According to recent surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center, only half of Americans personally know a Muslim, and a majority of Americans know little or nothing about Islam. Yet, Americans view the 3.3 million Muslims residing in the United States far less favorably than members of other religions; half think that “some” US Muslims are anti-American.
The FBI reported in November that hate crimes against Muslims in America increased by 67% between 2014 and 2015. Of the 5,850 hate crimes reported in 2015, 21.4% were prompted by religious bias, and of those, 22.2% were anti-Islamic (at 51.3%, anti-Jewish incidents were even higher).
Although the numbers were soaring, this was nothing new. FBI statistics show that the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes jumped dramatically directly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and have remained much higher than prior to that turning point.
These trends long troubled Jewish filmmaker Joshua Seftel. For five years, he wanted to combat ignorance, fear and hate by making a series of short films introducing Muslims and Islam to Americans, but funders and distributors were reluctant to back the project.
Things changed, however, after Donald Trump began his run for the presidency, ramping up the level of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric in the US. Suddenly there was interest in supporting Seftel’s “Secret Life of Muslims” project, and in getting it made and broadcast as soon as possible.
The hunch that the time was ripe for these videos was correct. With funding from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, the Ford Foundation, the New York Community Trust, and the Pillars Funds, the project launched through Vox and USA Today’s distribution channels in early November. The first six of the series’ 15 films released so far have spread virally via social media, garnering millions of views to date.
“The political tenor in our country for the last year or so created greater need for this content. The project came together quickly in recent months. Sadly, we have Donald Trump to thank for that,” Seftel, 48, told The Times of Israel from his New York office.
The award-winning director believed the best way to combat stereotypes and bias was to let American Muslims tell their own life stories. In one film, Muslim NYPD chaplain Khalid Latif talked about how he is respected while in uniform, but harassed as a civilian. In another, journalist Dena Takruri spoke about why challenging power and being a role model is important to her as a Muslim-American woman. Comedian and actor Ahmed Ahmed explained why he stopped taking parts that typecast him as a terrorist. Tech entrepreneur Amani Al-Khatahtbeh told how her online magazine for Muslim women, “Muslim Girl” came out of her experience of being bullied in school in New Jersey.
‘When he came to know me, he saw me as a human being’
One episode, the story of Rais Bhuyian, a Bangladeshi-American Muslim who was shot in the face by a white supremacist in Texas as a revenge attack for 9/11, also aired on CBS Sunday Morning on November 27. In it, Bhuyian recounts how and why he ended up forgiving Mark Anthony Stroman and worked (unsuccessfully) to get him taken off death row.
“I said, ‘Mark, you should know that I never hated you. I forgave you. ‘And he said, ‘Rais, I love you, bro.'” Bhuyian recounted in the video.
“The same person, 10 years back, his heart was filled with hate and ignorance. But when he came to know me, he saw me as a human being.”
Seeing Muslims as human beings is precisely the point of these films, said Seftel.
“You can’t argue with someone’s life. It’s hard to dehumanize someone when they tell you their story,” he said.
At the same time, Seftel emphasized that humanizing people is not the same as saying that they are all the same. Americans from various racial, ethnic, national and religious backgrounds do differ from one another, and there is also a great deal of diversity within the American Muslim community itself.
‘You can’t argue with someone’s life. It’s hard to dehumanize someone when they tell you their story’
The third “Secret Life of Muslims” video released was titled, “What does it mean to be a Muslim? There are 1.7 billions answers.” Rather than telling a single person’s story, it featured 15 prominent Muslim Americans from a variety of national and ethnic backgrounds defining the term “Muslim.” The clip started out with the participants sharing bizarre or annoying questions and comments that have been directed at them, like:
“Do you worship a moon god?”
“Aren’t you hot [in your hijab]?” and
“I bet you like to hump goats…”
The tone is light and oft-times humorous, but the underlying message is serious.
“Josh didn’t want to be too glib or dismissive, but he also didn’t want to be too heavy. Muslims have a dark, gallows sense of humor — especially since 9/11 — so Josh tapped into that,” said Wajahat Ali, a journalist, writer, lawyer, playwright, TV host, and consultant for the U.S. State Department who was an advisor to the project.
“There has been some deeply distressing rhetoric in the past year that has made people anxious and afraid, but at the same time people have funny, everyday stories to tell,” Ali said.
‘The series benefits… also Muslim Americans who need some reassurance that there are Muslims out there who have made it under tough circumstances’
Ali, an American Muslim of Pakistani descent who participated in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative (and was criticized by some fellow Muslims for it), thought the mixing of tones within and among the videos worked well in addressing people’s ignorance on the subject at hand.
Salman Amir, a 24-year-old Malaysian-born American Muslim working in marketing for a non-profit organization in Washington, DC, told The Times of Israel he liked that “Secret Life of Muslims” highlighted Muslim women, like Al-Khatahtbeh, Takruri and Ibtihaj Muhammad, a bronze medal-winning fencer, and the first US athlete to compete in the Olympics while wearing a hijab.
“I like that we see the importance of women in Islam and how integral women are in the Muslim community. Men and women are equal in the eyes of God, and each person plays a role that benefits society. In fact, Islam was considered progressive when it first started in Mecca. Islam gave women the right to inheritance and the right to marry, which before Islam was considered unheard of,” Amir said.
Twenty-two-year old George Washington University law student Bisma Shahbaz thought the well-produced films were a refreshing change from the usual.
“We are accustomed to seeing a Muslim guest invited onto a news interview program, and the anchor bombards them with questions and has the Muslim guest on the defensive the entire time,” said Shahbaz.
It was clear to Shahbaz, who is of Pakistani descent and was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, that Seftel was letting the people featured in the videos shape the narrative.
“They are setting the agenda and in complete control over how they want to talk about the complex, yet intriguing question of what Islam is and who Muslims are,” she said.
Shahbaz noted that Muslim Americans themselves can gain from watching these videos.
‘One good way to fight back is through art and storytelling. And today, viral content like this is key’
“While I think many Americans who have never met a Muslim would benefit from the series, I can see this video series being beneficial to Muslim Americans who feel lost in this hectic political environment… The series benefits not only Americans who need to expand their social bubble, but also Muslim Americans who need some reassurance that there are Muslims out there who have made it under tough circumstances,” Shahbaz said.
Seftel’s personal experiences as a Jew growing up in Schenectady in upstate New York in the 1970s and 1980s had a lot to do with his desire to make “Secret Lives of Muslims.” He is certain that having experienced bullying as a Jew (schoolmates threw coins at him, and a rock was thrown through the front window of his home) subconsciously drew him to this project. There wasn’t much he could do as a boy to fight anti-Semitism. Today he has the professional tools to counter negative portrayals of another group in the media.
In merely the first week following Trump’s election, there were reports of 701 hate incidents, according to The Southern Poverty Law Center. Some 200 of these incidents were anti-immigrant, and 51 were anti-Muslim.
“This is an American problem. One good way to fight back is through art and storytelling. And today, viral content like this is key,” Ali said.
A new episode of “Secret Life of Muslims” will be released online every week through the end of February 2017.