Storytelling and Surveillance: The Precarious Public of American Muslim Youth
By Sangita Shresthova
The NSA apparently is spying on people by monitoring what apps they’re using. Damn son, for all the buildings I’ve blown up in Angry Birds, I wonder if I’ll get interrogated for being a ringleader of Al-Qaeda. — Aman Ali, January 27, 2014
In a Facebook status update, Aman Ali, an American Muslim comedian and storyteller, connected the popular mobile game Angry Birds to thoughts about surveillance and terrorism. At first glance humorous, Ali’s post also succinctly captures a key paradox that surfaced throughout our research on American Muslim youth and participatory politics: young American Muslims’ desire to express and connect through creating and sharing stories coexists with a climate increasingly defined by privacy and surveillance concerns. In his post, Ali reveals that like many of his 5,000 largely American Muslim Facebook friends, he is caught in a bind: he constantly juggles his desire to connect with others through social media with the awareness that his posts may be viewed (and possibly misunderstood) by audiences far beyond his intended networks. Acknowledging this reality may, in fact, be a key step toward overcoming its potential to silence voice and expression. Within three days, Ali’s Angry Birds Facebook post received 557 likes, while many people left comments on it that poked fun at the underlying situation. One commenter suggested that Ali use a BlackBerry as there are no apps available for the phone, hence (supposedly) safeguarding it from NSA snooping. Another commenter warned that Ali’s Facebook post now had so many keywords that it would certainly get flagged for official scrutiny. We might think of this Facebook exchange as a form of informal, collaborative storytelling, shedding light on the situations confronting American Muslims, while producing content that could be circulated across a supportive, yet fragile, network. Together, these humorous comments told a story of storytelling and surveillance.
Drawing on the work of storytellers, civic organizations, and comedians like Aman Ali, this chapter focuses on expressive initiatives by civically engaged American Muslim youth as moderate Muslim voices have struggled to be heard within an increasingly polarized discussion that has characterized American culture in the wake of 9/11. In particular, we highlight media making and storytelling as crucial dimensions of efforts by American Muslim youth to express, poke fun at, network, and mobilize around identity politics. We also point to ongoing in-person and online surveillance as a real obstacle for some young American Muslims, particularly those involved in contentious social justice campaigns. Such surveillance threatens an emergent American Muslim public, which often relies on dark humor as a coping mechanism. Exploring both the possibilities and vulnerabilities of participatory politics in the American Muslim youth context, we argue that these American Muslim youth networks are perhaps best seen as striking a precarious balance between vibrancy and fragility, empowerment and risk, and voice and silence, which as our introductory discussion of “precarious publics” in Chapter 1 suggested, relates to the gap between voice and influence.
To be clear, the expressive efforts, projects, and practices we describe here do not map directly onto easily identifiable political objectives. In fact, many of the American Muslim youth efforts we encountered were not conceived as explicitly (or even implicitly) political. Nonetheless, they often assume political meanings as they circulate and reach broader audiences. As filmmaker Bassam Tariq has sadly noted, “things tend to get political” when “Muslims come into the conversation in America.” Whether they see themselves as political or not, young American Muslims are often asked to “represent,” speak on behalf of, and even defend Islam as a religious practice whose tenets are compatible with the values and ideologies of the United States. Laila Shaikley (2014), one of the creators of the short online video “Mipsterz—Somewhere in America,” felt this situation left many American Muslims “wounded, marginalized, reactive, and defensive,” circumstances she attributes to the fact that they are “underrepresented and misrepresented in the media.” As Shaikley suggests, American Muslim youth operate in an extremely politicized post-9/11 climate where much of what they do as American Muslims could potentially be interpreted as having political meaning. In this context, activities (like telling personal stories and faith-based, identity-related expression) that would not necessarily be read as political among other communities do extremely important work in the American Muslim case as they coexist with more established advocacy efforts. Also, cultural efforts that aim to foster more grassroots expression become politically charged, which is why our study of American Muslim communities highlights activities that, at first glance, reside predominantly in cultural realms.
This chapter draws on Sangita Shresthova’s two-year research of civically active youth, groups, and networks connected to the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and Muslim Youth Group (MYG) of the Islamic Center of Southern California (ICSC). Founded in 1986, the Muslim Public Affairs Council is an advocacy organization that, according to its website, strives for the “integration of Islam into American pluralism, and for a positive, constructive relationship between American Muslims and their representatives.” While its agenda often aligns closely with other American Muslim advocacy organizations, MPAC is distinct in its ongoing focus on public opinion and media. Yaida, a young American Muslim woman we interviewed, saw MPAC as “a really press-oriented organization” that “reacts quite quickly to what’s going on through social media.” MPAC’s most prominent youth programs are the annual Young Leaders Summits, which bring together young American Muslims who are, or want to be, involved in journalism, entertainment, and civic engagement. While each summit is thematically specific, they all focus on strengthening participants’ abilities to communicate and network effectively. Participants also explore the similarities and differences in their experiences as American Muslims. In doing this, they often connect through a shared knowledge of popular culture as they discuss TV shows, popular religious sites (like suhaibwebb.com), and content created and shared through social networking sites by other American Muslims, including hip hop artist Omar Offendum’s latest music video, different ways to tie the hijab featured on hijab-modest-fashion YouTube channels like YaztheSpaz, and the latest comedy video posted on GoatFace Comedy (a youth-run online comedy channel). After the summits end, participants stay in touch through an MPAC-supported Facebook group, webinars, email list, and annual in-person reunions.
An informal space for high-school-aged youth to gather, the mixed-gender Muslim Youth Group resides within the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles. Founded in the 1970s, ICSC explicitly strives to engage diverse Muslim communities and according to its website promotes a “socially responsible Muslim-American identity.” During Shresthova’s research, MYG ran weekly meetings that provided high-school youth with social opportunities alongside their spiritual education. The MYG Facebook page, explained Hasina, a 17-year-old youth leader,
is like the heart of [our] youth group I think. What is the heart of every teenager’s life? Our youth group does cater to teenagers. So we have a Facebook page.… Some of them [the youth] do not come to youth group anymore, but there are some that can still be in touch with this youth group or there are just kids who have necessarily lived farther away, but they can still know what is going on in the community.
In 2012, MYG discussions often involved media, as the youth discussed news, watched online videos, debated anti-Muslim perspectives, and accessed religious websites during the session.
Both MPAC and MYG were founded through the ICSC, and MPAC staff are closely involved with the programs run by the youth group, whose members in turn help out with MPAC events. Both organizations attribute their ideological underpinnings to Dr. Meher Hathout, a recently deceased physician of Egyptian descent and one of the Islamic Center’s founders. Like Dr. Hathout, MPAC and MYG strongly assert that American Muslims need to accept being American as much as they claim their religious beliefs. In Dr. Hathout’s words, “Home is not where my grandparents are buried; it is where my grandchildren will live.”
In the course of Shresthova’s research, she interviewed 30 young people involved with MYG and MPAC activities who came from a range of ethnic backgrounds, including Arab American, South Asian American (Pakistani and Indian), and African American. She attended MYG’s weekly meetings for six months, participated in three MPAC Young Leader Summits in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., during the summer of 2012, and conducted 15 expert interviews with American Muslim youth community leaders. Shresthova also connected to American Muslim youth networks online to explore how new media complements, and expands upon, face-to-face encounters.
Post-9/11 American Muslim Youth and Precarious Publics
“I didn’t realize it was so big,” Walidah, a young American Muslim woman from the Midwest, almost whispered as she circled the noisy construction site at Ground Zero. Walidah had come to Manhattan to participate in MPAC’s June 2012 Young Leaders Media Summit. She took several pictures with her cell phone, her expression distraught and pensive. Standing in the atrium of a building newly constructed next to Ground Zero, she discussed how 9/11 had changed American Muslims’ lives, what it meant to her in 2001, and what it means more than ten years later. Like Walidah, several MPAC summit participants had not visited Ground Zero before. Their vivid memories of 9/11 were shaped by mediated images and their parents’, friends’, and teachers’ frightened reactions. Despite clear differences in their individual recollections, the youth all agreed that 9/11 had a lasting impact on their lives. For the older youth (in their mid- to late twenties), the aftermath of 9/11 brought the realization that American Muslims were going to need to organize around their faith-based identity in ways that moved beyond the ethnic and sectarian divisions that had dominated Muslim civic communities until then. Other, mostly younger, participants saw 9/11 as the moment when they realized that no matter whether they embraced it or not, they would have to engage with being American and Muslim as an incredibly politicized identity. They also spoke about “fear” as a key dimension of their post-9/11 experience.
Many of the American Muslim youth we interviewed shared experiences of anti-Muslim prejudice growing up in America, which confirmed the findings of other studies of this population. A survey of American Muslim youth conducted by Selcuk R. Sirin and Michelle Fine (2009) found that “88 percent of the participants reported having been subjected to at least one act of discrimination because they were Muslim” (87). Reflecting on these realities, Sadia, a young Pakistani American, sighed and observed, “It’s been 11 years since 9/11.” Sometimes she felt like “[w]e really moved past that and we made a lot of progress.” Other times, she was not so sure. She recounted an incident that happened to her in New York City:
I was in New York with two other girls. We were walking and there was kind of a crowd and they wanted people to move or whatever and someone called out to us, “You terrorists!” because one of the girls was wearing a headscarf. And I was just like, “Wow. Really? You would stoop that low?” I come from a conservative Texas town so if something like that happens there or in another conservative town, I wouldn’t have been as surprised. But seeing as it was New York, I was like, “Really?” Apparently, there are still real problems there and they are really hard to overcome. It’s very frustrating when like something like 9/11 happens and there’s a few radicals who say, “Yeah, we’re Muslims that’s why we are doing this,” and everyone believe them. Whereas, the guy who flew the plane into a building in Austin because he was mad at the IRS and no one’s like, “Wow, Christians are horrible because of that.”
According to a 2011 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 55 percent of the American Muslim respondents to a 2011 said they felt that living as an American Muslim had become “more difficult” since 9/11. Twenty-five percent reported that their local mosque had been the “target of controversy or outright hostility.” Despite the high level of animosity toward American Muslims suggested by these data, the same study found “no indication of increased alienation or anger” among American Muslims toward the United States.
Many analysts attribute the degree of hostility indicated by these surveys to sustained anti-Muslim campaigns by groups affiliated with people such as prominent anti-Islamization campaigner Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, who argues on her Atlas Shrugs website that “[t]he U. S. Constitution is under attack from Fundamentalist Islam and Shariah, Islamic Religious Law. Fundamentalist Islam wants Shariah to replace the U. S. Constitution and fundamentally transform America.” The potential dangers of such extravagant rhetoric and the cultural climate it supports were underscored on December 27, 2012, when Sunando Sen, a man of Indian origin, died after being pushed under a New York City subway train. After she was charged with the crime, Erika Menendez, who is reported to have suffered from mental illness, was quoted as stating , “I pushed a Muslim onto the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims[. E]ver since 2001 when they put down the twin towers I’ve been beating them up” (Santora 2012). News of the murder spread through American Muslim youth networks and followed on the heels of the debate surrounding a series of “Stop Jihad” ads in subways and on buses paid for by Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative. Sen’s death was often linked in online discussions to other hate crimes like the Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin and the defacement of nine mosques across the United States that occurred during Ramadan in 2012. The youth shared such news stories, warning their peers to “be careful” and “be safe.” Aliyah, a young activist, observed:
A lot of Muslims, in general, live in a state of fear....Then other people are like, “What are you afraid of?” It just leads to more uncomfortableness and people not being able to relate to each other.
Rubiyah, another young woman we interviewed, concurred with Aliyah. She shared that she lived in “fear” because of the open expressions of hostility she and others had experienced (two men had recently pointed their fingers at her husband, pretending to shoot him, as he walked out of a Sam’s Club). News stories of hate crimes in Arizona, where Rubiyah lives, weighed heavily on her every day. Reflecting on this climate of fear, Muin, a high school sophomore, pondered the term “terrorist” during his interview. He paused for a few minutes as he considered where the term originated and how it came to be so linked with American Muslims before concluding it was because of 9/11.
As Sunaina Marr Maira (2003) observes, “9/11 led many youth from Muslim American families to engage with their Muslim identities with a new intensity, with varying trajectories emerging.” In one of these trajectories, documented in Nazli Kibria’s (2007) study of Bangladeshi youth and Nadine Naber’s (2005) research on young Arab Americans, youth are now shifting toward privileging a hyphenated Muslim identity over their ethnic background, leading to what Maira describes as a “self-conscious production of and engagement with ‘Muslim’ identity.” In their analysis, Ewing and Hoyler (2008) find that the foundations of this practice have
been developing for decades.… , many young Muslims link the emergence of their own intentional identity as a Muslim to the aftermath of 9/11 and the war on terror. (82)
In another study, Selcuk R. Sirin and Michelle Fine (2009) argue that American Muslims experience “hyphenated” identities that are “at once individual and collective, conscious and unconscious, filled with pride and shame, politically shared, and wildly personal” (194–195). The youth we interviewed identified strongly as both American and Muslim, referring to themselves as “American Muslim,” making a strong claim for a distinctly American practice of Islam.
As she reflected on the past 11 years during our 2012 interview, Aliyah, who was a high school sophomore in 2001, suggested that the security measures, public perceptions, and reactionary attitudes toward Islam actually “galvanized a really large part of the [American] Muslim population; the Muslim youth who were in college then provided mentoring to the people that were in high school.” She continued:
So, you’re kind of still seeing that generation and the generations following it pursuing the code of activism and civic engagement....There were definitely people that were active before that but as a whole, the community was very insular....[After 9/11,] I feel like that’s when our community realized like, “Hold on. We need to get active. We need to do things because if not, we’re screwed.”
Maira (2003) proposes that such civic engagement may take several forms, including “greater involvement in electoral politics,” “progressive activism and grassroots politics,” and “outreach to non-Muslim communities.” We find that American Muslims take “action” through an even broader range of activities, many of them situated on the cultural end of the spectrum of participatory politics. Young American Muslims use social media to establish and maintain networks. They turn to their networks to share stories they create and appropriate. At times, they also mobilize these networks to achieve civic goals.
“Precarious publics” may be the right theoretical frame in which to understand this emergent American Muslim movement. We defined a precarious public as “one where there is a considerable gap between voice and influence.” In such circumstances, youth have to weigh the perceived benefits of participation against the obstacles and possible risks. Our notion of precariousness owes much to Mary Gray’s (2009) research on queer and LGBT youth in rural America. Gray harnesses Jurgen Habermas’s seminal theorization of the “bourgeois public sphere” as an autonomous space where public opinion can be formed. She also incorporates feminist scholarly critiques of a universalized public sphere. In particular, Gray builds on Nancy Fraser and Michael Warner, who pointedly demonstrated that Habermas’s conceptualization overlooked the existence of multiple (counter)publics that have been and will continue to be sites of contention that blur boundaries between what is private and what is public. Extending those critiques, she proposes the notion of “boundary publics,” which she defines as “iterative, ephemeral experiences of belonging that circulate across the outskirts and through the center(s) of a more recognized and validated public sphere” (92–93). Through her ethnography of the Highlight Pride Alliance (another HPA), Gray argues “boundary publics” reveal “a complex web of relations that is always playing out the politics and negotiations of identity” (93). As such, they are “at once within and just beyond the reach of conservative elites attempts to” claim control.
Boundary publics, according to Gray, manifest both in everyday face-to-face and online spaces. She recounts the HPA youth “performing drag” in the Springhaven, Kentucky, Walmart, the only business that stays “open 24 hours within an 80-mile radius,” as a “rite of passage for those entering the local gay scene” (97). At the same time, she describes an incident at the Walmart where the youth were slandered by a hostile and verbally aggressive peer to the point that they had to leave the store. The rural youth described in Gray’s study encountered analogous “opportunities and challenges” online. She finds the internet gave them access to experiences unavailable “in their daily life,” but it also brought “risk of exposure” (127–130). As a consequence, they found themselves putting up or removing online content depending on the emotional and political climate in their geographically local communities.
Gray’s “boundary publics” are crucial to our analysis of American Muslim networks as precarious publics; her analysis helps us to identify similarities between the conditions faced by American Muslim youth and rural LGBT youth, despite crucial differences in the lived experiences of these communities and networks. For the rural queer youth in Gray’s study, “authorized access to public space is fragile” (94–95). The same can be said for American Muslim youth, who struggle to find spaces to connect with other like-minded youth. Whether they are face-to-face or online, these spaces are crucially important to both communities. For the LGBT youth, shutting down such gathering places threatens their emergent community’s existence. American Muslim youth negotiate very similar circumstances. On one hand, American Muslim youth recognize the potential of new media to connect to others. They value the open conversations they conduct through these networks. They nourish these connections by creating and circulating media—literally working through “any media” available. At the same time, they weigh these opportunities against the possibility that online expression may attract unwelcome scrutiny, placing them at risk. During the course of our research, the pendulum on these considerations shifted several times in response to current events. For example, we witnessed how the youth decreased their activities when the Associated Press released a Pulitzer Prize–winning report revealing that the New York Police Department authorized and executed widespread surveillance of American Muslim communities and organizations (including campus-based Muslim student associations) in the tri-state area. We saw the pendulum swing the other way when storytelling projects (like 30 Mosques) by young American Muslims inspired the youth in our study to also find ways to communicate about their experiences.
Such shifts indicate these post-9/11 networks are indeed “precarious,” as young people weigh concerns around what information, perspectives, and experiences they can (and should) share with others. Some things that might be expressed in an enclosed space become more risky when subject to context collapse. Understanding how young people resolve such issues is key to understanding which youth can deploy the public communication channels that Kahne et al. (2014) see as integral to participatory politics. In Democracy Remixed, which focuses on the political lives of “young black people,” Cathy Cohen (2010) highlights both “structure and agency” as crucial dimensions that determine the choices and circumstances of young people’s (political) lives (11). As she reflects on the surveys and interviews she conducted with black youth, Cohen observes that “the importance of structure in shaping their lives was undeniable, but they never let me discount the control they had over their own lives, however limited” (13).
Similarly, the young American Muslims we interviewed shared their determination to navigate expression in a climate where the odds are often stacked against them. The media these youth created, the networks they fostered, and concerns they articulated have much to teach us about both the opportunities and challenges of participatory politics for an emergent, marginalized American Muslim youth community. For example, American Muslim youth efforts highlight that the ability to contribute to and shape narrative is crucial to the construction of shared identities. These activities also show that access to social networking platforms and media sharing practices is helping to shift control over the construction and circulation of political identities from the few to the many. Much as Cathy Cohen sees black youth “holding a precarious position within our nation” (13), we find that American Muslim youth engagement with participatory politics is fragile, yet significant. The discussion of young American Muslims in this chapter also connects to the obstacles and challenges faced by undocumented youth involved in the DREAM movement discussed in Chapter 5.
Circulation: The Life Force of American Muslim Youth Networks
The young people involved with MPAC and MYG tended to see them as exceptional organizations: both meet American Muslim youth where they are at, rather than asking them to conform to agendas and priorities created for them by community elders. As one respondent bluntly put it, MPAC doesn’t “shove religion down your throat.” Through their activities, MPAC and MYG also connect youth to a vibrant and dispersed network that shares updates and creative media and stages important and substantive debates about what it means to be Muslim and American.
To be clear, in addition to a large number of Islamic centers around the country, there are also several well established organizations that advocate for American Muslim issues, including the Muslim American Society (MAS), Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and Muslim Student Association (MSA) National. Most of these organizations operate on a national level with dispersed regional and local branches. With the exception of MSA National, which is completely youth oriented, these organizations often focus on youth through programs that are fairly conventionally structured, with the central bodies assuming most of the responsibility for organizing and guiding events and activities. Reflecting on this situation, Reyah, a youth activist, saw a disconnect between what young American Muslims want and the programs these organizations offer. She wished that the leaders of these national groups would more often “sit down and have conversations with young people and ask them what it is that interests them” rather than assume that they know what they need. She wanted more programs that are created by young people, not just for them. She explained that Imams and heads of organizations say, “We need to get our youth to vote, to become informed voters and do all these things,” even as “no youth” have a seat “at the table” where this discussion is taking place.
Ahmed Eid’s forthcoming Unmosqued documentary explores the generational conflict inside American Muslim religious institutions, where older (usually first-generation) immigrants insist on holding on to traditions and values from their past rather than allowing younger people to explore what their faith means to them. In December 2013, another filmmaker, Ali Baluch, described to Huffington Post how even prayer can become a site of conflict between younger and older worshippers in American mosques:
You want to worship and be in a great environment, you’re constantly bothered by this religious police who are saying you’re not praying the right way. Instead of guiding you the right way, they’re just scaring you away. (Hafiz 2013)
Unmosqued grapples with the reality that many young American Muslim youth seem to be drifting away from brick-and-mortar Islamic centers. Imam Shamsi Ali asks: “Where is the young generation?” He then answers his own question: “They are moving away, and they are not coming back.”
Our and other research (see Khan 2014) suggests that many young American Muslims are employing new media to find each other, explore their faith, and discuss topics their mosques and other formal American Muslim organizations may not condone. Kadir, a digital media consultant we interviewed, explained that such new media spaces represent “a great alternative to the sort of institutional structure that exists within the Muslim community today.” He also noted that online spaces are often where “great intellectual conversations” happen among young American Muslims:
Anonymity [online] helps because you can have a more open conversation than you would have if you knew this was a person who was part of an institution....In that sense, you can have those uncomfortable conversations that you can’t have within an MSA or a mosque, where it may cause reactions and people may get offended and leave.
For some interviewees, this “free for all” atmosphere distinguished online forums from more institutionalized settings with limited opportunities for debating controversial topics (including homosexuality, sexuality, and religion).
Sharing media, with or without political dimensions, was crucial to maintaining these networks. The media youth shared included news reports on current events (like Michelle Bachman’s accusations against Huma Abedin and other Muslims in government that surfaced in July 2012), religious materials (motivational quotes from the Qu’ran), faith-based lifestyle topics (photos of food during Ramadan), and popular culture debates (the controversy surrounding whether or not young American Muslims chose to watch Zero Dark Thirty; see Hussein 2013). Abu, a young man we interviewed, noted his uses of social media skyrocketed during the “Arab Spring” when he was on Twitter for “almost 15 hours of the day.” Leyla, a MYG leader, explained that she often asked people to follow what she posts by saying something like: “Hey, guys, read this article. Check this out!” She also often tried to “spark a debate” around American Muslim issues by posting content with a question like: “Hey, what do you guys think about this?” Circulation of popular culture and news stories thus became an activity that sustained, nourished, and deepened connections within American Muslim youth networks. Such circulation echoes the observations of Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green (2013), who describe “the public not as simply consumers of pre-constructed images but as people who are shaping, sharing, reframing, and remixing media content in ways that might not have been previously imagined.” Jenkins and his collaborators also stress the importance of “larger communities and networks” that “spread content well beyond their immediate geographic proximity” (2).
American Muslim networks, sustained through ongoing processes of media circulation, have what Ethan Zuckerman (2015) describes as a “latent” capacity for political action. Importantly, “latent” in this case does not imply that these networks are, in any way, dormant. On the contrary, networked American Muslims were able to mobilize because they were already actively engaged in largely cultural exchanges. Networks normally sustained through the exchange of funny stories, music videos, and cute cat pictures, Zuckerman suggests, can quickly move into political action when required.
As an activist with experience in both traditional and networked activism, Aliyah confirmed that she is “very invested” in social media “platforms” that help her to “garner support,” “mobilize people,” and “raise awareness” around issues like humanitarian concerns related to American Muslims and Muslims around the world (in Syria, for example). She referred to suhaibwebb.com (n.d.), known as the “virtual mosque,” which—according to its self-description—“seeks to bridge orthodox and contemporary Islamic knowledge, bringing to light issues of cultural, social and political relevance to Muslims in the West” as an example of an online space where “you’re educating, you’re informing, you’re allowing diverse opinions to be shared.” Through her description of her efforts as an activist, we can see how Aliyah connects two complementary models of engagement: Ethan Zuckerman’s “latent” capacities and Roger Hurwitz’s (2004) “monitorial” citizenship. As touched on in Chapter 2, Hurwitz argues that in a world where the ideals of the “informed citizen” are increasingly challenged due to the complexity of issues and the proliferation of news sources, people depend on each other to alert them to topics that require urgent attention (104). Young American Muslims’ ongoing use of new and social media as a way to connect, share, and debate topics that may not be explicitly political builds “latent” capacity to mobilize toward political goals should such a crisis arise. Such circulation prepares the ground for those “monitorial” moments when, as Hurwitz explains, “politics comes to life” because of “great dissatisfaction with a current state of affairs and finds expression in ad hoc protest movements.” While often organizationally “ephemeral,” Hurwitz’s monitorial citizenship relies on “volunteers who foresee some national … crisis” (108). Functioning as crucial nodes, these volunteers not only “monitor” situations, they are also connected to networks that allow them to respond quickly, often bypassing more established organizational structures.
Building on the work of Foot and Schneider (2002), Jennifer Earl and her research collaborators (Earl et al. 2010) differentiate between scale change and model change paradigms. In the scale change paradigm, the internet “accentuates” or “accelerates” activism, but does not fundamentally change core logics and methods of organizing. The model change approach posits that “some uses of the Internet may actually change the dynamics of activism in important ways” (426–427). American Muslim responses to triggers signal important model-changing dynamics—new media allow activists to work around hierarchical processes that may retard or block grassroots mobilization. In other words, networked communication allows American Muslim youth to bypass complex and historically fragmented organizational structures in moments that call for quick and efficient action around current issues. Such mobilization is enabled through preexisting, but previously politically “latent” networks. Kadir offered a perspective on this “model change”:
The institutions...(the mosque and the MSA and the national organizations...) have a lot of baggage (cultural, sectarian and ideological). The [American Muslim] community is very fragmented as a result of it. For people who want to get work done, going through institutions is very problematic on certain issues....[For a] very quick response and grassroots organizing, I find it very tempting to resort to new media.
The circulation of media becomes the life force of these new media networks.
Storytelling: Taking Control of the Narratives
In 2009, Bassam Tariq and Aman Ali (the author of this chapter’s opening quote), two young American Muslims with a shared faith and curiosity, embarked on a storytelling adventure they called the 30 Mosques project. They visited different mosques in New York City during each night of Ramadan and blogged about their experiences at 30mosques.com. Their journey took them to various parts of the city—from the Masjid Khalifah established by Malcolm X and other Nation of Islam members over 50 years ago in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood to the recently opened Harlem Islamic Center. Their narratives ranged from the everyday, as they documented what food they ate, to the poignant, as they stood outside a mosque that had burned down due to faulty electrical wiring. As the Ramadan stories accumulated, there emerged a more diverse picture of Muslim experience in New York City. Their blog readership skyrocketed as their stories circulated through social media networks, with the most popular posts receiving more than 9,000 comments. Before Ramadan ended, 30 Mosques had been featured on NPR twice. The stories Ali and Tariq collected contributed to, and also inspired others to join, a growing but dispersed storytelling movement that seeks to counter stereotyped perceptions through the circulation of narratives about the lived experiences of diverse groups of American Muslims.
30 Mosques inspired several similar projects. One of them was Breakfast@Night, a Ramadan photo project launched by MYG youth in 2011 under the guidance of the group’s coordinator at the time, Soha Yassine. Jihad Turk (forthcoming), president of the Bayan Claremont graduate school for Muslim scholars, defined Breakfast@Night as a young people’s “response to daily bombardment … of either negative images about Islam or images that represent Islam as a foreign religion.” To Turk, the MYG youth “decided to take the initiative to represent themselves,” rather than have others speak on their behalf.
Breakfast@Night, 30 Mosques, and other projects involving participatory storytelling, defined here as a “collective activity in which individuals and groups contribute to the telling, retelling, and remixing of stories [or narratives] through various media platforms” (Brough and Shresthova 2012), are examples of an important mode of expression for American Muslim youth, giving them a voice and the opportunity to share their own experiences. Discussing the importance of storytelling on his blog, Wajahat Ali (2012), a playwright who self-identifies as an “accidental” American Muslim activist, observes:
The future of Islam in America has to be written by Muslim Americans who boldly grab hold of the conch and become heroes of our own narratives. We can no longer exist in culturally isolated cocoons or bury our heads under the sand waiting for the tide to subside on its own. We must follow the traditions and values of Islam and America by being generous and inviting with our narratives. We must tell stories that are “by us, for everyone,” thus accurately reflecting the spectrum of shared common values that exist simultaneously within the Muslim and American spirit.
While the stories that young American Muslims shared at times tapped existing popular culture content worlds, similar to the ones described in our discussion of the Harry Potter Alliance in Chapter 3, they often drew more explicitly on personal experience as a point of entry into narrative creation. In fact, many youth felt that existing mainstream popular culture content worlds failed to adequately reflect their experiences as American Muslims. They turned to storytelling to counter this absence and increase visibility for themselves and others like them. Over time, their projects accumulated a grassroots content world of collected stories that the youth could leverage to talk about shared experiences and imagine other possibilities for their futures. In a climate where the compatibilities and conflicts of an American and Muslim identity are actively debated, storytelling assumes two important functions. Firstly, stories articulate diverse American Muslim experiences rather than falling back on the same limited and limiting sets of stereotypes that the youth found pervasive in the content worlds of mainstream media. Instead of being forced into a stereotypical role, these youth shared stories as they imagined a collective, but not homogeneous, identity in American society. Secondly, the circulation and discussion of stories supports and nurtures loosely connected, heterogeneous, yet in some ways cohesive networks that may become a counterpublic that mobilizes civic or political action. American Muslim storytelling does important political work precisely because it evades (or, as in the case of 30 Mosques, intentionally rejects) easy insertion into dominant narratives and existing political frameworks.
Some of the interviewed youth actively contributed American Muslim stories by creating, appropriating, and remixing content. Others were aware of such efforts and had circulated stories across their networks. Whether they told their own stories or shared others’, these expressive practices have much to teach us about the ways storytelling bridges cultural experiences and political concerns. As Francesca Polletta (2009) observes: “Activists, like prophets, politicians, and advertising executives, have long recognized the power of a good story to move people to action” (33). Despite its persistence and prevalence, storytelling remains underexplored in social movement literature. When it is addressed, storytelling is often subsumed within what Robert D. Benford and David A. Snow (2000) characterize as discussions of “framing,” or belief processes that “assign meaning to and interpret relevant events and conditions in ways that are intended to mobilize potential adherents and constituents, to garner bystander support, and to demobilize antagonists” (614). While framing focuses on the delivery of “clear, concise, and coherent” messages, the power of stories, as Polletta observes, comes “from their allusiveness, indeed, their ambiguity” (33). Polletta (2006) highlights two analytical tasks relating to understanding storytelling in political contexts: “One is to identify the features of narrative that allow it to achieve certain rhetorical effects. The other is to identify the social conditions in which those rhetorical effects are likely to be politically consequential” (166–167). In the American Muslim case, the political dimensions are often front and center, even if the storytellers themselves do not see their creative projects as political. Even though his stories steer clear of political commentary, Bassam Tariq acknowledges “people tend to get political ideas from the [30 Mosques] blog.” As Polletta also observes, stories may affirm the status quo, but they can also disrupt dominant meta-narratives. In the American Muslim context, the stories we encountered challenged mainstream stereotypes that the youth felt almost always connect Islam to terrorism. The youth saw their storytelling efforts as responding to a long history of “Orientalist tropes of Arabs,” which, as media scholar Evelyn Alsultany (2012) notes, often conflate Muslims and Arabs “as rich oil sheiks, sultry belly dancers, harem girls, veiled oppressed women, and most notably, terrorists” (7). Building on similar tropes related to Asian American media portrayals, Lori Kido Lopez (2012) argues that analyses of stereotyping should “consider the complicated and nuanced ways in which viewers might read and interact with any kind of imagery, as well as how specific images are being deployed” (56). Ella Shohat and Robert Stam (2007) among others, argue that reducing stereotype analysis to positive and negative portrayals may not address the underlying complexities that drive these representations:
The focus on “good” and “bad” characters in image analysis confronts racist discourse on that discourses favored ground. It easily elides into moralism, and thus into fruitless debates about the relative virtues of fictive characters … and the correctness of their fictional actions. (200–201)
Johanna Blakley and Sheena Nahm (2011), two researchers at the Norman Lear Center, reviewed prime-time dramas that included “War on Terror” themes and found that “sixty-seven percent of terror suspects in these shows were white” and only “fourteen percent were identified as Middle Eastern, Arab or Muslim” (8). Digging deeper into such prime-time narratives, Evelyn Alsultany finds that their creators often attempt to balance negative (i.e., terrorist) portrayals of Muslim characters with more positive representations of Muslims aligned with American ideals and beliefs, even as the plots still pivot around terrorism (18–47). Alsultany concludes that these attempts in the mainstream media to balance representations of good and evil Muslims are a crucial “aspect of the War on Terror” and “deflect attention from the persistence of racist policies post 9/11” (12).
Responding to this tendency, many of the youth-driven storytelling efforts we observed moved away from the “good” versus “bad” Muslim binary to express more complex, diverse, and morally ambiguous (yet still nonthreatening) American Muslim experiences. Bob, an Iranian American film maker who relied on online circulation for his movies, explained:
I think it’s time to tell the story of Muslim-Americans....You should be confident enough in your Muslim identity [that]...it should be like, “I’m a filmmaker. I love politics and I’m a Muslim as well...” I think that type of integration needs to start happening within the stories that we tell.
Often these storytelling initiatives emerged as young American Muslims invited broader community participation with the goal of evoking a variety of narratives. Sometimes, they were supported by organizations (as in the case of MYG’s Breakfast@Night). At other times, they revolved around small, but extremely active groups connected to others through loosely defined networks. Regardless of whether they were supported by organizations or not, all of these storytelling projects took advantage of networks (mostly on social media) to spread the word and garner participation.
These projects we observed were largely nonfictional and focused on participants’ lived experiences. For example, Ridwan Adhami’s “What Does a Muslim Look Like?” centered on a photo station placed at the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) annual conference in 2012. Adhami took photos of passersby, who could decide “how their image would be seen by the world.” He then compiled these photos into a collage on Facebook. Adhami encouraged his audiences to “enjoy this gallery, share the images, use them as your own profile photos, tag people you know and that I don’t.” Many commentators recognized people in the face collage. In fact, many of the photographs were tagged with people’s full names and linked to their Facebook accounts, thereby facilitating such recognition.
In another storytelling project, Nura Maznavi and Ayesha Mattu collected romantic stories by Muslim American women for their edited volume, Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women. Presenting the book at a 2012 reading in West Los Angeles, its young editors stressed the diversity of the narratives in Love, InshAllah and the fact that several feature new and social media. In “Punk-Drunk Love,” Tanzila Ahmed (2012) confesses that she has always “been a sucker for a man with a mohawk” and describes how a “deep online friendship that consisted of sharing lyrics and MP3s and having GChat conversations about life” spilled into a short-lived love affair with a Muslim punk rocker (58). In another story, Lena Hassan (2012) recalls how the “Internet” became “magic” to her as a “shy and burdened” teenager with a “crippling self-consciousness” who gained little experience with the opposite sex as her life revolved around her gender segregated mosque:
I didn’t have to hide on the Internet. Online, I forgot that I had a thing so unruly and potentially embarrassing as a tongue and body.… Paradoxically, in this world divided by barriers and buffers, I opened myself to people and they opened themselves to me. (234–236)
The book sold out on Amazon before it was released. Building on its success, the editors established a Love, InshAllah blog and called for submissions for a Love, InshAllah for men, which was published in early 2014.
Love, InshAllah developed out of the Hijabi Monologues, an earlier collective storytelling project inspired by the well-known episodic theater piece The Vagina Monologues. Similar in structure, the Hijabi Monologues began as local events at which participants shared personal stories. In 2011, the project’s organizers embraced new media when they announced the Hijabi Monologues National Story Contest and invited women to submit their stories through YouTube: “The Hijabi Monologues (2012) is about the power of storytelling.… Through sharing stories, strangers touch and connect. Through stories, we are challenged. Through stories, we are humanized.”
Some of the projects we looked at were one-off efforts. Others went through several different iterations, changing to respond to shifting interest and network demands. For example, the 30 Mosques project changed every year. In its first year, Bassam Tariq and Aman Ali collected the stories they discovered as they visited different New York City mosques. They also invited participation through their blog’s comment section. The following year, Tariq and Ali took their project nationwide. For the next two years, they collected and shared stories from other American Muslims on their website. In 2012, Ali and Tariq revamped the whole project to encourage more direct participation. Using grant funding, they built an interface that allows people to contribute their own Ramadan photos through Flickr, Tumblr, and Twitter. Once approved (Tariq and Ali exercised some curatorial control here), these submissions appeared on 30mosques.com’s mosaiclike home page, encouraging visitors to scroll and click through the diverse images and text. Ali offered his perspective on the project’s evolution:
Well, it’s just a natural progression.… In 2009, it was just a very local venture around New York City. And then it became a cross-country thing in 2010 and 2011. And now it kind of transcends them to become more of a global and more of a virtual kind of project and that’s just naturally where it’s been going. As more and more people around the world are hearing about it and inspired to do things.
MYG’s Breakfast@Night (which later became BF@N) also went through several iterations. In 2011, the project was mostly run over Facebook, as the organizers sent out a call for photographs documenting people’s experience of Ramadan through their social media networks. The number of submissions overwhelmed the team. Jihad Turk recalls that news of the project “spread by word of mouth and within two weeks, the site not only got thousands of hits, but American Muslim youth were contributing their own photos from around the country with dozens of states and hundreds of cities being represented.”
For their second year, the BF@N organizers took a different approach. They built a separate website rather than using Facebook. The breakfastatnight.com homepage welcomed visitors to “the one and only Ramadan photo project powered by YOU.” The team expanded the call for submissions to include other media content. They also launched the BF@N blog, where a team of bloggers, including MYG youth, shared their Ramadan thoughts and experiences.
While diverse in their geographical scope, the other projects inspired by 30 Mosques shared similar goals and methods—all, for instance, used new media to collect and exchange stories of Muslims during the month of Ramadan. These Ramadan storytelling projects endeavored to present a more positive, human, and peaceful image of contemporary Islam, an important message for many American Muslim youth. In various ways, the projects also relied on new media. Aman Ali admits that without new media, “we just don’t even have a project.” Certainly, some of the projects, like the Hijabi Monologues and Love, InshAllah did not depend exclusively on new media, using live performance and print books, respectively. They did, however, benefit from new media in increasing their reach as the editors and directors turned to Facebook and other social media to recruit contributors and circulate what they created.
Crucially, these storytelling projects highlight how, as we have described, American Muslim youth identities are always already political and not simply cultural, as young people seek to define themselves as explicitly both American and Muslim in the context of the post-9/11 world. The significance of these tensions was brought into sharp focus in the days that followed the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013. As investigators uncovered evidence that the Tsarnaev brothers had used the internet to access materials that supported their shift toward extremism, the debates around “online radicalization” intensified. For example, in an article published by the New York Times on April 23 (Cooper et al. 2013), “federal authorities” were said to have speculated that the brothers were “angry and alienated young men, apparently self-trained and unaffiliated with any particular terrorist group, able to use the Internet to learn their lethal craft.” Similar statements were made during a debate—“Mining Online for What May Have Radicalized, Informed Tsarnaev Brothers” (2013)—televised on PBS the following day. During this discussion, Dr. Jerrold Post of George Washington University observed that “the phenomenon of radicalization online is really quite alarming. It’s been estimated that there’s some 4,800 radical Islamist websites. And I am struck that young women and men who are isolated, not feeling they belong, in this way, can belong to a virtual community of hatred.”
Responding to the spread of such views, MPAC and the New Media Foundation organized a forum titled “Online Radicalization: Myths and Realities” in Washington, D.C., on May 28, 2013. During this session, one of the panelists, New America Foundation fellow Rabia Chaudry, identified “narrative” as the key to understanding and countering online radicalization. She described how the “You cannot be a good American and a good Muslim” narrative, ironically propagated both by Muslim extremists and anti-Islam advocates, fostered feelings of alienation among American Muslim youth. To counter this, she asked “Western Muslim communities to step up and become engaged and become partners in bringing their voices online to counter these narratives.” While Chaudry’s statements certainly situate narrative and storytelling as an important component of America’s counterterrorism efforts, they also make clear the enormous challenges American Muslim youth face in defining their own terms of engagement through participatory politics. In fact, examining Chaudry’s statements from the youth perspective returns us to the notion of “precariousness” raised earlier in this chapter as we pivot our attention to how such projects remain vulnerable to uninvited scrutiny.
Silence and Surveillance
Being a Muslim in America is not easy at all. There are a lot of uncertainties about our role in American narratives because of 9/11....I think this is an issue for people, for Muslims in our community, whose civil liberties are being completely pillaged. You know there are people held without...whatever, I don’t want to get into that too much.
Selina, a young American Muslim woman and an environmental activist, cut herself off when the conversation she had with Shresthova turned to concerns about civil liberties and privacy. She worried that post-9/11 security measures, such as the Patriot Act, have “pillaged” civil liberties. Selina also hesitated to speak about how surveillance of American Muslim communities had affected her behavior, but explained that she is not very active online even though she recognized that utilizing platforms like Twitter and Facebook would help her spread the word about her environmental causes.
Privacy and surveillance are both fraught concepts often positioned within a dichotomy of private versus public premised on what Helen Nissenbaum (2004) identifies as “the sanctity of certain spaces, or more abstractly, places” (102). While the specifics of the private/public dichotomy certainly merit attention, the American Muslim youth we interviewed articulated privacy in ways that echoed danah boyd and Alice Marwick’s (2011) definition, “a sense of control over how and when information flows.” American Muslim youth certainly do worry about surveillance that invades traditionally private realms—specifically, systematized monitoring systems put in place by governmental authorities and companies that work with them or may sometimes be obliged to. Such surveillance has, indeed, become a reality for some young American Muslim activists, particularly those involved in contentious social justice campaigns. Even youth who may be less involved in activist campaigns often practice “self-censorship” within what Evgeny Morozov (2012) describes as a “pervasive climate of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear” (145). As they struggle to find a semblance of comfort as they weigh the risks and possibilities of public expression, many young American Muslims strike a constantly shifting balance between finding voice and choosing silence.
During our research, one of the most urgently articulated concerns around the silencing power of surveillance surfaced in connection with what became known as the Irvine11 campaign, supporting a group of University of California, Irvine, students (all members of the Muslim Students’ Union) arrested after they disrupted Israeli ambassador Michael Oren’s speech on campus on November 8, 2010. Prosecutors used emails and online posts as evidence that the MSU members had planned their disruption of Ambassador Oren’s speech well in advance. Tanya, an Irvine11 activist, recalled sitting in the courtroom during the trial and realizing how easily online exchanges could be used against the protesters: “They had every email from the MSU, every single email that anyone had sent out.” Reflecting on her own previous involvement with social justice organizations, local nonprofits, and labor unions, Tanya stressed that these groups were “never really active on the internet.” She recalled, “None of our communication would be online. None of it.” Tanya admitted that she sometimes felt that the groups’ avoidance of the internet bordered on paranoia because, “Who really cares about us, right? Who is really watching a bunch of misfit kids doing activism during college?” To her, the Irvine11 case drove home the reality that “they really are!” Someone “is really watching us!”
[caption id="attachment_12173" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Photo published in the Daily Californian shows students protesting convictions of students at UC Riverside and UC Irvine.[/caption]
On the other hand, American Muslim youth also worried about what Alice Marwick (2012) calls “social surveillance” or “ongoing eavesdropping, investigation, gossip and inquiry that constitutes information gathering by people about their peers” (379). Such social surveillance can come from both inside and outside the Muslim community. Muslim peers and elders may dismiss and critique material young American Muslims share online. Hateful anti-Muslim remarks posted in the comments sections of blogs or YouTube videos can hurt youth as they struggle to express their often controversial perspectives. Many worried more about hostile “peer” audiences and “social surveillance” than about government surveillance. Youth who produce public-facing media, like blogs and YouTube channels, were particularly worried about toxic attacks on Islam and Muslims posted by trolls. They also feared harsh comments from other Muslims critical of what they posted online. These concerns often centered on what danah boyd and Alice Marwick (2011) call “context collapse,” a concept discussed in Chapter 1, in which a social media user’s “imagined audience might be entirely different from the actual readers of a profile, blog post, or tweet” (2). Whether they come from within or outside of Muslim communities, destructive comments have a chilling effect, constantly reminding youth that is impossible to control their content as it travels via social media.
One instance of “context collapse” occurred in December 2012 when MPAC decided to build on its long-term interfaith efforts and held its annual convention at the All Saints Church in Pasadena. The group’s choice of venue drew news attention when several anti-Muslim groups pressured the church to withdraw its hospitality. When All Saints refused, they staged a vocal protest outside the church. Arriving convention participants had to walk past anti-Islamic placards. Wardah Khalid (2012), a young American Muslim blogger, reflected on this experience in her blog post after the convention:
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as I headed to the church that morning, but I guessed I might run into a few protesters there. Sure enough, they were there to greet me when I arrived. Just outside the front doors stood several men holding signs that insulted the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). They had planted themselves there several hours prior to the start of the convention and were making it quite clear that they were vehemently opposed to Islam and any Christians who associated with its followers.
Khalid’s blog inspired much commentary. Most of the responses were positive; a few however, reinforced the protesters’ antagonistic stance, effectively bringing the confrontation outside All Saints onto the internet. “Vallie,” a particularly insistent commenter, got involved in sharp exchanges: “You guys can call me a bigot and hater all day long, it doesn’t bother me one bit, nor am I ashamed. I do in fact hate Islam. It is a death cult.”
As discussed earlier, new and social media provide important opportunities for young American Muslims, like Wardah, to express themselves and network with other like-minded young people. But the content they create and share can be manipulated toward very different ends in what Lissa Soep (2012) has called its “digital afterlife” (94; see Chapter 2 for a more detailed discussion of this concept.) The youth who had their own public-facing blogs were aware that there were critics ready to jump on what they posted. Tanisha, a young Pakistani American, observed that “because Muslims are criticized so much in America, a lot of students just don’t want to show that they’re even Muslim.” For some youth, the possibility of negative responses deterred them from making public their religious affiliation, let alone political views related to their faith.
While the American Muslim youth we met certainly thought about top-down surveillance and anti-Muslim sentiment, many more were more worried about “friendly fire” from other, more conservative community members. Some of these critiques came from elders concerned about young people’s safety. Others came from youth with very stringent notions of what behavior is acceptable in Islam. The criticism faced by Mo and Nash, known as the HijabiBengaliSisters, is a case in point. Mo and Nash create and post videos on their YouTube channel that playfully address faith-related topics (religious perspectives on dating, fasting during Ramadan) relevant to American Muslim youth. Several of their videos reacted to what they call other Muslim “critiquers” of their channels. In one video, titled “Muslim Critics,” Nash says:
If somebody sends you a message on YouTube attacking you, saying you are the worst representation of Islam, like you are a poor excuse for a hijabi—what do you know about that, really? I don’t see you having the courage to get up on YouTube and talk about Islam, because that is a huge thing in itself. Especially being our age, that we are, in our teenage pre-adultish years, you won’t see many people on YouTube starting that early....I can see why some people would leave Islam because they are so afraid of the Muslims, of the Muslim critics in this community.
Criticism of the HijabiBengaliSisters escalated in April 2013, when someone used the alias Nashiha Monika to create “The Truth about Hijabibengalisisters” Facebook page dedicated to disparaging them. The page featured photographs that the sisters had posted on their own Facebook page and comments like “The sisters would have you believe their fame is knowledge. But having over ten thousand followers or a million followers dose [sic] not mean you are knowledgeable. FAME IS NOT KNOWLEDGE.” The experience of the HijabiBengaliSisters highlights the burden of representation some American Muslim youth bear as they become more publicly visible online. While some, like Mo and Nash, desire to positively “represent” Islam and Muslims, not all youth share this desire, particularly given the harsh criticism to which those with a public presence are often subjected from both within and outside their communities. Selina explained that though her “faith is a big part” of her environmental activism, this is not something she wants to “tell the outside world.”
Clearly, privacy and surveillance are urgent concerns for American Muslim youth. They are aware that their communities top the lists of domestic national security concerns. At the same time, these youth worry about privacy more broadly defined. They are concerned about being judged by other Muslims. They also worry about being bullied by “haters.” Much like the youth in Boyd and Marwick’s (2011) study who care about privacy, but with the additional burdens of being Muslim post-9/11, the American Muslim youth negotiate privacy and surveillance concerns alongside their efforts to engage with others within infrastructures they cannot fully control.
Humor over Silence
“I always assume that we’re being watched,” Wajahat Ali, an American Muslim playwright and journalist, weighed in on surveillance during the “Storytelling and Digital-Age Civics” webinar series that our Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics (MAPP) research team organized in January 2014. He tries to move past such concerns by acknowledging privacy invasion is now a fact of life in all online encounters:
I sometimes send emails to my friends saying, “Hello NSA” (even in my texts), because I think appreciating the dark humor of it all makes it go down a bit easier and it’s a little bit more cathartic. But also it keeps you on your toes to be smarter about how you frame that content.
In explaining how he thinks about surveillance, Ali made a very important point—he identified humor as an important, even “cathartic,” strategy for coping with privacy concerns among American Muslims.
Maz Jobrani, an Iranian American comedian, made a similar observation during a performance in 2005. He related how he once had his Hotmail account shut down after he jokingly referenced terrorism in an email to a friend:
Another friend of mine was at the show, and the next day he emailed me. He said, “Hey, Maz. Had a great time at your show last night. By the way, when is the next terrorist hit going down? Ha ha.” So I got on my Hotmail and I was like, I am not being flagged, I can respond, right? So I was like [changes his voice], “Hey, man, I have been talking to Al-Qaeda and the next hit is going down on the lower east side of Iceland. Ha ha.” Send. Next day, I try to log onto Hotmail. Account closed. Access denied....It took me weeks, but finally I am back on the internet. But I am freaked out. And you should be too. Don’t joke on the internet....Don’t send me an email like “Hey, Maz, when is the next terrorist hit going down?” because I will respond like “Fuck you. I am a patriot.”
Much like Aman Ali used Angry Birds to ridicule surveillance, as described in this chapter’s opening, Wajahat Ali and Maz Jobrani also identified humor as a powerful tool for countering (or at least partially subverting) surveillance’s potentially chilling effect. In doing this, they all connected to a larger, and still growing, body of post-9/11 American Muslim comedy.
Ahmed Ahmed, another American Muslim comedian, reflected on the growing role of comedy in the community during an interview that aired as part of a PBS documentary in 2009: “I think the general perception of Islam is so serious that we have a hard time laughing at ourselves or with ourselves. And, if we can’t laugh at ourselves or with ourselves, the rest of the world won’t.” Ahmed spoke from experience. He and Jobrani were founding members of the “Axis of Evil” comedy tour, whose name played off the term that President George Bush introduced during his State of the Union in 2002 to describe Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. Between 2005 and 2011, the group toured extensively in the United States and abroad, and was, at one point, even sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Numerous other American Muslim comedy tours and shows were organized in the wake of 9/11, including “Allah Made Me Funny” and “The Muslims Are Coming!” In 2007, Little Mosque on the Prairie, a CBC sitcom about the travails of a mosque community in a small town in Canada, became a milestone for North American Muslim comedy on mainstream television, running for six seasons. These and other American Muslim post-9/11 comedy projects illustrate the finding of Mucahit Bilici (2010) that there was “an upsurge in ethnic comedy by Muslims in America” in the decade following 9/11 (196).
When we introduced “bridging” and “bonding” as concepts in in Chapter 1, we argued that in-group “bonding” is particularly important for marginalized groups to protect them from hostile outsiders. We saw “bridging” as a closely related set of practices that allow such a group to reach beyond its own in-group borders to build support and deepen connections to other allied communities. Ethnic humor can assume both a “bridging” and “bonding” role for an emergent American Muslim public. Delving more deeply into humor’s dual bridging and bonding roles, Bilici observes that these American Muslim comedy projects all humorously highlight, subvert, and “criticize both the majority and their own minority communities” (201). At times, they do this by engaging with particularly tense moments and spaces for American Muslims in the United States, for instance the anxieties of passing through security checks at airports and boarding airplanes. At other times, they turn their attention inward to explore what it is like to live in American Muslim communities, for instance, by highlighting first-to-second generational differences within families. In both instances, they intentionally use humor to move past cultural differences, promote dialogue, and break down dominant stereotypes in ways that release tensions and ease fear. Thus read, such humor does important work by strengthening “bonding” within American Muslim communities, “bridging” to a broader American audience, and desensitizing otherwise taboo topics—like surveillance, dissent within Islam, and Islamophobia.
In Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era, Jonathan Gray, Jeffrey P. Jones, and Ethan Thompson (2009) argue that “humor allows a relatively open space for critique and reflection, one that is rare in many societies” (11). They quote from the seminal text “Implicit Meanings” by Mary Douglas (2010, 150), who pushes for an even more interventionist perspective on humor when she observes that “jokes have a subversive effect on the dominant structure of ideas,” as they challenge accepted social patterns by rendering visible assumptions and biases that may have been previously unapparent. (As they do so, she adds, we must keep in mind that there is only a thin line between certain jokes and insults, suggesting humor can backfire and intensify rather than diminish frictions within or between groups.) Drawing on their review of existing literature on humor, Gray and Thompson similarly conclude that “far from being solely light, frivolous, and wholly apolitical, humor is able to deal powerfully with serious issues and power and politics” (8–11). Amarnath Amarasingam (2010) argues that we should, in fact, think of American Muslim comedians as “a significant social force” in post-9/11 America (464).
American Muslim comedy continues to evolve. In the early post-9/11 years, it was dominated by “stand up” live and eventually televised comedy routines like those created by Maz Jobrani and Ahmed Ahmed, which sought to create a “cultural space” where, Jaclyn Michael (2013) notes, humor was deployed to “engage with the stereotypes and realities of being both Muslim and American.” As Michael further observes, American Muslim comedy of this era situated “Muslims in a long history of American minority groups using public humor to address and contest the terms of American social life and national belonging” (130). Such humor often draws on prevalent minority stereotypes, which are, as Mahadev Apte (1985) observes, “crucial to ethnic humor and its appreciation” (114). As he explores the history of black humor in the United States, Lawrence Levine (2007) notes,
The need to laugh at our enemies, our situation, ourselves, is a common one, but it most often exists the most urgently in those who exert the least power over their immediate environment; in those who have the most objective reasons for feelings of hopelessness. (300)
However momentarily, such humor enables a comic inversion of existing power structures that are stacked against the specific minority community.
Our research suggests that post-9/11 American Muslim humor does such political work and has also, more recently, become more grassroots and participatory, with more reliance on collective storytelling and networked circulation. For example, Bob, a young filmmaker who regularly visited MYG, saw his social media network as his “personal Daily Show” that’s “wrapped up” in a Twitter feed; he followed members of his American Muslim network, including activist and playwright Wajahat Ali, scholar Reza Aslan, community activist Linda Sarsour, filmmaker Lena Khan, and comedian Asif Ali. Bob chuckled as he explained how this humor works: “Let’s say...some ridiculous Islamophobic event happens where Mitt Romney said something goofy about Muslims....It’s like the jokes and how we’re reacting to it. I find those kinds of communication really interesting.” As Bob’s Daily Show analogy suggests, humor plays an important role in shaping the material that circulates through young American Muslim networks.
During our research, we saw how American Muslim youth circulated humor as a form of social commentary, often responding to news-related triggers—two examples illustrate this process. The first, the “Un-Aired Lowe’s Commercial for All-American Muslim” created by Gregory Bonsignore, Parvesh Cheena, and Rizwan Manji, was produced and circulated as part of the Lowe’s boycott, a networked campaign (previously mentioned in Chapter 1) that responded to the home improvement retail company’s decision to pull its advertising from the All-American Muslim reality TV series. The commercial opens with a group of men, clearly identified as Muslims, going to shop at Lowe’s. We see them walking around the store, picking up supplies that suggest they might be building a bomb, an impression intensified by the suspicious looks of other customers. As the tension mounts, we see them assembling something. In the final seconds, they flick the switch … to the elaborate Christmas lights they have just installed on their house. Suddenly, the men’s demeanor changes and they smile proudly. Superimposed text wishes the viewer “Happy Holidays from everyone at Lowe’s.”
This advertising parody quickly spread through American Muslim social media networks. One comment on YouTube enthusiastically exclaimed: “OMG I cannot stop_ laughing....I see these as two men as human beings....GREAT VIDEO!!” For others, the “Un-Aired Lowe’s Commercial” signaled more serious concerns. In his comment, rjreeder64 explained:
lol, I love the humor … but what I really hate is when muslims get such dirty looks when in public.… I have received similar looks when I wear my koufi in public and people seem to pay me no mind when i go into the same exact store with a fitted cap on.
Reflecting on the Lowe’s controversy, Dilshad Ali (2011), a prominent American Muslim journalist, observes that the decision to withdraw advertising “unwittingly inspired a sudden grassroots coalition … dedicated to defending American values and fighting back against hate.”
The second example is the social media campaign that coalesced in response to the Newsweek cover article “Muslim Rage,” written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (2012), an openly atheist Somali Dutch activist and Islam skeptic. In the article, Ali reflected on the violence in Libya that had culminated in the killing of the ambassador and three other staff members at the American embassy in 2012. She argued against sympathy for post-Gaddafi Libyans because they had made a “choice to reject freedom as the West understands it.” Though the article inspired an often heated debate, the most visible reaction played out on Twitter when Newsweek invited readers to discuss the article under the #MuslimRage hashtag. Soon, the social media platform buzzed with humorous tweets that both questioned Ali’s argument and poked fun at the hashtag. For example, Hend commented on the fact that no one notices her hair, because she wears a headscarf, while Hijabi Girl playfully mused on the multiple meanings of Jihad:
[caption id="attachment_12174" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Tweets from Hijabi Girl and Hend.[/caption]
At last count, Hijabi Girl’s one-liner had been retweeted 2,198 times. Many of the #MuslimRage posts explicitly challenged widespread stereotypes about Muslims and Islam, illustrating the creative and civic potential of such networked responses.
The Islam I grew up with in America is not the Islam my children are experiencing. The possibilities for their lives are much more expansive than the possibilities for my life were. The largely comfortable integration and success of American Muslims that sets them apart from their counterparts in Europe also lends space for these possibilities. From tremendously increased participation in American civic and cultural life, to pressing internal demands on religious orthodoxy, another generation or two will see a vastly different American Islam that will likely have an impact on Muslims globally. From marginalized minority, American Muslims are poised to become mainstream leaders and influencers. And it’s no small irony that while historians bemoan conquest and Western colonialism as the death knell for Islam’s “Golden Age,” this new Muslim renaissance is growing out of the West itself.
In an article published in Time on April 16, 2014, Rabia Chaudry gave a decidedly positive assessment of the current situation of Muslims living in United States. As she pointed to the significant role that American Muslims play in important current debates around issues like homosexuality and Islam, Chaudry boldly concluded that not only is their situation more stable than it was a decade ago, it is leading towards what she envisions as “a Muslim Renaissance” as American Muslims revisit, contest, or revise religious tenets that no longer serve their needs. Her celebratory tone suggested that American Muslims may now be moving beyond precariousness. Is this really the case? Will the expressive projects described across this chapter eventually transform how their fellow Americans think about these youth and embrace them for their active contributions to participatory politics?
Reflecting on our research, the American Muslim youth we encountered were struggling to balance the benefits and risks of public expression. Determined to tell their stories and challenge existing stereotypes, they have turned to new media platforms and practices as a means to circumvent perceived roadblocks. As traditional advocacy organizations have sought to censor open discussions within the physical space of their local mosques, the youth have sometimes moved these discussions online, forging a potentially supportive peer-to-peer network. As stereotyped portrayals of Islam obstruct the development of a diverse and realistic understanding of their actual lives, American Muslim youth have used digital media tools to collect and share more authentic stories. As concerns over government surveillance have grown, the youth have harnessed humor to acknowledge and ultimately alleviate some of the resulting strain. As more conservative Muslims have slammed young American Muslims for transgressing Islamic norms, the youth have sometimes turned to each other for support. Sometimes. At other times, the youth have withdrawn and chosen silence as their supportive networks faltered under pressure.
Many of the American Muslim youth we interviewed and observed saw new media as crucial tools for exploring issues, expressing their experiences, and connecting with others. They also possessed a heightened awareness of the risks of uninvited scrutiny and surveillance. During our research, we saw the youth networks that connected them teeter several times in response to particular events, which mostly occurred outside the young people’s immediate vicinity. For example, many youth went completely silent in the aftermath of the Boston bombings as public discourse turned to “online radicalization.” Such networks are thus fragile and precarious, but we might also describe them as liminal and elusive, providing means of escaping the constraints imposed on these youth by various adult authorities. Many of these expressive projects originated outside institutional contexts as formal organizations like MPAC and ICSC played more of a supportive rather than leadership role in their creation and circulation.
For many of the youth included in our study, living in a post-9/11 United States has been defined, at least in part, by their struggles with (and against) antiterrorist security measures. As being a Muslim was perceived as a threat, they had to rally to defend and define their own cultural and spiritual identities while combatting racial profiling and heightened scrutiny. In this context, circulating stories, creating media, acknowledging surveillance, and leveraging humor become crucial practices for an emergent American Muslim counterpublic. As we will see in Chapter 5, the production of “coming out” videos has played a similar role for the DREAMers, undocumented youth struggling for the right to stay in this country and get an education. There, we will get deeper into the affective and psychological consequences of being able to voice your own experiences, as well as the tactical advantages this activist network gained by being able to tap the affordances of social media and participatory culture.
The full text of By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism is available online at NYU Press.