The Politics of Existing
Post-9/11 saw a flood of sensationalised, fearmongering Islamophobic rhetoric in news media that has continued its onslaught years after. The Muslim existence in wider Western society has permanently shifted. Muslims were silenced by everyone, including members of our own communities and our own families — we hid ourselves and practiced our faith more quietly. All in fear of being shunned and shamed, all in fear of being Muslim.
Time passed, and counter-hegemonic news outlets became popular among those who saw through the hate-fuelled messages of mass commercial media. With that confidence — and repressed emotion built up over the years — more Muslim women were speaking up and out for themselves. Aided by social media, Muslim women made use of a democratised platform that gave anyone and everyone the potential to gain traction. The equalising force of social media is that not everyone using these platforms is an academic, or has the educational background to analyse and articulate themselves and their experiences. This is especially true when one’s existence, despite everything, is political. And so, without academic jargon and references, the ‘simple’ act of posting on social media — taking selfies and starting trending topics that advocate for representation — is a powerful statement, a political act in itself.
This convoluted and watered-down concept might seem superficial and gratuitous, but, socially and politically, it is a reflection of culture and society. It’s us shouting, “We exist! We are here, and we can speak for ourselves!” In a world where Muslim women are collectively seen as oppressed and silenced by our patriarchal counterparts, we are showing our autonomy. We are all individuals, who just happen to be of the same faith. Some of us wear head coverings, face coverings, or nothing at all. In saying that, there are Muslim women who are experiencing oppression, but that comes from patriarchal ideologies, institutions, and figures that weaponise the religion for sexist purposes; just as Zionists utilise Judaism, religion and political agendas are not one and the same.
So, after countless calls by young people for diversity and representation, for our voices to be heard and our stories told, Hollywood and big corporations got the message. Although, yes, much of it was a marketing ploy to target our wallets, it was also heart-warming and encouraging. Seeing our communities and people like us cast in roles other than terrorists and criminals, or the token ‘diverse’ character who suffers from a dismal lack of character development, was really nice. Except this was a very superficial gesture that stopped at the bare minimum before it started to improve. By labelling a character ‘Muslim’ — obviously meant to add social commentary — but then not explore them being Muslim, Hollywood was proving they loved — or maybe just tolerated — a very particular ‘type’ of Muslim. Secular Muslims. Those who eat bacon because “it’s very tasty” (looking at you Aziz Ansari. I mean, you do you, but we get it) or reject their strict parents’ ways of life out of spite (generally only because they had difficult relationships with their parents who were usually overprotective migrants), and assimilate into white, Western, “progressive” culture. This ‘representation’ still reeks of propaganda: dog-whistle politics, where only people of the community can decode the connotations of certain messages (so don’t blame yourself if you don’t notice it).
A recent issue arising out of Hollywood is the representation of Muslims of the LGBTQI+ community. This was especially controversial within the discourse surrounding The Bold Type and their diverse cast of main characters, including a black woman and her love interest, a Muslim woman. While happily welcomed by many Muslims and non-Muslims, white people and people of colour alike, there was a significant number of adolescent to middle-aged Muslim ‘Twitter sheikhs’ who hated this “normalisation of LGBT Muslims”. Their tweets, calling out the show and this character, were circulated with thousands of likes and retweets — their sentiments clearly resonating with other Muslims. From criticising the way the character observes hijab to the very fact that she was a lesbian, the backlash was full of internalised misogyny and homophobia. Even with the fear of criticising Islam and its followers (in case it fuels Islamophobes) it is necessary for Muslims of the LGBTQI+ community and its Muslim allies to call out our own community.
This phenomenon illuminates the binary presented in mainstream media — between the archaic idea of Islam and its cultural traditions, and “progressive”, left-wing politics. Why not both? They aren’t polar opposites. They also aren’t even in the same ideological category; one is a religion, and the other a political opinion. It’s an entirely inaccurate assumption to make for all 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, almost 25% of the Earth’s population.
But what exactly is this ‘modern’ and ‘moderate’ Islam the West loves? Islam is a moderate religion, whatever that means. You don’t label Christians who choose against constantly preaching to strangers on the street a “moderate Christian” — you label those street-preachers some form of fanatics, and the ‘moderates’, well, nothing. The fact that they are Christian is more of an additional fact than a distinct identity marker, and Muslim people should be held in the same regard. Most Muslims are just like followers of any other religion, prioritising aspects of the belief that personally resonate with them, or Islam as a whole; they pray five times a day or they don’t; they keep their diets and activities exclusively halal or they don’t; they observe Ramadan and celebrate both Eids, just one, or none at all. This obsession with a ‘modern’ and ‘secular’ Islam is harmful, and the policing of Muslim people — especially by other Muslims — is toxic.
Religion, separate from political ideology, is such a personal journey. Growing up and becoming who I am now, I have developed from a child with no doubt of the existence of God to an atheist with scientific theories to back me up to an agnostic with a belief that there must be a higher power somewhere out there, and to here, now. I can’t lie, this process was in part caused by socio-politics and a desire to retaliate against fearmongering backlash; I had grown to fear for the safety of my grandmother who wears hijab and my Muslim relatives and friends. But that was also what pushed me to where I position myself now in relation to Islam. I don’t let it entirely dictate my decisions — that’s entirely on me — but I love what it has provided me with. I want to make clear: religion is personal, and you have no right to judge others or call them out as ‘bad’ Muslims.