The Vilcek Foundation Newsletter
The Vilcek Foundation Newsletter
Models, Moguls, and Muslims: Artists Against Islamophobia
Human beings are storytelling animals. Before we created language, our ancestors were artists, using cave walls as their canvasses, their fingers as brushes, and charcoal, dirt, spit, and animal fat as their paint. The earliest cave paintings, mostly of animals and human hands, were found 35,000 years ago in the caves of Indonesia; even our Neanderthal ancestors wanted to be the protagonists of their narratives, leaving behind an artistic document of their lived history.
Storytelling, in all its artistic forms, not only represents reality, but also shapes it. Art and stories are talismans that can create, uplift, and glorify a people, while simultaneously debase and erase another. As such, the storyteller and artist with access to a large audience has great influence and power. And to quote Spiderman, who quotes Uncle Ben, who in turn quotes Voltaire: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
In 2018, what is the story of 1.7 billion Muslims and 1,400 years of Islamic civilization? And who is telling it?
Muslims: America’s Favorite Minority
Judging by recent notoriety, our stories are certainly being told—although not always by the people most familiar with, or favorable to, Islam.
During the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump was particularly enamored with Islam. Among several other denigrative comments, he claimed to have seen a video that doesn’t exist of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 terror attacks, and he has repeatedly made the false claim that General John J. Pershing stopped radical Islamic terrorism in the Philippines by having his soldiers dip their bullets in pig blood. (As a Muslim, I beg readers to not harm innocent pigs; regular bullets work just fine on Muslims. Why? Because we are human beings.)
Such conspiratorial claims have taken root in large parts of the American psyche. A 2016 poll revealed that two-thirds of voters with a favorable opinion of President Trump believed President Barack Hussain Obama was a Muslim, and thus inherently foreign and un-American. A 2017 study showed that white voters who switched from voting for President Obama in 2012 to President Trump in 2016 were primarily motivated by Trump’s comments on immigration and Muslims.
Many Americans also seem to believe that Muslims are like Gremlins: that we will multiply if you feed us hummus after midnight. A 2016 study revealed that Americans believe there are 54 million Muslims in America, even though there are only about 3.3 million—or, approximately 1% of the population.
Muslims, just like so many other minorities and ethnic groups before them, are currently seen as enemies rather than as neighbors and fellow citizens. Instead of human beings with emotions, values, and communities, we become monstrous, a multiplying threat, a force that must be contained.
Islamophobia: Reality vs. Perceptions
In truth, American Muslims have been rooted in this country’s soil from the beginning. Somewhere between 5% to 15% of the slaves who were brought here against their will were Muslim, and their descendents fought in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Our blood, sweat, and stories are embedded within this country’s narrative DNA, but often they are ignored or forgotten, having been buried under sensationalistic headlines of terrorism and hate.
This dominant narrative distorts perceptions of contemporary Muslim Americans as well. Far from being either homogenous or extremist, American Muslims are the most diverse religious community in America, with no racial or ethnic group comprising the majority. Although the terms “Muslim” and “Arab” are often used interchangably, most Arab Americans are in fact Christian, while most American Muslims are of black, South Asian, or Arab descent.
As a group, they’re moderate, economically successful, and educated—in fact, Muslim women are among the most educated women of any religious community in America, coming in just behind Jewish American women. They renounce extremism and violence against civilians, and cooperate with law enforcement. Three-quarters are immigrants or the children of immigrants, and like so many other newcomers, they believe in the American dream.
Until recently, however, you’d have been hard-pressed to find such diverse representation in mainstream media. While Muslims and Islam seem to be a perennial driving force of the network news cycle, Muslims are still not asked to be the ambassadors of their own narratives. For example, out of 176 guests invited on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC to discuss President Trump’s first travel ban targeting seven Muslim-majority countries in early 2017, only 14 were Muslim. That’s less than 10%.
Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, when Muslims were visible in the news, they were often portrayed as violent, foreign, and hostile. This portrayal was so common that it became a trope: “Rage Boy.”
Rage Boy: An American Remake
You’ve seen Rage Boy before. He’s bearded, brown, and bellicose, standing in front of a crowd with his fist raised. Rage Boy is ISIS. Rage Boy is al-Qaeda. Rage Boy is Boko Haram. “Rage Boy” is an actual media term for a stock image that has been employed countless times for magazine covers and cable news shows when discussing Islam and terrorism. (And while Rage Boy, as a trope, has come to represent the general shape of Islamic extremism, the image often used to illustrate this trope is of a real person, with a name and lived reality: He’s Shakeel Ahmad Bhat, a 40-year-old activist in Kashmir.)
Rage Boy was not created in the 20th century. He’s a modern remake of an European image of Islam and Muslims that dates back to the 11th-century Crusades. As articulated by the late scholar Edward Said, Europe and America have often gazed upon Muslims through a reductive and exotic “Orientalist” lens, understanding them as inferior subjects of fear, loathing and fascination.
Hollywood entertainment mainstreamed this negative perception of Muslims. In the 1960s, America’s understanding of Islam was as a hostile, homegrown, black nationalist movement, primarily anchored by the iconic personalities of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. With the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the face of Islam and Muslims for America became foreign and “brown,” but still anti-American. And as America increased its military engagements with the Middle East in the 1980s and 1990s, Hollywood movies routinely portrayed Muslims as bearded, angry villains.
After the 9/11 attacks, the Hollywood villain evolved once again. Numerous hit TV shows, such 24 and Homeland, used Muslim extremism as plot points, further cementing this violent image in the American mindset. After consulting with Muslim advocacy groups, many of these movies and shows tried to introduce nuance by adding a “good” Muslim character who was peaceful, rejected extremism, and helped law enforcement. Unfortunately, despite best intentions, this only created a paralyzing and dangerous prison for Muslim representation: the one “good Muslim” who aids American national security objectives vs. “the bad Muslim,” who is potentially everyone else.
Can Art and Culture Do A Makeover?
In 1997, if you had told me that in 20 years, one of the most popular daytime talk show hosts would be an openly lesbian woman married to another woman, I’d have said that America stood a better chance of electing a black president with a Muslim father.
Now, in 2018, The Ellen DeGeneres Show is an award-winning program in its 16th season, beloved by diverse audiences across America, a country that also twice elected Barack Hussein Obama as president.
Twenty years ago, this was near unimaginable. When Ellen DeGeneres appeared on a 1997 cover of Time magazine confirming she was gay, she ignited a cultural maelstrom, which led to her being denounced as “Ellen Degenerate” and the cancellation of her sitcom Ellen. What happened in the meantime?
Usually, there is a three-step evolutionary process that moves minority groups from outsiders to protagonists in pop-cultural representation. In the first step, they are usually mocked and ridiculed as generic characters, personified by exaggerated stereotypes. In the second, they become characters with names and a flash of personality, but are often relegated to being sidekicks, without fully-fleshed character arcs. And in the final step, they are nuanced protagonists who just happen to be gay, female, black, or Jewish.
Writer and comedian Negin Farsad, a Muslim American born to Iranian immigrants, believes LGBTQ participation in arts and media was a significant driver for marriage equality. Major cultural shifts, she says, were the result of the tireless and persistent work of LGBTQ community members, but they were also helped by shows like Will and Grace, which gleefully represented these voices in mainstream media. “That’s right,” she said, “a sitcom is one of the elements that brought us closer to marriage equality, so the movement can be as fun as it is culturally challenging.”
Will and Grace, a sitcom featuring gay male leads, premiered a year after Ellen DeGeneres said she was gay. The show ran for eight successful seasons and was recently rebooted again in September 2017. Programs like Will and Grace, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and other artistic creations, stories, plays, and movies helped create and shape new perceptions of LGBTQ communities that reflected their lived realities as normal human beings, with all their warts and glories. Taken as a whole, LGBTQ cultural works continue to serve as a sledgehammer to homophobia, while also planting seeds for new modes of empathy and understanding.
Despite ongoing challenges, LGBTQ characters emerged as the protagonists of their own narratives. Can Muslims do the same?
The Rise of the American Muslim Protagonist
“You ever read Long Day’s Journey Into Night or Death of a Salesman? Write me a 20-page play like that, but about a Muslim Pakistani American family.” That’s what Ishmael Reed, my UC Berkeley professor and a MacArthur Genius, told me a few weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He predicted my people would get a “hazing” in the media. As an African American, he told me the way his people have fought back against the racist narratives that have been dominant for centuries was through arts and culture. He was preparing me to do the same.
At the time, I was a 20-year-old student, born in the Bay Area to Pakistani Muslim immigrant parents. I had never seen a play featuring characters that resembled me or my family; in fact, Apu, the 2D convenience-store owner on The Simpsons, was our pop-cultural role model by default.
9/11, however, was a baptism by fire for my generation of young American Muslims. We were placed under a microscope with our identity, religion, and loyalty forever interrogated, investigated, and indicted. This was the hazing Ismael predicted, and out of a sense of urgency, and also to pass his class, I wrote The Domestic Crusaders, a play about three generations of a Pakistani Muslim American family. I premiered the play as a stage reading in 2004 at the local Mehran Indian and Pakistani restaurant, and eventually, it made its way to New York, where it premiered to sold-out off-Broadway shows in 2009.
This experience taught me that “if you build it, they will come.” For many of us fledgling Muslim artists after 9/11, it was a do-it-yourself venture because we did not have the community infrastructure to support our work or the connections to mainstream gatekeepers in New York or Hollywood.
Others came to the same conclusion: In 2006, three graduate students at the University of Chicago—Sahar Ullah, Zeenat Rahman, and Dan Morrison—decided to stop waiting for permission and create their own opportunity. Inspired by Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, they created The Hijabi Monologues as an empowering artistic vehicle that would give Muslim women their own voice to tell their own stories. Still touring in 2018, the project incorporates new material from each tour stop, thus keeping the stories authentic and fresh.
Thanks to independent, burgeoning efforts like The Hijabi Monologues, Muslim American stories began to elbow their way into the mainstream. In 2013, Ayad Akhtar won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—the first time the prize was awarded to a Pakistani American writer—for his play Disgraced, which explores anti-Muslim bigotry, identity politics, and fractured relationships in the post-9/11 world.
Unlike my childhood, a young generation of Americans, Muslim or not, will have access to dramatic material featuring characters with multisyllabic names who look like my family members, and who share their stories.
Writing the Next Chapter
The emergence of such stories, in a variety of genres—from comedy to comic books, food to fashion—helped mitigate the wave of prejudice and discrimination Muslim Americans faced after 9/11. Unfortunately, a little over a decade and a half later, Islamophobia is once again on the ascent, as evidenced by rising hate crimes and the mainstreaming of anti-Muslim rhetoric.
A Pew Research Center analysis of FBI hate crime statistics show that physical assaults against Muslims in the United States “reached 9/11-era levels in 2015,” while overall anti-Muslim hate crimes increased 67% over the previous year. These rates have continued to climb; another study by the Council on American-Islamic Relations showed a 17% increase in anti-Muslim bias incidents and a 15% increase in hate crimes over the previous year—the second year of increases in such incidents.
In the face of growing hate and persecution, Muslim artists are now more important than ever. In 2015, a Pew study revealed that Americans are more inclined to like Muslims if they actually know one. As discussed, most Americans sadly only know Islam and Muslims through pop culture and media headlines, which often paint a portrait of violence, anger, and extremism.
Luckily, a new generation of Muslim artists, storytellers, and influencers have stepped up to challenge this dominant narrative. As you’ll see in this edition of the Vilcek Foundation’s latest newsletter, these artists are reshaping how America sees its Muslim neighbors and citizens in a variety of ways. As the first hijab-wearing model to walk international runways and to be signed to a major agency, Halima Aden is redefining our standards of beauty while serving as a role model for visibly observant Muslim women. Zareen Jaffery spearheaded the creation of Salaam Reads, a Simon & Schuster imprint that introduces young readers to a variety of Muslim protagonists and stories. Actor and comedian Maz Jobrani uses his stand-up to skewer stereotypes and politics while bringing audiences around the world together in laughter. Tired of being marginalized, writer and tech entreprenuer Amani Al-Khatahtbeh created MuslimGirl.com, a website that amplifies and unites the voices of diverse Muslim women.
Ultimately, art and culture can expose the pain caused by Islamophobia and racism, but it can also be a source of healing. It allows us to name our pain, and to remind ourselves that we are not alone, either in suffering or in joy. This new generation of American Muslim artists and storytellers are naming their pain, reclaiming their narratives, and breaking ground for all those who are excised and marginalized, but still striving to become the next heroes of the American story.
One doesn’t expect to find silver linings in the rise of anti-Muslim hate crimes, and yet model Halima Aden has: “I have found that while there is a great deal of attention on the rise of Islamophobia, there is also a rise in those who are taking steps to learn from, meet, and welcome their Muslim neighbors,” she says.
Halima has seen proof of this firsthand. As an observant Muslim woman, Halima chooses to dress modestly, which, for her, means keeping her hair covered with a hijab and wearing clothes that cover the majority of her body. It’s hardly the image that comes to mind when one thinks of high fashion, but Halima has walked the runways for iconic brands such as Max Mara, Alberta Ferretti, and Yeezy; modeled for Rihanna’s inclusive makeup brand, Fenty Beauty; and appeared on the covers of Vogue Arabia, British Vogue, and Allure magazines as the first hijab-wearing model to do so.
“People have been very supportive,” Halima says. “I have been very fortunate that designers and brands have embraced me and chosen to celebrate inclusion by booking me for jobs.” In addition to guaranteeing that the clothes she models fit her wardrobe requirements, her bookers have also made sure that she is dressed by a female manager and that she has a private area in which to change; Glamour magazine even provided a space for Halima to pray in when a shoot fell during Ramadan.
Her sunny disposition belies a hardscrabble beginning. Halima was born in Kakuma, a UN refugee camp in Kenya, to Somali parents who were escaping the civil war that broke out in the 1980s. Her earliest memories include hunger, malaria, and fights among the refugees, who came from various regions of East Africa.
Her overall impression of the period, however, is of a happy childhood. While adults sometimes clashed, the children of Kakuma were learning their first lessons in tolerance and diversity. “As children, we were oblivious to religion and race,” Halima says. She made friends of all ethnicities and faiths, happily participating in the customs and celebrations of her peers—sharing Christmas dinners, praying to the Turkana god, Akuj, and, in turn, teaching her companions about Islam.
It was not until Halima came to the United States, at the age of seven, that she realized religion could be a source of pain and division as well. Her family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where the school system had not yet incorporated an ESL curriculum, and her first years at school were confusing and alienating.
“I went to school every day and felt like I had no business being there,” she says. “When I reflect on my childhood in the United States, and issues of race, religion, and identity, a lot of painful memories come to mind.”
Later, her family moved again to St. Cloud, Minnesota, which was home to a community of Somali refugees, and welcoming teachers went above and beyond to help her catch up to her native-born peers in English. There were still, however, periods of adjustment, such as when Halima decided to start wearing a hijab. Her mother had been a constant source of strength, and as a young girl, Halima had been looking forward to the day when she could cover her hair like her mother. The headscarf, however, made Halima a target for teasing in middle school. “I wanted so badly to fit in,” Halima says. “My pride in wearing it soon turned to resentment.”
Eventually, Halima learned to be proud again—so much so that by the end of high school, she entered the Miss Minnesota USA beauty pageant, becoming the first pageant contestant in her state to compete in a hijab. “I wanted younger Muslim girls to see that you could still go out for sports and get involved in activities while dressing modestly,” she says.
Photo courtesy of Fadil Berisha
Although that sounds self-evident, pictures of Halima competing with covered hair and a burkini made headlines around the world. And while she did not win the pageant, Halima caught the attention of several influencers in the fashion industry, leading to a contract with IMG Models, making history again as the first hijab-wearing model to be signed to a major international agency.
Halima’s combination of beauty, style, and modesty challenges societal conceptions of feminine beauty and Muslim women. Ultimately, however, she is most driven by the opportunity to be a role model for young women like herself.
“Anytime I saw somebody dressed like me in a movie, the character was someone oppressed,” she said in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar. “Same thing with the news. Every time I saw somebody who looked like me, chances were they were doing something bad. Now, I get to represent my community to the majority.”
Growing up in Stamford, Connecticut, Zareen Jaffery felt welcomed, but not as if she belonged. Born to Pakistani Muslim immigrants and educated in a small Catholic school, she described her childhood home as a “cultural cocoon”: warm and comfortable, but isolated from the world around her. “I didn’t know how to behave,” she says. “I wasn’t swimming in those waters the same way.”
Zareen looked outwardly for clues on how to fit in, but pop culture in the 1980s seemed as if it were cut from a template. Heroines, nearly always white, were quick-witted and pretty, but not in a way that reflected how Zareen saw herself. And, she says, “there were underdogs, but instead of being blond, they were brunette.”
It wasn’t until college that Zareen saw characters who resembled her depicted in mainstream culture with depth and nuance. In a short story by Jhumpa Lahiri, about a couple who emigrates from India to the UK and then to Boston, Zareen saw echoes of her own family history. “It conveyed the magnitude of that journey…but it also conveyed immigrants positively, not as interlopers.”
Providing opportunities for children to see positive reflections of themselves is Zareen’s mission as the executive editor of Salaam Reads. Zareen had worked with various genres in the book publishing industry for almost a decade, but despite her broad experience, it was difficult to find manuscripts by Muslim writers. Hoping to create a home for such works, Salaam Reads was founded in 2016 with the mission of publishing books for young readers—picture books, chapter books, middle grade, and young adult—featuring Muslim characters and stories from all over the world.
This is especially important for Muslim children in America, who are growing up amid rising Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate crimes. “Children’s books can shape society,” Zareen says. “When we help a child feel like they can be the protagonist instead of just the sidekick, later on, they will feel they deserve the same rights as everyone else. As an adult, that person will be strong enough to fight for their rights.”
Making these stories available is beneficial for non-Muslim children as well. “We live in a world where Muslims are discussed every single day on the news, but only a violent minority,” she says. Creating books with positive Muslim protagonists can offer another view of the community, which many Americans might not otherwise have access to. “It can imbue a sense of empathy,” she says. “We need that right now.”
Salaam Reads strives to portray the diversity found within the Muslim community, including the many denominations, ethnicities, and nationalities it encompasses worldwide. Among its titles is Yo Soy Muslim, a picture book by Mark Gonzales, a Muslim convert and poet of French, Mexican, and First Nation backgrounds. Taking the form of a father’s letter to his daughter, the book urges her to take pride in her heritage and faith, even in the face of prejudice and discrimination.
“Latino Muslims are the fastest growing Muslim [group] in the U.S., and that’s not something you would know if you are just reading about Muslims in the news,” Zareen said. “Giving Muslims a way to see that is powerful.”
As an editor, Zareen believes in showing the world as it is, in all its positives and negatives. “Because [the Muslim community] is so demonized already, when it comes to embarrassing topics, there is a knee-jerk reaction to not talk about it, because you don’t want to reinforce negative ideas,” she says. “But that just further punishes the victims, whether it’s domestic abuse, corruption, or sexual violence. It’s important to promote justice, not silence.”
This ability to treat Muslim stories with an even hand is what makes Salaam Reads unique. Before Zareen approached Simon and Schuster about establishing Salaam Reads, she had difficulty acquiring manuscripts that represented Muslims in authentic and complex ways. “When I reached out to Muslim writers before Salaam Reads, one consistent feedback I received was that there weren’t any agents that represented them or what they wanted to do.” Instead, they received requests for narratives that focused on violent and sensational stereotypes, like terrorism and honor killings.
As a result, many Muslim authors stopped writing. To encourage more Muslims to write, Salaam Reads has an open submission policy—meaning that writers can submit manuscripts directly to the editorial team, instead of through an agent, bypassing gatekeepers who may not be receptive or culturally sensitive to their stories.
Salaam Reads is an important addition to the publishing industry, but if Zareen has her way, there will be a time when it no longer exists. “We’re working towards irrelevancy. We’re hoping for a time when there are so many books in the world about Muslims that this imprint doesn’t make sense anymore.”
At this point in his career, it would be quicker to list all the places where you won’t find the work of Maz Jobrani. The Iranian-born comedian and actor can be seen on Netflix, with several comedy specials; at film festivals as the writer and star of Jimmy Vestvood: Amerikan Hero; and in bookstores with his best-selling memoir, I’m Not a Terrorist But I’ve Played One on TV: Memoirs of a Middle Eastern Funny Man. In addition, he is a regular panelist on NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! and performs stand-up comedy in venues around the world.
About the only place where you won’t see him these days is in the role of a terrorist. As an actor of Middle Eastern descent, most of the roles offered to Maz when he was just starting out were that of nameless, one-dimensional terrorists. Taking those roles, however, made him uneasy. It was just after 9/11, and the attacks on the World Trade Center, followed by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, created a hostile environment for Middle Easterners and Muslims in America. After playing a terrorist who is graphically killed by action star Chuck Norris, Maz decided to decline these types of roles.
“There were already enough negative stereotypes of Middle Easterners in film and TV,” he says. “I didn’t need to exacerbate that.”
Photo courtesy of Paul Mobley
Reading the work of Dr. Jack Shaheen, film scholar and author of Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, Maz realized that these roles had effects that extended beyond entertainment—and that demonizing people made it easier for politicians to create unnecessary wars and conflicts. “It’s easier to kill brown people if you convince the general population that they’re all savages,” he says.
Instead, Maz focused on his stand-up, hoping to use his art to combat negative stereotypes. He got his start at renowned venue, The Comedy Store in Los Angeles, when famed proprietor and scout Mitzi Shore put together a show called Arabian Knights in 2000. Shore had been following the Palestinian uprisings and thought that there was a need for positive Middle Eastern voices.
That need intensified after 9/11, and Maz, along with two other comedians from the show, Ahmed Ahmed and Aron Kader, broke off on their own and established the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour. The show featured comics of Middle Eastern descent riffing on post-9/11 prejudice and politics, and they traveled throughout the United States and the Middle East.
Although there was some pushback—including a death threat called into a club where the trio were scheduled to perform—overall the response was positive. “There seemed to be a big contingent of people who were looking to see comedians from Middle Eastern backgrounds,” Maz says. “A lot of people were sick of only seeing us depicted as terrorists, and they came out in droves.”
Even more exciting was witnessing the societal impact their comedy had: After their special was broadcast on Comedy Central, the group received messages from fans. “We [received] some positive emails from people telling us how much they had hated Middle Easterners after 9/11 but our special had reminded them that there are good people from that part of the world as well.”
In addition to providing new perspectives, the shows were also important for their offstage representations of Middle Easterners: “When I have a stand-up comedy special and you see Iranians or Arabs in the audience laughing, it shows Americans that we actually laugh. You don’t always see that in American mainstream media.”
Photo courtesy of Theo & Juliet
In the years since Maz decided to stop playing terrorists, there has been both progress and regress. Politically, he feels, America is even more antagonistic toward Middle Easterners and Muslims now than after 9/11. “I feel Trump has made it okay for people to lash out at others from that part of the world,” he says. “At least George W. Bush said that there are good people from there.”
In terms of authentic representations in media, however, Maz is optimistic. He points to comedians and writers such as Hasan Minhaj and Asiz Ansari, who give equal weight to their American and Muslim backgrounds. “Ultimately, as we have more young people from Middle Eastern [and Muslim] backgrounds entering the business, you will hopefully see a normalization of [those] people.”
But perhaps the biggest signifier of Hollywood’s growing acceptance of nuanced, characters from the Middle East was Maz’s recent role on the CBS sitcom Superior Donuts, which aired in 2017 and ran for two seasons. Set in a gentrifying neighborhood of Chicago, Maz—a vocal critic of President Trump’s policies on immigrants and Muslims—played Fawz, a successful Iraqi-born businessman and an avid Trump supporter.
Don’t leave the mosque by yourself. Stand away from the edge of subway platforms. Keep your phone charged and on you at all times. Ask if your mosque can host self-defense seminars.
Those are just some of the tips offered in the “Crisis Safety Manual for Muslim Women” on MuslimGirl.com, the website founded by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh. The child of a Jordanian immigrant and a Palestinian refugee, Amani grew up in the wake of 9/11, and the rise of Islamophobia during the 2016 presidential election was discomfortingly familiar.
“Media misrepresentation has magnified [our] differences in very divisive ways, and it’s resulted in real life-or-death consequences for marginalized communities,” Amani says.
This time around, however, Amani and her peers are better equipped—thanks in large part to Muslim Girl’s work in fighting harmful stereotypes and mobilizing young Muslims. “Millennial American Muslims grew up during the height of modern-day Islamophobia and age-old racism, and this time we’ve forged a new path to survive it,” Amani says, “especially in the 21st century, where we have access to the internet and social media.”
Photo courtesy of Denisse Garcia
When 9/11 happened, Amani was only nine years old, and the prevalence of Islamophobia in the 2000s took a toll on her self-esteem: She saw her parents threatened and harassed by strangers, and, fearful of bullying, she tried to hide her faith and heritage at school.
Then came a life-changing trip to her father’s homeland of Jordan. “Visiting the Middle East for the first time opened my eyes to the huge contrast between how the region was being depicted in Western media and the actual reality on the ground,” Amani says. “The people were so hospitable, generous, and kind, and I got to become acquainted with Islam in a society that actually practiced it. For the first time, I took huge pride in the identity that Islamophobia was forcing me to feel ashamed of all my life.”
At age 17, Amani created Muslim Girl for teens like her. What began as a small support group gained traction as readers across the world asked to join, and she organized a team of volunteer writers, editors, and designers to provide a diverse group of Muslim girls and women of different ethnicities, nationalities, and denominations a space online to discuss issues important to them.
After graduating from college, Amani turned her full attention to Muslim Girl. An initial round of seed investment in 2016 allowed her to pay, for the first time, the editors who had been with her for years; these days, the site works with a freelance team and writers’ network of over 70 women from around the world and logs approximately 100 million hits a year. It has built a reputation for tackling thorny issues—from gay imams to gendered Islamophobia and racism within Muslim communities—as well as lighter topics, such as cruelty-free beauty products and spring fashion trends for Ramadan.
The site has also become a platform for projects designed to empower Muslim women. It has partnered with Getty Images to create a stock photo collection showcasing diverse Muslim women, and with Orly to launch #HalalPaint, a collection of water-permeable nail polishes that allows practicing Muslims to perform wudu—a ritual ablution before prayer—while keeping their manicures on. And this past March marked the second Muslim Women’s Day, a social media initiative that celebrates and centers their stories.
With her outspoken and undeniably hip take on being Muslim in America, Amani has made a name for herself. At just 25 years old, she’s already a media mogul, having published a memoir, spoken at the White House, rung the NASDAQ Opening Bell, appeared in a Maroon 5 video, and been named to Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list. She has written for or appeared on outlets such as Teen Vogue, CNN, and BBC, and received honors from the Digital Diversity Network and NBC at SXSW.
Although the accolades are welcome, Amani’s driving motivation remains fighting Islamophobia and providing a space for young Muslim women to be heard and supported. “My biggest fear over the past election cycle was that another generation of Muslim children would have to grow up enduring what we went through,” Amani says. And while it’s daunting to witness another wave of intolerance and hate crimes across the country, she sees no other option but to speak even louder.
“In times like these, the best thing we can do for ourselves and our cause is to stay true to our voices and our experiences, no matter how much our voices shake.”