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What Does It Mean to Be a Muslim American? It’s Complicated.

Aymann Ismail explains why he’s confronting fears about Islam in Slate’s new video series.

Aymann Ismail.


In this Slate Extra podcast—which is exclusive to Slate Plus members—Chau Tu talks with Slate video producer Aymann Ismail about his new video series, “Who’s Afraid of Aymann Ismail?” In the biweekly show, Ismail wants to dissect what it means to be a Muslim in America, especially in a time when views on Islam and Muslims have become politicized sound bites.

In this podcast, Ismail talks about the biggest misconceptions about Islam and how it feels to confront people who hate him based on his religion. Follow the video series here.

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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Chau Tu: Congratulations on the launch of the show. How would you describe it for people who haven’t seen it yet?

Aymann Ismail: This show will confuse the hell out of you, I hope. That’s the plan. This show is about a Muslim person who doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, and doesn’t act like he knows the true answers of what God wants, and he’s trying to navigate the climate right now, where it seems like everybody has an idea of what God wants. What usually ends up happening is a lot of people will use certain events, or certain verses, or certain ideas that people share to demonize an entire one-quarter of the entire population of Earth. So what I want to do is I want to take these subjects of Islam, and these taboos that are so often simplified to oblivion, and complicate the fuck out of it.

Is there something that prompted you to start the show?

I’m a photojournalist, I’m a video kid, I’m a behind-the-lens kind of personality. I hate being on camera. But when I went to the RNC [Republican National Convention] last summer to photograph it for Slate, I didn’t even get inside before somebody in a full-blown colonial Thomas Jefferson costume walked up to me and said, “Hey, are you a Muslim?” And I was like, “Yeah, nice to meet you, Thomas Jefferson,” and we went back and forth. He said things like “Islam is cancer,” I’m what’s wrong with the world, and those kinds of things.

I was just going there to film the event but ended up being thrust in front of the lens because it was the first of many times during that whole event that I would be confronted by people who were very hostile about my identity. That turned into a video called “The Party of Jesus Meets a Muslim.” That became a video that some people enjoyed, and we were trying to figure out a way of, “OK, how do we turn this into a series? How do we let Aymann do this over and over again?” And this is what happened. We decided to not necessarily have me go around and defend myself or defend my identity, but really try to understand why so many of these people feel this way.

Who are some of the people that you’re going to talk to for the show?

I want to talk to everybody. I mean, the thing about this series is that it’s really about the Muslim-American identity and what makes it so complicated, right? So I need to talk to Muslims who have particular or complex identities. I need to talk to people who hate Muslims, who contribute to how the Muslim-American experience kind of goes in this country. What I want to do is I want to go subject by subject, line by line, and talk to literally as many different people as I can about each of these subjects. The goal is to really complicate it, so what I want to do is talk to someone who hates Muslims for this reason, talk to someone who is Muslim and kind of hates himself for this reason, or talk to someone who is Muslim and, by existing, contradicts this idea that Islam and the West can’t coexist.

Do you think there’s been a particular or notable rise in animosity and prejudice toward Muslims since Trump started, or is there something else that’s causing it? What do you think is going on?

Sure, there’s a rise, but this has been a constant thing, and not just unique to Muslims either. I feel like if you belong to a certain group that is constantly in the media, your identity will be used as leverage to pull people into a certain camp. There’s a lot of partisanship that goes into this. Like, for example, right now when it comes to Muslims, typically the liberals are idiots because they’re trusting Muslims and letting them in, and the people on the right are racist and they just don’t like Muslims because they’re brown.

Obviously, neither of those are true, but that’s sort of the narrative, and it’s like sports teams, people are like, “Yeah, my team’s better than your team, your team sucks.” Your identity is just thrown into this fold and into this conflict, and in America, you’re just expected to deal with it. And in a lot of ways, we do, but what I want to do is I want to make it more complicated than just, “Well, you know, Muslims kill gay people, therefore we shouldn’t let gay people into this country,” because these are actual people that we’re talking about, these are identities, and a lot of times, it gets reduced to these sound bites because there’s so much partisanship.

I do think that with Trump in the White House, partisanship has become this huge deal. Everyone is trying to convince the other side that they’re right and the other side is wrong, and this goes for both sides. I don’t think that this is going to go away when Trump is gone; I don’t think it’s here because Trump is here. But right now, given the climate that Trump is in the White House, and people are putting party over country like never before, that definitely contributes to the atmosphere of distrust around minorities, or just anybody who’s not nonhyphenated American.

What do you think are some of the most common misconceptions about Muslims?

Oh my God, where do I start? I can tell you about the messages that I got today. So in the first episode that dropped in the series, I talked to my cousin, who’s a gay Muslim who, when he came out, had to leave his home because his parents did not take it so well. They tried to set him on fire. It was horrible, and as a family, we were all trying to deal with it, and deal with something that we’ve never really had to deal with before, you know? But given the conversation that we had, I tried my best to expose it and to talk about and be honest about it. And still, I got comments like “Wow, your cousin should be careful not to go around tall buildings with you around,” suggesting, like, I would toss him off. I’ve been accused of being not a Muslim already, and it hasn’t even been a few hours since the series launched.

So if I wanted to talk strictly about the biggest misconceptions, I’ll tell you my favorites, how about that? Because it’s kind of funny, and you have to take it that way if you want to survive. My favorite one right now is that Muslims want to enslave women. I think of that, and then I think about all of the Muslim women in my life, and I just—these guys just haven’t met Muslim women, you know what I mean? Like, they are really strong. My mom definitely wears the pants in the house. My sister graduated from Harvard twice; she’s the smartest person I’ve ever met, a strong Muslim woman. My wife is the most badass person I’ve ever met in my life. So when I have someone tell me, “Oh yeah, you just want to enslave women, you want women to disappear,” I don’t know. I’m not going to pretend like that doesn’t happen in the Muslim world—for sure it does. Saudi Arabia is Mordor, as far as I’m concerned. But yeah, you should talk to some more Muslim women if that’s what you believe.

Another one of my favorite ones is the idea that every Muslim wants everybody else that isn’t Muslim to either convert or die. When I was growing up, I had no Muslim friends. I grew up in New Jersey, I went to a school where everyone was either Puerto Rican or black. I was the other. Before I started paying attention to these misconceptions, I was like, “Wow, [that’s a] very bold thing to say about people you’ve never met.”

Again, you can hold ISIS up as your example of being the people who are representing Islam or practicing it to their best ability, but at the same time, they’re killing Muslims, and the people who are killing them and fighting against them are Muslims. So if we want to talk about what ISIS has in common with everyone around them, is that they are at war with Muslims. How does that work? How does it work? Tell me, I don’t know.

Every day, you need to take these kinds of ideas and laugh at them, take them in stride. But I’ve done that my entire life, and now I really want to address them and confront them—and not to correct them, but really, for myself, to understand them. This series isn’t to broadcast my feelings or opinions; it’s designed to follow this one curious kid who just wants to know more about his identity, and how he’s going to do that is by talking to other people who share that identity.

You’ve talked a little bit about this already, but what has the response been so far, both from the anti-Muslim activists that you’re meeting, and also people in the Muslim community?

The kind of responses that I’ve gotten so far are sort of as expected. I’ve gotten messages from Muslims who are telling me that I’m wrong; I’ve gotten messages from non-Muslims telling me that I don’t understand my own religion; I’ve gotten messages from non-Muslims saying this is the best thing they’ve ever seen. I got an email today from a kind woman in Maryland saying, “If you ever want to come by and hang out with our Muslim community, we’re very progressive; you’re more than welcome.” That’s amazing. I do want to take her up on that. I am going to go to Maryland; I have to figure out when.

That part feels great, but considering that, the internet is also a place where Muslims become radicalized and join groups like ISIS because they are exposed to all of these horrible ideas. It’s also a place where non-Muslims can just Google “Why do Muslims kill?” and then 30 websites will explain, “Oh, it’s just because they’re Muslim and that’s what they’re supposed to do.” So when I talk to these people, and when I get their feedback and I want to respond, I have to also keep in mind that I’m responding to these sound bites, and these essays that they’ve read about me before they’ve met me.

As long as I keep that in mind, I feel like it’s not going to necessarily change the way I feel about what I’m doing. I feel really motivated about the series, and I feel very excited about the opportunity to learn about who I am, and who this mysterious demographic of Muslims are—because I keep hearing these words, the Muslim-American community, and I really want to know where they hell they are. Like, what does that mean?

What have been some of the more surprising things that you’ve come across in making the series?

I’m really surprised by how powerful listening could be. I’d never expected that by meeting someone who has been very vehemently anti-Muslim, [for him] to be very kind and accepting of me. For the first episode, I got in touch with an anti-Muslim activist who spends a lot of his time on the internet sharing stories of terrorism, and describing how they are the true Muslims and everyone else is just waiting for their chance to kill somebody. I really wanted to meet with this guy and try to understand whether or not he actually is afraid of people like me, or if this is a project for him to make some money, because he does have a huge following, and he throws these events. It’s media. I was really curious to know whether or not anti-Muslim propaganda is an industry that is destroying the fabric of our society by pitting Americans against Americans, or if he’s genuinely scared and concerned. The truth is, he’s a little bit of both.

When we sat down together, I asked him if he was nervous about, or anxious about letting a Muslim into his home, and he said, “Well, I was more concerned about you coming from Slate,” and we had this laugh, and I was like, “This guy is not what I was expecting at all,” you know? I was so mentally prepared to just be like, “Yeah, this guy’s going to be like, ‘Fuck you, terrorist, eat some pork and go to hell’ ” kind of thing. He was the opposite of that. He was really kind, he was really nice. His house is really nice. It was surreal.

Has it been difficult to get anti-Muslim activists like that to speak to you, especially on the record?

It’s been a mixed bag. I mean, it’s really hard to tell, because if you don’t get a response, you don’t know why you didn’t get a response. But when they do respond, a lot of people have more questions first. They’re a little bit more apprehensive, which I understand. But I have not gotten a “no” yet, so I feel pretty good, and I feel pretty motivated.

One group that I’m really, really interested in, who I am terrified of being rejected by because I see them as being so cool and so punk rock, is this group called the Ex-Muslims of North America. They are a community of people who have rejected Islam, and who consider themselves to be atheists, or maybe not even atheist, but just agnostic, or I don’t know. But they have created this community where they get to hold on to these certain aspects of Muslim culture, Arabic culture, or South Asian culture, and exist with each other in this safe space, and I think it’s really, really awesome. I’ve never in my life wanted to leave Islam. I’ve had moments in my life where I’ve felt less religious, but I do see this huge value in letting people be themselves. When I reached out to them, I was expecting them to be like, “Oh, yeah, you just want to call us out, or tell us that we’re going to go to hell, or try to kill us.” I was expecting that, because I’m sort of, in a way, brainwashed by the media that I read about how these people react to a Muslim, and they were really kind. They were, of course, apprehensive at first because of the security threat, and it is a real security threat. They didn’t want to be exposed, or they didn’t want to expose their members, which is very important—and if you’re listening, I promise you I will do everything I can to make sure that nothing leaks.

As long as I express my genuine interest in learning the truth, and trying to understand where these fears are coming from, not trying to tell people that their fears are invalid, I really do think that this is something that everybody can benefit from. That includes people who are afraid of Muslims, that includes people who are Muslim, that includes people who’ve never met Muslims. I think if what I want to do comes out the right way, I think this could really be a video that could be shared and enjoyed by literally everyone on every end of the spectrum.

So when you met this anti-Muslim activist, and he turned out to be sort of nice and understanding that you went to his home, what’s your conclusion about that? I mean, he’s probably back on the internet, spouting out his anti-Muslim views.

Yeah, absolutely. Within a day, he was like, “Look what these Muslims are doing!” I’m really glad you asked that, because I really don’t know how I feel. Ever since the shoot ended, I’ve been conflicted about how I’m supposed to feel about this guy. Really nice, very generous. He’s from St. Louis, and I can tell he had that Southern charm, Southern hospitality. Real, real sweet, nice guy. However, when I walked into his living room, he had this statue of a Muslim person with a freaking scimitar sword striking the head of this Christian woman with a halo around her head, and he was like, “Yeah, I keep this statue around because it keeps the evil away.” And I’m thinking to myself, “Oh, when he says ‘evil,’ he probably means me.”

But at the same time, I really do feel like we connected. We empathized about our fears, and it wasn’t a fear of an entire group; it was a fear of societal collapse, it was a fear of losing control, it was a fear of change, in a way, if I want to simplify it that much. And we connected in that way, and it’s in the video—he said that he enjoyed our conversation and he enjoyed our company, and he knows that I’m a Muslim, and he knows that I’m very open about my faith in God.

I feel both really happy that we were able to connect on such an intimate level and we were able to be honest with each other, but at the same time, like, fuck you, man. I don’t want to kill everybody. I’m Muslim, and I believe in my heart that I’m practicing my religion to the best of my ability, and I think every Muslim in their heart believes that. So to suggest that one small group of Muslims are doing it the right way, and everybody else is doing it the wrong way, that’s evil in my mind. Hopefully we get to meet again, and I would love to have dinner with him again, because I had a lot of fun. I wish him nothing but good health, and nothing but love and peace and everything, but goddammit, man, throw me a bone. Just stop it.

What do you want your audience to take away from watching your videos from the series?

I want everyone who watches this video to doubt everything that they believe, or that they thought they believed. And that includes Muslims, and that includes non-Muslims, and that includes everybody. Identity is so complex, and part of what makes it so complex is the fact that it’s so specific to one person’s experience throughout their entire lives. My siblings and I are totally different in these really, really concrete ways that it’s insane for anyone to believe that there is a single Muslim-American experience.

If you look at religion in the way that I look at religion, where it’s supposed to help and empower people, and it’s supposed to take power away from bureaucrats, and from demagogues and dictators—which I believe was why Islam became a religion and why it became so prominent—if you’re not trying to do that with your religion, then I think you’re really wasting it. If you’re really just trying to look at it as a list of classroom rules, and that by adhering to the classroom rules, you’re practicing your faith and you’re expanding your spirituality, I just think there’s so much more you can gain from not just trying to memorize what’s written in the Quran, but trying to understand it and apply it to your life as you’ve lived it.