2018 has been the year of incredible diversity and inclusion in the film industry, giving us all hope that maybe we are witnessing a progressive push forward from tokenism to genuine representation.
Just this February, the world was gifted Marvel’s Black Panther, featuring an almost entirely black cast showcasing what black excellence looks like on the big screen (and how profitable it can be) when talented actors, directors, producers, and all-around artists are given their due platform.
The month of August featured the opening weekend of the film Crazy Rich Asians, featuring an all Asian cast which hasn’t been seen in Hollywood since The Joy Luck Club in 1993. Crazy Rich Asians is the film adaptation of the best-selling book by Kevin Kwan following the story of a Chinese-American woman embarking on one hell of a rollercoaster ride through the world of the Chinese elite in Singapore. For everyone who has not read this book, GO READ IT! (And then read the sequels, China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems because they never lose their quality and each one is their own version of wild).
Anyways, enough reminiscing. The real question that I’m trying to get to, after cherishing and cheering on the overdue representation in each of these movies, is this: What does a genuine, all Muslim-American cast look like?
The reason I ask is because it is important for us as a Muslim community to establish how we would like to be seen. We have spent so many years on the defensive, criticizing the demonization of the Muslim image, reminding the rest of the world that we are not all terrorists, trying to engage the non-muslim world in order to prove that wearing a hijab does not mean a Muslim woman is oppressed, then also trying to remind everyone that not wearing the hijab doesn’t make you less of a Muslim; but at the end of the day the only conversations that we are having still revolve around these narratives of terrorism, oppression, and judgement.
So, outside of these conversations, what do we look like? What conversations are we having? What is the story we would like to tell? Is the Muslim community united enough to even start asking these questions?
Can we exist on the screen just as people, living normal narratives, who also happen to be Muslim?
As far as I can tell, the Muslim community is so beautifully diverse, but so unfortunately segregated, that I don’t even think we have an understanding of each other’s experiences. Does a Sunni recognize a Shia beyond the debate of who’s right and wrong? Does a Pakistani Muslim know or understand the experiences of the Thai Muslim? Does the Arab American Muslim acknowledge the legacy of the Black American Muslim and the history of American Islam that started with the first slaves to be brought to this land? Does the Muslim man try to imagine what it must be like for the Muslim woman, beyond their implicit and explicit biases?
The beauty of Islam lies in the very fact that it has found a way to be relevant and applicable on an international basis regardless of language or culture. And the beauty of the American Muslim community is that it cannot be defined by one of these cultures because it has managed to embrace and embody people of all backgrounds. The Latinx Muslim and the Chinese Muslim are both American Muslims who can converge on common ground and establish immediate respect for each other under the one greeting of Assalamu’ Alaikum.
And yet, generally speaking, their stories will rarely converge. Because we have mosque for the Thai Muslims, a mosque that is predominantly Black, a mosque that is mostly Syrian, a mosque for the Ahmadiyya Muslims, and a mosque for the Shia muslims, and the list goes on. People gravitate to those who are most similar to them, in background, in language, in culture, in sect… forgetting that Allah SWT commanded us to get to know each other, beyond our differences.
I hope you don’t read this as a criticism of these individual mosques, because in truth each mosque is unique in the mission they are trying to accomplish and the people they are trying to uplift. My point in highlighting the current segregated atmosphere of the Muslim American community is to bring awareness to the fact that we cannot take control of our narrative until we have put the time into learning the narratives of each other.
So, what does an all Muslim American cast look like? Maybe we aren’t ready for that movie yet, but when we are I know for damn sure that cast better look like a representation of the entire world come together to tell the story of the Muslim.