Mohamad. That’s how Khatib spells it. From Afghanistan to Alaska, there are Mohameds, Mohammads, Mohammeds and Muhammads. They are a diverse and growing group — in the United States alone, more than 2,600 were born in 2015. Theirs has been called the most popular baby name in Oslo, Britain and Israel. They’re also stigmatized: In tests with identical résumés, candidates named Mohamed were invited to job interviews three times less often.
A new museum exhibit brings together 14 Mohammeds to display the variety of their religious beliefs and their home communities — and their shared unease about bias against their religion, Islam, whose prophet they are named for.
“I Am Mohammed” is one of several exhibits organized in the past three months, since President Trump issued an executive order suspending travel to the United States from certain majority-Muslim countries. Although the travel ban has been blocked by federal judges, the fear it raised in the American Muslim community has not died down.
Muslim and non-Muslim artists are responding to that fear through art.
At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, curators hung up works by artists from the affected countries as a form of protest after the executive order, replacing works in the galleries by Picasso, Matisse and other Western artists. The Davis Museum in Massachusetts did the opposite, draping black cloth over about 120 works by Muslim and other immigrant artists to protest Trump’s order.
The Museum of the City of New York, which normally plans its exhibits for months, threw one together in 2½ weeks titled “Muslim in New York.” The photography curator at the stately museum overlooking Central Park combed the archives for images of the city’s Muslim communities.
The faith has been practiced in New York since the 17th century, when the city was still New Amsterdam, chief curator Sarah Henry said. In this exhibit, which the museum will keep until the end of July, the earliest images date to the 1940s, when Alexander Alland captured scenes of Syrian immigrants praying and Turkish American Muslim children doing their schoolwork around a table.
Henry said curators at the museum felt the need to quickly provide more information about Muslims as they heard people debating whether Trump’s travel order amounted to a “Muslim ban.”
“We’re trying to reveal the history and the facts. The history is that Islam has been woven into the history of the city for as long as there’s been a city here,” she said. “It’s never been monolithic. It’s more variegated and complex.”
Henry said that many of the photographs were taken for the same purpose: dispelling bias against Muslims in earlier eras. Ed Grazda took photographs to show the normalcy of New York’s mosques after the first World Trade Center attack in the 1990s provoked anti-Muslim sentiment. Mel Rosenthal embarked on a similar project after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, capturing images that included a Muslim mother solemnly holding a photograph of her son in his U.S. Army uniform. Provoked by controversies surrounding the construction of new mosques in New York, Robert Gerhardt photographed girls in a martial arts class in hijabs and a New York Police Department officer kneeling to pray in uniform.
Art is a common approach because, as Narmeen Haider sees it, it is one of the most accessible ways for non-Muslims to understand their Muslim neighbors.
“In your head, a Muslim looks so different from you and has such a different life. It’s easy for you to say, ‘Oh, a travel ban? I’m going to support that,’ ” Haider says. “But when you see Muslims who go to school like you and play football like you, you start to think, ‘Maybe I’m not going to support this policy that can completely ruin people’s lives.’ ”
A practicing Muslim who grew up in Texas and lives in New York, Haider came up with the idea for the “I Am Mohammed” exhibit after Trump’s first travel ban executive order.
Her religion forbids depicting images of the prophet Muhammad. So she turned to individuals who share his name.
The exhibit includes 14 photographs of people sharing the prophet’s name printed on canvas, with audio clips of each person. It is wrapping up its showing at the World Money Gallery in Brooklyn, and Haider has heard from galleries in Toronto, Los Angeles, Britain and France that may want to host it next.
Some of the Mohammeds may surprise people. Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, for example, talks about finding his place within the faith as the imam of the first LGBT-inclusive mosque in Europe: “I don’t have to choose, I feel, between my sexuality and spirituality.”
Aneesa Mohammad is not a practicing Muslim, although she has Muslim relatives, and her last name comes from her Muslim background. She doesn’t come from a country affected by the travel ban. She was raised in Canada; her father came from Trinidad and her mother from Kenya. “A lot of people don’t know right away who I am — but my name, as soon as they hear that, you can see all these assumptions sort of growing in their mind,” she said in the exhibit’s recording. “So there were times, yeah, that I wanted to change my name.”
Haider said secular art — whether it’s the facade of a mosque or a gallery in a museum — is key to reaching people who may never go inside a mosque or even speak to a Muslim.
“We aim to bridge gaps through art. It’s kind of like a bridge,” she said. “When you see a beautiful mosque, and you admire that architecture, you start to admire the religion. I think you can show the beauty of the religion.”