Islam and popular culture: an Inside Islam recap

All-American Muslim, a reality TV show we covered in 2011. Photo: TLC

It’s fitting to end Inside Islam where we started. When we first began the project, we focused heavily on Islam in popular culture and media. Our first shows and posts focused on Muslim youth and new media, videobloggers, and even fashion.

Our focus on cultural topics was deliberate. In our efforts to break down stereotypes about Islam, our strategy was to humanize Muslims by showing them engaged in activities non-Muslims could relate to. Popular culture has always cut across cultural and geographic borders, so we focused heavily on the medium. Continue reading

This Is Where I Need to Be

Amna Ahmad, New York City high school oral historian, This is Where I Need to Be project

The old saying “children should be seen, but not heard” still rings true today. Although the majority of the population in many countries is younger than 25, youth perspectives are rarely, if ever, taken seriously. This is especially true for those under the age of 18 and those who come from minority groups such as people of color or Muslims. This Is Where I Need to Be: Oral Histories of Muslim Youth in NYC attempts to break these barriers by providing a platform for diverse young Muslims of color living in New York City to voice their perspectives. You can watch a video clip of Palestinian-American Amna Ahmad’s reading of Bengali-American Taseen Ferdous’s contribution to the book.

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Muslim-American Fencer Rises Above Tough Competition

Photo: Natalie Keyssar/WSJ

Maplewood, New Jersey, fencing star Ibtihaj Muhammad was recently named International Sportswoman of the Year by the Muslim Women’s Sports Foundation. In an interview, Muhammad, the third of five children in an athletic family, said that she initially began fencing because it easily allowed her to be fiercely competitive while maintaining her ability to wear hijab and present herself in modest dress. If her upcoming Olympic trial performance matches her world ranking, she’ll be one of two American women to fence in the London Olympic Games this summer. Although it cannot be confirmed, as the U.S. Olympic committee does not survey athletes’ religious backgrounds, Muhammad is probably also the first practicing Muslim woman to represent the U.S. in any Olympic event.

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Islam and the New Modes of Participation

Professor John O. Voll. Photo: Georgetown University

This past weekend academics and journalists from around the world gathered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for the Inside Islam-cosponsored conference Islam and Democracy. The changing political landscape of the Middle East was a central focus of the event in general and was the main topic of a keynote by John O. Voll, Professor of Islamic history and Associate Director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. In tune with perspectives expressed on Inside Islam by Reza Aslan, Marc Lynch, and Tariq Ramadan, Voll stressed that the desires of the people have largely stayed the same—peace, justice, economic stability—but that the ideologies and particular models of making these demands, have shifted. Continue reading

Countering Extremism and Highlighting Diversity

MPV President Ani Zonneveld speaks with US Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) at an MPV event.

Exclusion seems to be at the root of many forms of extremism, whether religious, cultural, political, or otherwise. The growing and increasingly influential group Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) hopes to shift extremist attitudes among North American Muslims through their latest initiative, Literary Zikr. Co-founded as a non-profit by Ani Zonneveld in 2007, the group aims to counter Islamic radicalization of North American youth by presenting the work of progressive Muslim scholars in a simple and accessible format.

MPV, law enforcement officials, and academics all agree that Islamic extremists constitute a small percentage of Muslims in North America or anywhere, but MPV and other groups believe that addressing this problem, although small in numbers, is incredibly important and is the primary responsibility of Muslim communities themselves. Zonneveld explains:

We as Muslims should all be working together to counter radicalism… There are many within the [Muslim North American] community that are in denial. You bring up the word ‘radicalism’ and people immediately become defensive. If you’re silent, you’re just as guilty.

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Representations of Muslims in Video Games

From the game "Battle in Sadr City"

Stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in the media are not new. They have been a persistent part of discussing the Middle East, terrorism, and Islam. Jack Shaheen, a professor at Southern Illinois University, traced these images of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood movies. He found that Arabs and Muslims are often conflated so that it appears that Arab equals Muslim. Also, Arabs and Muslims are either portrayed as exotic, as if they all live in 1001 Arabian nights, or as violent. Obviously, these images do not reflect the reality of over 1.57 billion Muslim. These stereotypes are not restricted to Hollywood films or news media broadcast but also occur in video games. Continue reading

The Voices of Arab Youth

Egyptian Protesters Photo: Felipe Trueba/EPA

From the Tunisian fruit vendor’s desperate last act to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Arab youth–both Muslim and Christian–have demonstrated their intolerance for the status quo. A new level of youth engagement in Arab politics has taken shape, and the images of these massive demonstrations have disproved a consistent, and largely western fear of Islamic extremism overtaking most young Muslim minds in the Middle East.

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Muslim MTV?

Can you imagine what an Islamic MTV would look like? Well, Ahmed Abu Haiba did when he launched a new music channel called 4Shbab TV. (“Shbab” means “young people” in Arabic.) The idea behind 4Shbab TV is to offer an Islamic alternative to the other 800+ satellite channels. 4Shbab TV began broadcasting in February 2009 from Bahrain, and according to Abu Haiba now has viewers from all over the Middle East.

For Abu Haiba, mainstream music videos do not reflect Arab and Islamic cultural values nor do they represent the realities of the youth in the Middle East so he decided to launch a channel that would do just that. Abu Haiba also wanted to make  religion more appealing to youth. 4Shbab broadcasts music videos that do not have backup singers, revealing clothing, or anything else that one would associate with mainstream music videos, but that does not mean that musical instruments are not used or that all the songs are about religion. It also features talk shows, variety shows, news, and an American Idol-like program called  “Sotak Wasel,” which translates as “Your Voice is Heard.”

4Shbab TV is part of a growing trend around the Muslim world of Islamically themed projects, like Amr Khaled’s show “Mujaddidun”–The Reformers in Arabic– based on “The Apprentice.” These projects not only offer alternative means of entertainment but also demonstrate the diverse experiences of Islam not only across regions but across the generations. Many of these projects specifically target a younger audience and promote a picture of Islam that is compatible with modern sensibilities.

What do you think about 4Shbab and other religiously themed entertainment? Do you think they have an impact? What do projects like 4Shbab indicate about the diversity of the Muslim experience? Would you watch this channel? Please share your thoughts below.

Islam and Fashion: Style Islam

Muslims have used fiction, poetry, and music to relay to the world the message that Islam is about peace and does not condone violence. Fashion is also a medium on that list. Melih Kesmen began Style Islam, an Islamic-themed clothing line, in Germany three years ago and now it is in high demand in Europe and the Middle East.

Kesmen began the project after the Danish cartoon controversy. He wanted to challenge the stereotypes of Islam that were being circulated.  Using hip clothing style, Kesmen introduced a new way to expose people to the core messages of the faith, at the center of which is peace.

Some of the designs read: “Terrorism has no religion,” “Hijab. My right. My choice. My life,” and “Jesus & Muhammad: Brothers in Faith.” The clothing line shows that Islam is about more than what appears in the media–it can be hip, too.

What do you think of these designs? Is clothing a good way to relay a message? Can a tee-shirt change people’s minds about Islam? Please share your thoughts below.

Islam in Three Words: Interview with Muslim Students

Religion doesn’t just live in sacred books or buildings. Religion lives in people. Therefore, I believe that one of the best ways to understand Islam is to get to know its people. Knowing few Muslims, I set out to find some and ask each of them a simple question: If you had only three words to describe Islam, what would they be? Continue reading