Skip to content Skip to footer

“I Am Not Who You Think I Am”: Muslim Artists Push Back Against Rising Islamophobia

Poetry and ceramics can fight stereotypes.

Alison Kysia with her ceramic installation, The 99. (Photo: Dejah Greene; Edited: LW / TO)

In late June, 22-year-old Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan — a third-generation Pakistani living in the United Kingdom — stood on stage at the Last Word Festival in Leeds and delivered her most recent ode: “This will not be a Muslims are like us poem/I refuse to be respectable,” she began. “Instead, love us when we are lazy/Love us when we are poor/Love us high as kites, unemployed, joy-riding, time-wasting, failing at school/Love us filthy, without the right color passport, without the right sounding English.”

Her presentation was delivered just two-and-a-half weeks after a van intentionally plowed into London Bridge, killing eight and injuring dozens, and Manzoor-Khan knew that, as a Muslim, she was expected to repudiate the perpetrator of this heinous assault. She didn’t. Rather, she paused for a few seconds, looked straight at the crowd, and delivered a searing denouement: “If you need me to prove my humanity, I’m not the one who is not human.”

Indeed, each time a Muslim is suspected of carrying out a terrorist attack, a gaggle of pundits and politicians trip over themselves to demand that the community issue an immediate denunciation. “Often times we feel we have to prove we’re innocent,” Zainab Chaudry, Outreach Manager at the Maryland chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations told Truthout. “It’s a constant balancing act but we try to help our members understand that the onus is not on us to prove our innocence. No one expects our Christian allies to condemn every hostile act or atrocity that is committed by a Christian. We work to expose the double standard so that we do not constantly have to respond to every incident.”

Despite these efforts, the idea that Islam is inherently violent, and its adherents dangerous, has been repeated so often that many US residents accept it as gospel. At the same time, this overt prejudice has pushed diverse Muslims artists, filmmakers, musicians, spoken-word poets and other writers — inside as well as outside of the United States — to create a stunning array of responses. Some, like Manzoor-Khan, work to challenge stereotypes while others are more conciliatory.

Whatever the approach, Chaudry acknowledges that they’re facing an uphill slog. In fact, there are more than 30 explicitly anti-Muslim groups now operating in the US, all of them pushing state legislatures to pass anti-Sharia bills to prohibit foreign law from being imposed in the US. In some cases, these organizations have also opposed the building of mosques, Muslim community centers and cemeteries, and have relentlessly labeled Islam as hostile to the domestic body politic. What’s more, CAIR has documented a 91 percent spike in the number of bias-motivated incidents during the first six months of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016. Worse, Chaudry concludes that if the trend holds, 2017 will be the most Islamophobic year in modern US history.

Rampant Harassment and Microaggressions

Some examples:

Even more commonplace are the near-daily microaggressions experienced by virtually every person who is identifiably Muslim. Freelance writer H. Handan Arikan, a resident of Istanbul, Turkey, describes the “cold stares” she received when visiting New York City. One incident remains particularly vivid. “I was walking near the Freedom Tower and saw a bus pull over with American visitors, tourists, from another US state. I am a hijaby so I knew I could be quickly labeled as ‘the other.'” Arikan recalls seeing a heavy-set man get off the bus and walk toward her and says that she immediately looked around for possible allies. “I saw a police car but that did not make me feel safe, either,” she says. “Then the guy stopped and, with a disgusted face, said, ‘How come you came here after you bombed the place?’ I was totally shaken and without saying anything, tried to keep calm and keep walking.”

Experiences like this are what motivated teacher and potter Alison Kysia to remove her hijab in 2015. “I wore hijab for 14 years,” she explains, “but I could not handle the anxiety anymore. I was called a ‘terrorist’ on the street. Someone approached me in the grocery store and told me I needed to dress like an American. When I was looking for a job I’d see faces transform when I walked in for the interview. It was crushing.”

Still, Kysia, author of A People’s History of Muslims in the United States: What School Textbooks and the Media Miss, has not been silenced. Instead, after her then-6-year-old son expressed fear of being killed after Trump was elected, she decided to create The 99, her first conceptual ceramic installation.

The 99 refers to the 99 names for God in Islam,” she says. “The pots are beautiful and capture the generative power of my faith in a defining way. Part of our tradition is Dhikr, which means remembrance…. The 99 is my way to say ‘hold on’ to other Muslims.” The pots — all of them made by hand, rather than on the wheel — are varied in size, shape and color; some shiny and bright, others muted. Their variety is a recognition, Kysia says, of each person’s individuality. “Islamophobia erases human differences and puts us all in one big category,” she says. “Furthermore, The 99 is a way to give non-Muslims an experience of Islam that is positive, that counters the pervasive idea that all Muslim women are oppressed and all Muslim men are violent.”

Kysia says that she is heartened by the positive reception that The 99 received when it was displayed in a post-Ramadan show in Baltimore. Nonetheless she admits that she sometimes becomes overwhelmed by the magnitude of racism and Islamophobia. That’s where art comes in. “The Project, which I envision developing to include two more parts — the second component will involve making drinking vessels imprinted with the things Muslims say about Islamophobia to each other behind closed doors, and a third component will capture the humiliation and sadness of Islamophobia, the ways it destroys people — reminds me that I can’t solve hatred by myself,” she explains. “I need others to work with me to create spaces for people to talk about the burning issues of the day, to strategize about ways to get people to see every single person as sacred.”

Using the Arts to Promote Understanding

The 99. (Photo: Dejah Greene)The 99. (Photo: Dejah Greene)

It’s admittedly an enormous mission, and while Kysia has been part of countless community-organizing and educational-outreach efforts over the last 20 years, she sees the arts as especially important, both for building solidarity among diverse groups of Muslims and for building interreligious understanding.

That idea is what motivated Aizzah Fatima, a Pakistani-American actress who grew up in Starkville, Mississippi, to write Dirty Paki Lingerie, a one-woman show that tells the stories of six Muslim women living in the US — children to elders. The hour-long production defies stereotypes, portraying characters who are neither terrorists nor the girlfriends of terrorists, something Fatima says is a marked departure from the roles she is typically offered by theater professionals.

Defying stereotypes also moved Tanzila Ahmed and Zahra Noorbakhsh to create a monthly podcast called “Good Muslim/Bad Muslim.” The show is for the Muslim community, Ahmed says, and is intended to “push back on the narrative that there is a good Muslim, someone who prays five times a day and is a doctor or engineer, versus the bad Muslim who doesn’t have a steady job, may drink, eat pork or do drugs.” Ahmed says that she and Noorbakhsh hope to overturn this oversimplification. “I go to punk shows,” she says, “but I don’t drink or eat pork. Am I a good Muslim? Our message is that we are not boxable. The podcast is very much about centering the narrative on our experiences, by us, for us.”

At the same time, Ahmed sees the arts “as a way to culture shift. Traditional political work can only do so much, but the arts can change the way people think about public policy by getting to their hearts and minds and touching them directly.”

CAIR-Maryland’s Zainab Chaudry agrees and notes that she has seen spoken word poetry increase audience empathy. “Spoken word is universal. It speaks on a very basic, very human level that transcends faith, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and politics. That’s its power. What ordinary words can’t communicate, music and spoken word can convey. At the same time, it speaks directly to the experiences of those who’ve been bullied, harassed or discriminated against and recognizes what they’ve been through.”

Music, she continues, does something similar. Post-Charlottesville, she says, people in and around Washington, DC, came together and sang “Lean on Me” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” songs that inspired unity and boosted morale. “Singing together encourages us to fight harder and challenge racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and bigotry more generally,” she concludes.

Other events, including film screenings, book signing, poetry readings, art exhibitions and concerts, are meant to bust one-dimensional portrayals of Muslim Americans and demonstrate the diversity and range of experiences that comprise contemporary Muslim life. Perhaps more importantly, such events introduce Muslims to communities that don’t routinely interact with them — a population Todd Green, author of The Fear of Islam: An Introduction to Islamophobia in the West, estimates, covers two-thirds of US residents.

Reaching Out Through Spoken Word and Poetry

“It is imperative to do outreach and go where there are few Muslims to correct the record and answer questions,” CAIR’s Zainab Chaudry says. Although she knows that hardened racists may not be reachable, she believes that exposure to Muslim artists can have a positive influence on those whose only exposure to Islam has been through movies, TV shows and news of terrorist attacks.

“I’ve seen youthful spoken word performers — usually first or second generation Muslim Americans — who can express ideas in ways other speakers can’t,” Chaudry adds. “They are directly and indirectly impacting not only the Muslim community, but immigrants, Jews, LGBTQ people and refugees by expressing how they feel about what is happening around them. They’ve been able to tap into what the Muslim community is feeling and repackage it in ways that reach the heart of interfaith audiences. It’s different than traditional poetry. Spoken word poets use graphic imagery which helps those who are listening empathize with their plight, concerns and passions.” Similarly, she notes, graphic artists — the folks who design posters, buttons, banners and even pussy cat hats — have helped people reassess the dominant narrative.

That’s not to say that there is no room for conventional artists, whether they are poets, writers of narrative fiction, or other types of creative forces.

Poet and teacher Zohra Saed, for example, is now compiling poems for a chapbook. A frequently published and award-winning writer, she says that she began writing to express her anger at being called Ms. L’Oreal Ghadaffy in middle school. Decades later, she continues, while pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Writing, she was instructed to focus on what she knew, an assignment that brought back memories of growing up Afghan American in 1980s Brooklyn, New York.

“Before 9-11 I never heard the term Muslim American,” Saed told me. “We were Iranian American, Bangladeshi American, Pakistani, Uzbek, Afghan American. No one and nothing was Muslim. I remember there were distinct mosques for each ethnic group. After 9/11 the backlash created community. Now writers identify as Muslim American, share resources, and write to vent about the toxicity we face due to Islamophobia. Some poets, of course, write about spirituality or nature, and some write about love, but others write as a form of protest, a way to say ‘Look, this is who I am; I am not who you think I am.'”

It’s a message that can’t be repeated too often. Trump, of course, has doubled down, expressing hateful rhetoric and egging on the racists, misogynists, anti-Semites and Islamophobes in our midst. But the fact that diverse artists are pushing back is both important and gratifying, something to celebrate in an increasingly grim political period.

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $45,000 in the next 7 days. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.