'Secret Life of Muslims': How video series took on rising Islamophobia in the US

The online series — which features both high-profile and ordinary American Muslims sharing their personal experiences of being Muslim in the United States — has clocked up millions of views since it premiered in November

Some of the stars of 'Secret Life of Muslims'. From top left: Omar Regan, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Iqbal Theba and Zahra Noorbakhsh. From bottom left: Dena Takruri, Reza Aslan, Linda Sarsour and Amani Al Khatahtbeh. Courtesy Smartypants
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Egyptian-American comedian Ahmed Ahmed found himself routinely typecast as a terrorist when trying to make it as an actor in Hollywood in the 1990s.

"I played a terrorist in the movie Executive Decision … I played a terrorist on the sitcom Rosanne … In a film called Steel Sharks, I played this evil Persian submarine commander," says the 47-year-old in the first episode of the Secret Life of Muslims online video series. "All my lines are like, 'I'll kill you in the name of Allah!'."

The hugely popular series is one of a number of projects harnessing the power of the internet to try to change the narrative about Muslims amid rising Islamophobia in the US. Others have launched on Facebook and Instagram, such as Muslim American Faces, where the photographer and filmmaker Heidi Naguib posts photos of Muslim Americans from all backgrounds, along with a caption sharing a little of their life story.

Secret Life of Muslims has clocked up millions of views since it premiered in November, a few days before the presidential election. In the intervening months, Donald Trump has been back and forth with the US courts over his plan to implement a travel ban on visitors from six Muslim-majority countries. And alongside this, the series has featured both high-profile and ordinary American Muslims talking about what Islam means to them and sharing their personal experiences of being Muslim in the US.

The series’ American Jewish director and executive producer, Josh Seftel, said his own childhood experiences with anti-Semitism made him feel compelled to do something to counter Islamophobia.

"As a Jewish kid growing up in upstate New York … I had experiences where I was called names, where people used to throw pennies at me sometimes and someone threw a rock through the front window of our home. And so, I felt a connection to the kind of discrimination that Muslims are facing in the United States," he told The National.

“I think that a lot of Americans don’t know, or think they don’t know, any Muslims. So my sense is that [for] a lot of people, [the experiences of American Muslims is] not something they think about, beyond what they see on the news. And what they see on the news are stories about terrorism … and things like that.”

“I felt there were other stories that needed to be told.”

Seftel, 49, first tried to get the project off the ground in 2011 but it wasn’t until the Islamophobic and xenophobic rhetoric of the 2016 presidential election campaign that he was able to secure financial backing.

“I think some good things have come out of [the campaign rhetoric], including people uniting together and people speaking about things that probably weren’t being spoken about enough in the past,” he said.

Ahmed Ahmed, who said most of his friends are Republican and “leaning on the right” politically, believes Islamophobia is a problem that is getting worse in the US.

“I was dealing with it mildly as a child … and then as I got older I moved to Hollywood and I felt true racism through casting, production,” said Ahmed, who was born in Egypt but grew up in the US. “And then 9/11 happened. So then it just got worse … And then Trump comes into office and just, that was the icing on the cake. He brainwashed America to become afraid of the Muslim religion.”

Read more: Meet the Muslims who support Donald Trump

Ahmed said part of the problem is that people in the US and Hollywood “are afraid of the Muslim voice because they’ve never really heard it, not from a positive place”.

Even his friends, he said, are accepting of him, but not really of the whole religion “because they don’t get a chance to see it in a positive light much”.

“So a web series like this … is a real breath of fresh air that really kind of exposes us, to humanise us, to make us assimilated, that we’re not some weird creature from another planet,” he said, adding that the series was a “courageous and, I guess, taboo, if you will, task to take on, coming from a non-Muslim”.

Some of the videos in the 15-part series are lighthearted and gently poke fun at ignorance about Islam, such as a “A beginner’s guide to hijabs”. It starts with women talking about the weirdest questions they’ve been asked about wearing headscarves — including “Do you shower in it?”

Others are more serious, such as the profile of a Bangladeshi immigrant who was shot in a retaliatory attack 10 days after 9/11, and later campaigned for his attacker to be saved from death row.

A recurring theme in the series is the need for better representation of Muslims in popular culture.

For Ahmed, art, culture, comedy, food, music, any sort of entertainment can be the best way of breaking down barriers between Muslims and other Americans and countering Islamophobia.

Read more: How Trump's victory came at a price for his Muslim supporters

It is “a great way to talk about being Muslim without having it coming across threatening”, he said.

“Politicians aren’t doing it [breaking down barriers], Muslim scholars are not doing it. Even Muslim leaders, it’s just not happening. Nobody wants to hear an old man stand on a podium and say, ‘We Muslims around the world need to educate other people about Islam’.”

In addition to the millions of views picked up by the videos, a Facebook account associated with the series has attracted more than 70,000 likes. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, not all of the feedback has been positive — some of the comments on the videos have been extremely Islamophobic.

“We’ve definitely gotten some hate,” Seftel said. “We’ve received a lot of very negative comments. But we’ve received far more positive comments … things like, ‘I have never met a Muslim before and I feel like I have now’.”

Following the success of the first series, Seftel said his production company is now in the process of raising money for a second.

“We feel like there’s still more work to do, there’s still more stories to tell, and we’re striving to do that,” he added.