February 23, 2016
It's been a rough season lately for minority communities in the media. From the Republican primaries to the latest lily-white Oscars, we have seen the repeated maligning and marginalizing of the Other. Arguably, the most far-reaching example of this has been the Islamophobia I've witnessed throughout most of my adult life, that has reached new heights this past year. Believe it or not, growing up Muslim in a suburb of Houston, Texas was once a relatively benign proposition. No one really knew what Islam was and the biggest stressor was trying to explain why you didn't eat lunch for one month out of the year. The Gulf Wars and 9/11 changed all of that. From Al-Qaeda to ISIS, from Paris to San Bernadino it seems the entirety of Muslim society is caught up in a dizzying array of conflicts around the world. But this post won't be about all of the historical geo-political roots of Islamophobia, which frankly date back to the Crusades! Rather, I want to consider how an active and engaged media, and how I as a filmmaker, respond to this state of affairs.
During a recent visit to a mosque in Baltimore, President Obama criticized how Muslims are portrayed in popular culture. "Our television shows should have some Muslim characters that are unrelated to national security. It's not that hard to do." We here at FusiformFilms, the film production company I started along with Irrfan Husain, whole-heartedly agree! When people don't personally know any Muslims and the only representations they have come from Homeland, 24 and Zero Dark Thirty it is no wonder that prejudice is fostered. It is imperative that different narratives are put forth. This applies to all marginalized communities -- which is why the mission of FusiformFilms aligns with the ethos of a company such as Seed&Spark â to "empower diverse voices."
Our current crowd-sourcing project, Hijabi, is a coming of age story about a young Muslim-American girl â and there are no national security concerns at play! It is the second of a planned trilogy of short films dealing with the concept of "Jihad-al-Nafs," or the "Struggle for the Self." In Islamic theology this is the most exalted form of Jihad. The first short we made was Pornistan, a "terrorist sex-comedy" exploring the link between sexual repression and violent religious fanaticism. In both films, the main characters are navigating their impulses and struggling to find their moral/ethical boundaries. Jihad is a term vastly misunderstood in popular culture as it has been co-opted by extremists and the media coverage surrounding them. My aim, with the Jihad-al-Nafs Trilogy, is to re-contextualize that term and reclaim it as the important organizing principle that it is for Muslim identity.
Much is made of there not being a robust "liberalized" Muslim voice to counter extremist messaging and the resultant media stereotypes. However, this is our precise aim â to broaden the understanding of what it is to be, not only a Muslim, but a human being; that is, to depict narratives of people engaged in the universal struggle for identity and meaning â the very essence of Jihad.