, including two beheadings, would suggest their isolation from the world may be warranted.

    I’ve visited Jordan and Syria three separate times and hope to again. I, an obvious American, have been the recipient of their warmth and acceptance. I have no reason to believe it was anything but authentic.

    During the first threat of the Florida Koran burnings, I was furious that the media even found it worthy of news coverage. I thought the assumption that a Koran burning (by an obscure congregation in the Bible belt) would trigger murderous demonstrations in the Middle East, was far more insulting to Islam than the burning itself. Everyone was freaking out over the likely violent reactions, as if we couldn’t possibly expect Islam to respond with some maturity instead. I was confident that the Muslims I’ve encountered wouldn’t be compelled to kill someone were the burning to take place.

    Then Terry Brown finally went through with it and 20 people were murdered over it by a mob claiming to represent Islam. Terry Brown is a problem, but not a significant one. A malignant strain of violence in an otherwise proud and sophisticated culture is the problem. There is no other holy book on the planet, other than the Koran, whose burning would encite legitimate fear of a homicidal reprisal. No other world religion triggers images of suicide bombers or shoulder-mounted rocket launchers. It is not the responsibility of all non-Muslims to walk on egg shells to avoid or legally ban the offending of Muslim sensibilities. It is on Muslims to own the cancer among their ranks and take demonstrable steps to remedy it, including partnering with peaceful infidels in dealing with it.

    I have hopes that the best of Islam will win out, but indulging the cancer by blaming those deaths on the foolish acts of a tiny “Islamophobic” congregation will not help.

  • Sorry “Terry Brown”=”Terry Jones” above. I meant to confirm the name before submitting.

  • I’m wondering if that means Christians around the world have to take responsibility not only for the acts of bigots like Terry Jones but Fred Phelps and his family every time they parade with withering anti-gay signs and spewing arguably blasphemous rhetoric toward grieving families burying dead American servicemen from Iraq and Afghanistan? Or the Hutus who kill Tutsis in the name of a Christian God? Or the Ugandans (backed by the conservative and politicized Christian evangelical movement) who advocate killing gay activists? Or Rev. Jim Jones kool-aiding his followers in Guyana? Or David Koresh and his Branch Davidians? The answer may surprise you–yes. So before we cast the first stone…

    We haven’t done a cut-up job shaming and denouncing Terry Jones–despite a personal phone call from DoD Secretary Gates last year. Jones knew exactly what he was doing. At the instigation of fellow Islamophobists (some of the “hurry the rapture” variety) he decided to provoke the extremist elements by targeting the very sacred symbol of the Islamic faith–their scriptures.

    What’s also interesting is how the “liberal” mainstream media (networks, CNN, NYT, WaPo, WSJ, LA Times) dutifully reported about the deaths of Egyptian Copts at the hands of their Muslim brothers but failed to report about Egyptian Muslims linking together to form “human shields” around a Coptic church to allow their Christian brothers to worship on their Christmas in early Jan 2011. This scene was repeated, again, during the Egyptian revolution when Copts formed a line to protect Muslims pausing to pray, this kind gesture was returned likewise by Muslims forming a line to protect praying Copts, and–the gesture of religious protection repeated a third time. We all should be mindful that all media sites from CBN to Fox to CNN also editorialize by leaving out what we may deem newsworthy.

    The public perception of believing Muslims thinking as one monolith only affirms how little the rest of Americans know not only about Muslims–as distinguished from their fundamentalist extremist elements–but about how Muslims are also shaped by the customs of their ethnic and national origins. The most populous Muslim nation in the world is Indonesia (pop. over 230 million). In neighboring Malaysia–also a Muslim democracy–Malays, Chinese, and Indians live in a de facto secular and pleasant tropical land. Turkey is a favorite tourist destination (and mine) where westerners can move about as they please. Bosnia is also de facto secular too. And Azerbaijan and some former Soviet republics in Central Asia too.

    But we need not stretch our minds and bodies too far because ignorance or stereotype are right at our doorstep. I spent a lot of time defending the evangelical faith (which I no longer subscribe to) from Catholics and Jews in my ten years at NYC. Most of them failed to see the diversity, nuance, and genuine transformation in the evangelical faith prevalent in Protestant Christianity and, in particular, evangelicalism too.

  • “bigots like Terry Jones” is itself a categorization–even a bigoted one, perhaps. It assumes an entire class of people who have this easily identifiable moral defect for all us non-bigots to look down upon.

    It’s a core component of human intelligence to be able to generalize–to extrapolate from limited exposure what else might be generally true. It’s not perfect, but it serves us well most of the time (and it allows us to see pictures in the clouds). Also, it’s part of our animal survival instinct to be cautious of what is unfamiliar–at least somewhat fearful. Absent any positive interaction with Muslims, it’s perfectly rational for a lot of people, including Terry Jones, to mistrust or fear Muslims in general. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have experienced some of their warmth and acceptance as you and I have. They get their exposure from TV. Throw in some weird theology and you get a Koran-burner.

    We are responsible to correct acts of provocation among our ranks–and we have to the nth degree. And it seems we can’t stop apologizing. But we’re not helping matters by declaring “bigot” or “Islamophobe” at every act of over-generalized fear. Acting as though Muslims cannot be expected not to keep those among them from going on a murderous rampage over a Koran burning is itself a sad lack of belief in the kind of people they can be.

    As we own and pursue real remedies for the acts of ignorance among ourselves (rather than simply hurling categorical accusations), it is right for us to expect them to own and pursue real remedies for the acts of violence among themselves.

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