Changing Muslim narratives through pop culture

Adnan Khan, a Muslim journalist and writer, does not consider himself an activist.

But when the opportunity presented itself to be part of an all-Muslim team of creatives and professionals challenging Muslim stereotypes in pop culture society’s “common language” he simply had to seize it.

Sadia Zaman

“I (had) to say yes to it, because there’s lots of really interesting people in this cohort?doing work that’s really positive, that’s really going to benefit everybody,” said Adnan Khan, referring to the Changing Muslim Narratives Lab from the Inspirit Foundation.

Similarly, for Yazmeen Kanji, a Muslim impact filmmaker, it was a chance to show “the breath of Muslim experiences” beyond cartoonish depictions in movies like Aladdin or terrorist tropes in others like Rambo.

“We’re all programmed to see Muslims in a very specific way because of the media that we’ve been fed,” she says either as social ultra-conservative and culturally backwards; or desert-dwelling bedouin terrorists-in-the-making, a “monolithic” view which became that much more entrenched post-9/11.

“But now we’re at an age where Muslims have finally been able to get into positions in the media, so we need to listen to the people that are finally telling their own stories.”

Since August, the 17 creatives/professionals and three facilitators have been holding bi-weekly virtual meetings to find collective ways of smashing those stereotypes while exploring the question: “What does Muslim identity look like?”

But it’s more than just abstract conversations, says Sadia Zaman, the Foundation’s CEO. It’s building the physical infrastructure to allow these conversations to take place in the first place, which is crucial for systemic change to occur, she says.

“One of the foundational pieces of fighting systemic issues is actual infrastructure: you need to have something in place that allows people to come together before you could actually get to the next step,” she adds, noting that for most if not all of the cohort members “this might be their first time they’ve been in a room with other Muslim creatives in Canada.”

In February, the Black Screen Office released the Being Seen report, a first-of-its-kind look into the ways underrepresented communities see themselves affected by their (mis)representation on screen and about what it means to have “authentic and representative content.”

Yazmeen Kanji

Similarly to the Foundation’s Lab, the report found that “for many participants? this was the first time that anyone had asked them how they felt about what they were seeing on Canadian screens or any screens.”

“It was the first time they had met people like themselves and had conversations with other people who shared their concerns and their lived experiences. It was impactful and even sometimes life changing. They frequently saw more in common with each other than differences.”

After 400 interviews with a diverse group of marginalized communities, some of the main themes identified were missing complexity of storylines and characters; the importance of authentic casting and what can be done to achieve it; and the impact of poor or missing representation on Canadian audiences.

The lab is the first step towards that new world, with cohort members expected to come out of it with a better understanding of how to challenge current narratives in their own work while having an established network to help reach wider audiences each time.

More bluntly, the Lab is a first step towards taking the power back, Zaman says, by challenging the power dynamics that have perpetuated those stereotypes in the first place.

And yet, as Khan notes, “there’s no production company, no publishing house, no boardroom that has people of colour in several positions of power.”

Last November, the Canadian Association of Journalists released a groundbreaking report showing that “almost half of all Canadian newsrooms exclusively employ white journalists.”

Until that begins to change industry-wide, Khan says, narratives will remain at the whim of the largely white newsrooms.