Why artists of the Muslim world need to get on with the story

Many modern Muslims have decried creative endeavours such as music, filmmaking, acting and theatre as "un-Islamic".

Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National.
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During the time of the Prophet Mohammed, the storyteller was valued more than the swordsman. Through poetry and eloquence, the speaker used his artistry to weave words and rhyme like magic, often enthralling the audience as he used fiction and history proudly to narrate his tribe's triumphs and tragedies. Yet many modern Muslims have decried creative endeavours such as music, filmmaking, acting and theatre as "un-Islamic". However, the watershed victory of President Obama in 2008 ushered in a new generation comprising vibrant, progressive Muslim artists who use their talents to redefine a bold new vision of art. One that reclaims their hijacked heritage, restores dignity to Islam and Muslims, deconstructs stereotypes and uses art as a means to build bridges of understanding.

When the two towers fell in New York, they took with them the inhibitions of many fear-mongering and prejudiced Islamaphobes who were given a licence under the Bush era to publicly spew vitriol against Islam and Muslims as harbingers of terror and cultural stagnation. A narrative was immediately set, casting the protagonists as the West - a nebulous and nonsensical term referring to America and select parts of Europe - and the antagonists as Muslims and immigrants.

Unfortunately, Hollywood often tried progressive open-mindedness, but routinely failed, aside from the excellent Syriana starring George Clooney. In trying to portray Muslims positively, most mainstream Hollywood features can only muster depictions of Arabs against a backdrop of terrorism and extremism. It should surprise no one that a 2009 ABC poll revealed that 48 per cent of Americans don't hold a favourable opinion of Islam; more than 50 per cent don't know a single Muslim; and nearly 29 per cent believe mainstream Islam advocates violence.

However, because of the backlash against Muslims after 9/11, many Muslims renounced the traditional career path and opted for more challenging roles in the arts and media. Throughout history, marginalised groups and oppressed minorities have used art as a means to fight back against intolerance. The ingredients that fuel such sentiments are generally political - random profiling at the airport, for example - as well as a renewed respect for one's identity, culture and people. The phase that many Muslims went through from 2001 to 2007 was a necessary step for artistic evolution, as it contained righteous indignation against inequality, vocal affirmation for one's religious and racial identity, and healthy doses of political activism.

Around 2002, the world was introduced to Muslim comedy, as Preacher Moss, an African American convert to Islam and stand-up comedian, and Azhar Usman, a South Asian Muslim who was a licensed attorney, premiered their comedy show Allah Made Me Funny to sell-out audiences. In Canada, Zarqa Nawaz premiered her successful sitcom Little Mosque in the Prairie, which centres on a fictional Muslim community coexisting with non-Muslim neighbours. As a practising Muslim who covers her hair, Nawaz wisely followed in the footsteps of Bill Cosby, who revolutionised and humanised the depiction of African Americans with his landmark comedy show by portraying them as educated, affluent members of society.

Humour, however, is not the only vehicle for Muslims to reorient the dialogue with non-Muslims. Dr Naif Al-Mutawa decided Muslim children needed their own Batman and Superman and created "The 99", the first team of Muslim superheroes. Willow Wilson, an American convert to Islam, is the first Muslim comic book writer for a major comic company, DC, where she premiered her graphic novel, Cairo, depicting modern day Egyptian society as a chaotic yet tremendously vibrant Muslim society rife with religiosity, corruption, political instability, jinns and many, many shishas. Wilson also penned her honest and uplifting memoir Butterfly Mosque which chronicles her conversion to Islam and embraces - not demonises - both Muslims and the West as critical foundations for her spiritual journey.

Despite these numerous successes, some Muslims still demand all expressions of art be used as vehicles for dawah - a call and invitation to Islam. This myopic lens of viewing art and the world straitjackets many Muslim artists. Many artists I have talked to feel an undue pressure to make all their works halal, so to speak. No wonder Yusuf Islam made the wise decision to perform simply as Yusuf on his excellent new CD, Roadsinger, and remove the glaring emphasis away from his religion. His peaceful lyrics and soulful voice do all the talking instead.

Muslim art must open up to include rich and diverse voices who represent the gamut of the Muslim experience. Landmark events such as New York's Muslim Voices and Washington DC's Arabesque understand this initiative. They invite artistic talent from around the Muslim world in a desire to establish influential cultural dialogue that engages both Muslims and non-Muslims as audiences and financial supporters. These watershed cultural movements realise that the Muslim community, much like the world, is a vast and multicultural playground where not every artistic expression necessarily shines through traditional means. The artistic expression of Muslims should be more proactive and progressive and not solely focused on Islamic dawah.

For example, the Kominas, a Punjabi taqwacore punk band, sport mohawks and tattoos as they thrash on stage singing Suicide Bomb the Gap. Although they might appear un-Islamic, their music and lyrics are thoroughly informed by their upbringing as Muslims in America. Like a number of minority groups, Muslims often resent airing dirty laundry. Showing the warts and fissures of their communities is seen as shameful. However, so is the reality of honour killing, domestic abuse, racism, misogyny, and sectarian violence. By exposing these warts through honesty, humour and realistic, flawed Muslim characters, Muslims will cease feeling alienated and instead find empathy with audiences who can identify with their triumphs and tragedies.

It is with this intention that I wrote the play, The Domestic Crusaders, which is premiering on September 11 in New York. Described by one reviewer as "one of the first major Muslim American plays", it draws on the rich tradition of American and Muslim storytelling. The play takes place in modern day, post 9/11 America and features three generations of a Muslim American family who convene at the family home to celebrate the birthday of the youngest son, Ghafur. Throughout the day, the six members - all diverse, passionate and Muslim - reveal secrets and gain awareness as they struggle to assert their own identities and beliefs, while maintaining the thread that connects them to one another. None of the Muslim characters is perfect. They are flawed, hypocritical, judgemental, insecure and at times racist. They are also passionate, intelligent, humane, tolerant and colourful.

Following in the footsteps of Muslim artists past and present, a new generation seeks to voice the reality of the Islamic experience. In the US, we are trying to move away from focusing on 9/11 as a day of horror, and instead make it a day to recommit ourselves to national service. It seems a good day as well to open Domestic Crusaders in New York. We too suffered on 9/11, but that is not all there is to our story; our story is constantly being written, and sung, and acted, and performed.

Wajahat Ali is a writer, journalist, blogger and attorney. His work, The Domestic Crusaders, premieres on September 11 in New York. He blogs at www.goatmilk.wordpress.com