Katie Couric’s recent comments recommending a “Muslim Cosby show” to combat anti-Muslim bigotry has been decried by some as a naïve, simplistic remedy for the festering sore of Islamophobia in America. However, research and common sense in fact suggest that authentic and accessible American Muslim narratives can emerge as popular, effective tools of cultural diplomacy in helping bridge the divides between Muslim Communities and the U.S.
As an expert on cultural diplomacy and one of founding members of the Aspen Cultural Dialogue Group, a venture launched by the Aspen Institute in 2008, my research indicates the process towards radicalization and extremism is profoundly cultural. It depends less on economic and societal grievances, but instead relies heavily on ideas, beliefs, and an individual’s interpretation of reality.
It turns out that the picture that the media paint is a powerful influence on how we, as global citizens, view the world and our neighbors.
An accurate and nuanced depiction of the complex Muslim identity in the U.S. mainstream media remains relatively unseen on the television screens and unheard-of on talk radio. Due to daily incidents of unrest erupting in Muslim countries around the world, the caricature of “rage boy” — the popular image of the enraged, anti-American Muslim man prone to violence- continues to be the standard depiction of a religion with nearly 1.5 billion adherents. In certain Muslim countries, America is always shown as a war-mongering, imperial force waging a merciless campaign against all of “Islam” due to its ongoing war in Afghanistan, drone strikes in Pakistan, presence in Iraq and recent surge of bigoted, anti-Muslim rhetoric by certain politicians and pundits.
A historic Gallup poll reflecting the views of 1 billion Muslims worldwide showed that most Muslims admired American freedoms, democracy, and strong work ethic while only a minority condoned acts of terrorism. When asked what they resented the most about the U.S, the top of the list was the U.S.’ denigration of Muslims and Islam, as well as the portrayal of Muslims as extremists. A close second was concern about an American invasion or dominance. Optimistically, the poll also showed that Muslims distinguished between U.S. values and U.S. foreign policy.
However, across the Atlantic, nearly 60% of Americans say they do not know a Muslim and nearly 46% think Islam is a violent religion.
Over the past year, America and the world developed a brief, morbid fixation on the manufactured maelstrom of building an alleged “Ground Zero Mosque” — a building that is neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero. As mentioned in my study, co-authored with diplomacy expert Mehmet Celebi, “How to Improve the United States’ Image in the Muslim World,” the proposal has attracted protests from those who were enraged by the idea that anything having to do with Islam was going to be built so close to Ground Zero. One of the protesters held a sign that read: “All I need to know about Islam I learned on 9/11.” To many, it seems alien and unimaginable that “Islam” and “America” could co-exist on the same land, let alone have any shared values or commonalities.
Not to be outdone, a cartoonish Pastor in Florida was given front page news coverage for his aborted attempt to launch a “Burn a Quran” day. Coordinated protests unsuccessfully tried to stop constructions of mosques around America, most notably in Tennessee, where the American Muslim community has existed peacefully for nearly three decades. Right-wing bloggers and media pundits in America used examples of lone radicals, such as Nidal Malik — the disturbed Army officer who killed 13 soldiers in Texas — and failed bombers, such as Faisal Shahzad (the foiled NYC Times Square bomber) and Mohamed Osman Mohamud (Portland’s failed Christmas Day bomber), as proof of Islam’s homicidal war against the West and 1.5 billion Muslims’ innate tendency towards violence.
This narrative persists despite a comprehensive study undertaken by Duke University proving that the number of radicalized Muslim-Americans remains very small, and that “Muslim American communities have been active in preventing radicalization.”
On both sides of the cultural divide, certain extremist voices have hijacked national tragedies to promote their simplistic, black and white narrative where “the other” exists only as “the enemy” and all nuances, color and shades of gray are removed from the storytelling.
Amidst these poisonous stereotypes, however, exciting new narratives are emerging from a globalized generation that reflect the messy, complicated but successful co-existence of Muslim and Western cultures.
The six characters in Ali’s play, which takes place over the course of one day in modern, post 9-11 America, are all vivid, differentiated, and richly drawn individuals. They passionately — and often quite humorously — advocate their unique and contrasting ideologies while attempting to preserve the fragile thread of family in today’s politically sensitive and paranoid climate.
Ali’s characters bicker, laugh, complain, pontificate and discuss topical issues such as racial profiling, the War in Afghanistan, religious values and the importance of lamb biryani in a refreshingly honest, self critical and amusing manner reflecting the diversity of opinions that exists within Muslim communities.
But, the core of the play deals with their very common and universal issues that everyone struggles with on a daily basis regardless of religion or race — questions of identity, purpose, sibling rivalry, dating, and parental expectations. The globalized dialogue, which mixes slang, proper English, Urdu and Arabic, feels authentic and reflects the multicultural mosaic of modern America.
By creating real, complex human characters, who just happen to be Muslim and American, Ali’s play illuminates the beautiful thread of commonality that exists and is shared between two allegedly alien “cultures” that some incorrectly assume are destined to clash. The play is a rare cultural story that simultaneously satisfies both Muslim and non Muslim audiences and proves conclusively that being “Muslim” and “American” is not mutually exclusive.
Plays like The Domestic Crusaders and TV shows like The Cosby Show cannot shoulder the burden in magically erasing bigotry and the cultural divides that persist. However, these universal stories, in conjunction with active political and civic engagement, education, responsible and effective foreign policy, fair and balanced stories by the media, and successful partnerships with multicultural communities, can help eliminate fear and misunderstanding.
“It’s a crazy idea,” Katie Couric said of her “Muslim Cosby show” remedy. Considering the world we are living in today, perhaps we need more “crazy” ideas like having popular stories that show Muslims and Americans aren’t that different after all.
Azeem Ibrahim is a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and a Contributing Editor of The Islamic Monthly.