The media industry is experiencing a massive change. Gone are the days where news channels and websites were the only places to learn about the world. People crave personal connections. They swoon over stories of someone’s personal triumph over an exotic struggle. Right now – part of that exotic, intriguing, “trendy” and shitty struggle is being Muslim in #TrumpsAmerica. Shitty in the sense that -people shouldn’t have to worry about their headscarves being torn off from their heads while sitting on the bus to work, or being afraid to report something suspicious for fear of it backfiring and you being tagged as the criminal, or having to worry about your house of worship being set on fire in the middle of the night – other than, I love being Muslim. Most Muslims who “identify” as Muslim, love being Muslim. So much so, that it has now become a part of our daily interactions to teach people as much as we can about Islam – because the media is literally killing us.
I am blessed to know incredible people in the media industry who are working tirelessly to combat the negativity and dangerous rhetoric about Muslims that is being shoved down your throats by your favorite news channels and their agenda to instill fear inside everyone they possibly can. They use people’s fears based on ignorance (I mean that in the nicest way possible, really) to their advantages, producing story after story about the “Muslim terrorist” who they will convince you represents all 1.6 billion Muslims on this planet. Thankfully, we have people like Aymann Ismail – a photojournalist with Slate – who are brave enough to confront those media-instilled fears face-to-face, in his new #SlateSeries – Who’s Afraid of Aymann Ismail. And lucky for me and all of you, Aymann is a Jersey Boy through and through (New Jersians always unite), so he agreed to do an interview with us to help our readers learn more about why he felt the need for a series like his.
Before we begin, check out the trailer below…
MM: Tell our readers a little about your new show, Who’s Afraid of Aymann Ismail?
Aymann: Who’s Afraid of Aymann Ismail is a video series confronting fears of American Muslims by unpacking Islamic taboos that are used against us. Each episode will take a subject being used to demonize Muslims and add as much nuance as possible. The goal is to complicate aspects of American Muslim identity that have been oversimplified by both Muslims and non-Muslims to appeal to the lowest denominator. The premise is that nobody is right and nobody is wrong. Everyone’s perception is valid and is worth taking seriously. I won’t be studying the Quran or quoting Hadith, this series is strictly about the Muslim American experience.
What made you want to start this series and how long has it been in the making?
I’ve been working to produce this series with Jeffery Bloomer, who’s co-producing it with me, since the November that Trump got elected. Like a lot of people, I found myself depressed after Trump won and was questioning everything I thought I knew about this country. I felt this responsibility to be more vocal about my identity. With someone who’s said, “Islam hates us,” in the White House, it’s every Muslim American’s job to prove him wrong. So in thinking about why Islam is so misunderstood, I wanted to answer the questions people who hate us were asking. It’s easy to call someone a xenophobe. It’s harder to try and understand why someone feels that way, so we as a community can address it and hopefully move past it.
Everyone’s perception is valid and is worth taking seriously.
The title. I love it, but how did you come up with it and what does it mean to you?
Wow! Thank you! To be honest, this was a working title until we decided it was too late to change it. It was a joke at first, but after a while we all got tired of trying to think of something better.
You’ve traveled for this show, correct? How do you get people to agree to be a part of this and what are some of coolest or most frightening places you’ve been to for this in terms of “traveling while Muslim”?
Yup! We have a Google doc floating around somewhere with all the subjects I want to cover and who I think would be best to talk to about it. This isn’t a “GOTCHA” type series so it usually isn’t hard to convince someone to agree to participate. Once I get them on the line, it’s just a matter of describing the series. I wouldn’t describe it as frightening, but the most exciting place I’ve been to for this series was inside the home of Jim Hoft. He runs a website that’s popular in the alt-right fold. Over and over again it pops into my newsfeed with headlines like “Religion of Peace Strikes Again!” and “Creeping Sharia!” He was actually very polite to me and opened up about his fears. I really enjoyed our conversation, I have a feeling that he did too. I can’t help but wonder if he knew more Muslims, would his blog operate the way it does?
When meeting with your show guests, did you ever become fearful for your safety or uncomfortable? How did you handle that type of situation?
I’m not a woman in hijab so I usually don’t have to worry just walking down the street. My sister lives in a very progressive city and still has anxieties about wearing hijab in Trump’s America. But as a straight male, I can’t say that I’m a target. Also, I grew up in Newark, NJ so I’m definitely not afraid of white nationalists. But I’m also aware that that’s a luxury not afforded to every Muslim.
I got a sneak peek of your first episode, how do you keep your cool when people say such inflammatory things about you as a Muslim and criticize Islam as a whole?
That’s just part of the Muslim experience, right? Dealing with inflammatory people has been a constant my entire life. In high school, I was the only Arab Muslim around and got teased for it. But I was a teenager too so I’d clap back! I learned really early on that what I do will characterize a billion other people, so I calmed down and assumed an ambassador role in my neighborhood. I became hyper aware of my behavior and tried to compensate for the evil Muslims being broadcast in popular media.
The worst thing you can do is take insults personally because that’s how you give those words power. So I learned to take everything in stride. Also, it’s pretty gratifying to break through to someone who hates Muslims and get them to open up about what they are really afraid of. Then I can connect about what I’m afraid of, too. With a little patience, I create real, empathetic connections that grow into real and open conversations.
…What I do will characterize a billion other people
What audience are you trying to target with this series? How do you plan to make sure they see these episodes?
Literally everyone. Muslims, non-Muslim allies, anti-Muslims, activists, Muslims who hate Muslims, people who just don’t know any Muslims, everyone. Everyone’s reality is valid. The real challenge here is to drop the partisanship and have an honest conversation.
A big reason I want to include people who hate Muslims is to try and understand their experiences and simulate that mutual understanding on camera. That means if I want to reach someone who believes Islam cannot co-exist with the West, I need to share a chicken dinner with the champion of that idea and complicate their reality.
What’s some advice you have for people who are doing things like this under the radar – hoping to break the stereotypes about Muslims and expanding people’s views through peaceful conversation?
The way media works now, we can’t afford for any minority to sit and pray while things play out. Not just Muslims, either. Bad ideas about entire groups of people are brewing because those people aren’t being included in the conversation. So my advice, is to throw on some thick skin and shatter all echo-chambers. Don’t block ideas you disagree with. Engage and create a connection. Sure, not everyone can be reached, but that’s no reason to be invisible to each other.
I’m not an expert on this either, so holler at me if you’ve got advice for me, too. 😄
Is this a going to (hopefully) grow into multi-season show? How many episodes do you have lined up for Season 1?
I’m really lucky! So far there’s no cap to how many episodes will be produced, so I’m planning on producing as many as possible before I inevitably get shut down for calling Trump a piece of shit (shouts out Reza).
What types of people (race, religion, region of the US) can we expect to meet throughout this series?
Everyone and everyone, but given the nature of this show, a whole lot of Muslims and people who hate Muslims.
What’s your favorite episode?
So far, my favorite is the episode on Hijab. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s about my older sister and role model, Hebah. She’s taught me everything I know about identity so it was such a badass experience letting her school me on camera. She was very honest with me about why she made her decision to wear hijab and why she’s afraid to take it off. I think it’s the most effective episode in presenting nuance.
What’s the most important thing you hope your audience will take away from this series?
Honestly, if people watch this series and are confused by what they just saw, that’s a win. Each of these topics are loaded and there is no single correct answer. I think part of the problem is that there’s an expectation to find a correct answer. Considering every Muslim person’s experience is different, that’s impossible. So if someone who is either Muslim or hates Muslims watches this and thinks, “Wow, that’s more complicated than I was expecting,” that deserves a standing ovation.
Most importantly, how can we watch your new show and support its awesomeness?
Who’s Afraid of Aymann Ismail kicks off today with two episodes on homophobia and Ramadan. Check back to their YouTube or Facebook pages – or the Slate.com website – every two weeks for new episodes.
We got a hold of Episode 1 on homophobia for you guys and you can watch it below. Be sure to watch Episode 2 for a better understanding of Ramadan right after, and prepare for all of your preconceived thoughts about what you thought you knew about Muslims and Islam to be thoroughly and rightfully confused…