Hollywood and Representation

December 11, 2018

I would not be Muslim if it weren’t for my father.


To combat “intellectual” Islamophobes, I’d like to say it is science and my own rigorous search for the truth that keeps me a believer, but it’s not.

It’s my father.


You see, Bapi as I call him in Bangla, as a first-gen Bangladeshi American woman, represents Islam to me. He, and the story of his life built around his faith, from organizing his work schedule around five daily prayers at the mosque to helping Muslims wash their dead loved one’s body for burial, are what draw me to the religion and make Islam, a rich, multi-faceted system of belief, mean something. With his charisma and fondness for white polo t-shirts, Bapi has captured my imagination more than 1,400 years of prophets, caliphs and jurists ever could.




Because of my deep emotional connection to him as a person who I intimately know. But what happens when I don’t know a real person to enliven something vast?

I substitute it with books, film, television and the news.


I was in college when Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner came out, two years after the War on Afghanistan, and I have not been able to get Amir, the protagonist, and Hassan, his best friend and servant, out of my head ever since. In the book, Amir grows up in 1970s Kabul, Afghanistan with Hassan who is in a lower ethnic class. In part one, Amir has to decide whether he values Hassan’s life more than his own, and later realizes how his upbringing and social class influenced his decision. Because of how vividly written their relationship is, even today, if I were to tread Afghan soil, my right and left foot would echo their names, as I say salaam to real passerby nearby. That is the power of storytelling; the chance to peer into a world different from your own. 


In 2014, 60% of Americans surveyed said they did not know a Muslim. But they do.

They know the terrorist on screen, the oppressed niqabi-clad wife, the oil-rich, heavily bearded Arab sheikh. This image has been perpetuated enough, from ‘80s and ‘90s blockbuster films like Back to the Future and True Lies to the more recent show Homeland, where even I’m terrified of the Middle East, home to the Kaaba in Saudi Arabia which I visited for Hajj and turn to for my daily prayers. So yes, I too have an unconscious bias against my own people, due to the countless images of the singular Muslim stereotype my brain has absorbed on screen.


The problem with this captivating trope is it leaves no room for the more complex truth: there are 1.8B Muslims in the world, making Islam the second largest religion on the planet. The biggest Muslim population is not in the Middle East but in Indonesia, where 87% identify as Muslim, and India where 14% identify as Muslim. America itself has a tiny Muslim population: 1.1% and even among this 1.1%, there are several different types of groups, practices and interpretations, causing much debate and discourse in our community.


Aside from our core beliefs, one thing we all agree on is our vilification. From 1980 to 2005, 94% of terrorist attacks in America were carried out by people who are not Muslim. Yet associating Islam with terrorism has taken over 100% of the world’s collective imagination, with a recent study citing news coverage from a Muslim-led terrorist attack in America received 357% more press attention than those led by others. As Omar Alnatour wrote, “If all Muslims are terrorists, than all Muslims are peacemakers because six out of the past fifteen Nobel Peace Prize winners (four of them women) are Muslim.”


In the last thirty years, Muslims artists have tried to combat this image through a trickle of indie cinema, Zarqa Nawaz’s Canadian show Little Mosque on the Prairie, and the Ms. Marvel comic, but it wasn’t until 2017 when a few of our stories, told from our perspective, started to break through. With the debut of two big-time studio releases: The Big Sick and the one-man comedy special Homecoming King, stories about the everyperson - the ordinary Muslim - gained widespread commercial and critical success, including an Oscar nomination.


Finally we were on the map, and not the kind tacked to the wall of a CIA conference room with push pins and strings criss-crossing through, all pointing to a furiously-drawn, red-sharpie circle. It seemed the Arabland Professor Jack Shaheen so graciously fought against was going through its own, very, (very), very slow climate change. 


This change didn’t just alter the perceptions of the 60% of Americans who had never met a Muslim. It affected me too. Homecoming King or 2018’s feature film Jinn allowed me to breathe. As I slowly exhaled air I hadn’t realized I kept inside, I felt understood. And as an introvert, it was media that illustrated how closely my personal experiences turned out to be shared. In Homecoming King, I saw that Hasan Minhaj also had controlling parents, coming from deep love, who would rather have him ace the LSAT than sell out a comedy show. When I started my MFA program in Film/TV Production, my elders assumed I was getting an MBA and Bapi did not bother to correct them. Though The Big Sick was not without its flaws (some of which I agree with and some, I don’t), I appreciate and relate to its commentary on post-9/11 life.


Aside from my own exploration of these stories, people had new, authentic characters to associate Islam with, which made it much easier for me to give Islam 101. I am now starting to have a shorthand for my complicated - more like, different - life. Instead of engaging in a long-drawn out discussion on how Muslims are encouraged not to date or have premarital sex, I ask, “Have you seen Homecoming King?” or “Check out Jinn!”. Watching a beautifully crafted story makes them understand why I don’t date more than a textbook lesson or National Geographic report ever could, and they come away with a deeper context for why I live my life the way I do, rooted in a language we all speak: emotion.


As I continue to use these examples for my own shorthand, I wait for the next step in inclusivity: Muslim women. Hollywood, like global political history, empowers men before women, and we are all still waiting for a Muslim American female-helmed show to be put on air, whether it’s Fatimah Asghar and Sam Bailey’s Brown Girls, Maysoon Zayid’s network comedy, and more. But even these are not enough. The three most popular Muslim American media in 2017 are from South Asian men. This doesn’t begin to depict the complexity of Muslim life across sects, countries, cultures, and generations. There should be at least 49 stories from the 49 Muslim-majority countries around the world, including places like Albania and Gambia, on NYT bestseller lists and box office receipts.


However, even if this were to happen (as it should), nothing can replace befriending a real human being. Muslim art is like a vitamin supplement, while knowing a person from that community nourishes your body and soul. Art enhances life but it can’t keep up with the constant stream of news that affects our lives, nor can it hug you back when you need it the most. So in the meantime, if you’re in need of a Bapi, I’m happy to lend you my own. . . just be prepared to listen to a talker. 


Mahin Ibrahim is a writer whose work has appeared in HuffPost as a contributor, Narratively, and Amaliah. In spring 2019, her essay will be published in the anthology Halal If You Hear Me from Haymarket Books. Connect with her @mahinsays on Twitter.


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