No one I know makes more sci-fi/fantasy references in conversations about anything at all (including Islamophobia) than Hussein. A New Yorker, professor, blogger and leader, Hussein is one of the reasons my own interest in Muslim American communities and Islamophobia developed. I talked to him in New York last week.
We talked a bit about the weaknesses of journalists and editors:
News media also looks for easy stories. So we look for words that we think the audience understands, that don’t really mean what we think they mean. It’s this Princess Bride moment – “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” Jihad, shari’a, Allah, the Qur’an – these are words that have very specific meanings. Jihad, for example has a very modern definition, but then you try to read it back into 1400 years of history and it doesn’t make sense, and unless you start cutting and trimming stuff, it’s going to tell you a very different story than what you’re trying to tell. I understand there’s only so much you can write in 800 words, but I think careful selections in word choice, looking for experts in the field rather than the loudest voices, would go a long, long way.
I think if we look at the entertainment industry, it’s a really mixed bag there, but I would be remiss in not shouting out some really great explorations of what it means to Muslim. And I don’t mean shows like “All American Muslim.” You know, in the Simpson’s, Bart had a Muslim friend, which was a really great episode about this whole Islamophobia thing that the “average American” feels. Bones or NCIS, they have really great story lines around Muslims and are they perfect? No, but that’s kind of the point, right? Muslims are human beings and the all-evil representation is as bad as the all-perfect representation. You need complex, nuanced representations of Muslims because Muslims are people at the end of the day. You’re going to get the unsung heroes and you’re going to get the people you pass by on the street every day.
He explained what he means by “intelligent discussions”:
Part of what I do is try to create more intelligent discussion around religion generally and Islam specifically. A lot of this came out of, interestingly, not September 11, but the run-up to the second Iraq War in 2003. People were saying that al-Qaeda was in bed with the Iranians. But wait, do you actually understand that al-Qaeda thinks the Iranians are heretics and they deserve to be put to death because they’re Shi’i? So, how did we get to be friends with them? And that they’re partnering with Saddam Hussein, who’s a secularist with a religious nationalist movement – do you actually understand anything about how these pieces fit? Oil and water do not mix and realpolitik can only cover so much of that. It was at that point that I realized people just don’t know that much about religion. The term now is “religious illiteracy.” And I think anti-shari’a legislation is a good example of this. People say, “Oh, you must mean only Muslims because shari’a is a scary, foreign-sounding word,” but not actually realizing the things it’s affecting are other communities who live by religious laws, like Jews and Catholics.