Last week, a video of Lebanese television presenter Rima Karaki went viral after she cut off male scholar Hani Al Seba’i, who told her to shut up on air. Verbal altercations between female anchors and male guests are nothing new on Arab television. But in hours, TIME, Huffington Post, the Guardian and many other Western media outlets jumped on the story. Writers celebrated Karaki, hailing her performance as a display of “extraordinary courage.” Already, the video has been viewed on YouTube about 8 million times.
It’s just the latest example of our hunger for Muslim “heroes” who prove that not every follower of Islam is a terrorist, a misogynist, or hopelessly behind the times.
When news broke that Lassana Bathily had saved 15 people in a kosher supermarket during the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the headlines almost all referred to him as a “Muslim hero,” as if his religious beliefs were somehow notable. Muslims (myself included) flocked to social media to highlight the sacrifice of Ahmed Merabet, a police officer killed during the assault, with the hashtag campaign #JeSuisAhmed. See, we seemed to be saying. Muslims can be enlightened free speech defenders too.
But this call for a global counter-narrative, however well-intentioned, only serves to tighten and reproduce an imaginary connection with extremists. For the only time we see and hear about Muslims is when they resort to bloodshed, or when they defy those who resort to bloodshed. This suggests that even a lot of Muslims have internalized that something is inherently wrong with their belief system.
The reality, of course, is that most Muslims are neither heroes nor extremists. Like most human beings, the majority of Muslims are quite boring. We binge watch Netflix, complain about politics, angst about the weather and struggle with relationship and work woes. Religion, just like color, gender and sexuality, is integral, but not the sum of our identity. There is no Muslim extremist in history who became a terrorist solely by reciting verses from the Koran. Just like there’s no Muslim who miraculously brings peace to this world by placing his hand on a Koran. By explaining behavior, evil or good, though holy scriptures, both camps essentially make up excuses for grown men and women’s choices, denying them agency, exonerating or discrediting their actions.
For anyone concerned about who is the “realest” Muslim of them all, the answer is: they all are. The 30,000 to 50,000 members of the Islamic State are Muslim. Just like the members of Boko Haram and al-Shabab. So are the more than a billion and a half others. Unity in faith, however, does not equal uniformity.
The task at hand is not to produce a counter-narrative, for that will always remain reactionary, it’s to expand the narrative. We should be pushing for media portrayals that humanize Muslims, allowing them the white privilege of being a complete individual. The hero vs. villain dichotomy erases the millions of stories in the middle, implying that diversity within Islam is nonexistent.
This nuance is rare. But an inkling of a more complete depiction finally and tragically broke through with Deah Barakat, one of the three victims killed in the Chapel Hill terror attack. In the stories about him, he wasn’t just Muslim. He was an American citizen, a dental student, a newlywed, a friend, an advocate for volunteer work and a lover of basketball too. In his death, he was written about not as a “Muslim martyr,” but as a person with a three-dimensional personality, who had religious beliefs as well as aspirations and hobbies.
The reason why this is so crucial came from Karaki herself. When asked about the aftermath of the interview with the sheikh she offered this simple insight:
“I don’t feel like a hero, I feel like any man or woman with self-respect.”
Whenever being confronted by a Muslim pushed to the forefront as the purest portrayal of Islam, be they heroic or villainous, it is imperative to remember we are always looking at an individual, never a group, we are seeing one Muslim, not one Islam.