During the time of the Prophet Mohammed, the storyteller was valued more than the swordsman. Through poetry and eloquence, the speaker used his artistry to weave words and rhyme like magic, often enthralling the audience as he used fiction and history proudly to narrate his tribe’s triumphs and tragedies.
Yet many modern Muslims have decried creative endeavours such as music, filmmaking, acting and theatre as “un-Islamic”. However, the watershed victory of President Obama in 2008 ushered in a new generation comprising vibrant, progressive Muslim artists who use their talents to redefine a bold new vision of art. One that reclaims their hijacked heritage, restores dignity to Islam and Muslims, deconstructs stereotypes and uses art as a means to build bridges of understanding.
When the two towers fell in New York, they took with them the inhibitions of many fear-mongering and prejudiced Islamaphobes who were given a licence under the Bush era to publicly spew vitriol against Islam and Muslims as harbingers of terror and cultural stagnation.
A narrative was immediately set, casting the protagonists as the West – a nebulous and nonsensical term referring to America and select parts of Europe – and the antagonists as Muslims and immigrants.
Unfortunately, Hollywood often tried progressive open-mindedness, but routinely failed, aside from the excellent Syriana starring George Clooney. In trying to portray Muslims positively, most mainstream Hollywood features can only muster depictions of Arabs against a backdrop of terrorism and extremism. It should surprise no one that a 2009 ABC poll revealed that 48 per cent of Americans don’t hold a favourable opinion of Islam; more than 50 per cent don’t know a single Muslim; and nearly 29 per cent believe mainstream Islam advocates violence.
However, because of the backlash against Muslims after 9/11, many Muslims renounced the traditional career path and opted for more challenging roles in the arts and media. Throughout history, marginalised groups and oppressed minorities have used art as a means to fight back against intolerance. The ingredients that fuel such sentiments are generally political – random profiling at the airport, for example – as well as a renewed respect for one’s identity, culture and people. The phase that many Muslims went through from 2001 to 2007 was a necessary step for artistic evolution, as it contained righteous indignation against inequality, vocal affirmation for one’s religious and racial identity, and healthy doses of political activism.