Everyday American Muslim: Rewriting American Muslim identity through photographs
In his book, The Atheist Muslim, writer Ali Rizvi writes about the need to distinguish between Muslim identity and the Ideology of Islam, asserting that in the interplay of contemporary politics and global events, the line between the two often gets blurred. He states that Islam, with its set of rules, is a religion, and not a human being; while Muslims – who follow those rules– are humans and the absence of a distinction between the two leads to a biased portrayal of the latter.
This difference between ideology and identity helps us understand that a terror attack or crimes conducted in the name of Islam, don’t make every Muslim a terrorist and that the community also suffers from severe backlash brought upon by these acts of aggression.
However, this nuanced distinction is often overlooked by the media. Often portrayed as terrorists or other unsavoury characters, media’s negative description of Muslims not only vilifies and demonises but also dehumanises the vast majority of peace-loving Muslims by morphing their identity into something ugly through a narrative laced with vitriol and ignorance.
Among those making efforts to change the existing rhetoric of Muslim identity is Zoshia Minto, the founder of hugely popular and important Everyday American Muslim project. Moved by a hate crime that took the life of three Muslims in 2015 in America, and perturbed by the consistently negatively portrayal of her community in the media, Zoshia started the project to showcase Muslims living a ‘normal’ life – going to the beach, attending the call to pray, and enjoying parties, among others.
In conversation with TAL, the Pakistani-American speaks about the need to stop viewing Muslims through ‘the lens of terrorism’, the challenges in running such a project, and the space for debates and discussions within Islam.
Before we delve deeper into your interesting project, please tell us something about yourself.
My family is originally from Pakistan. I was born in Nairobi, Kenya and raised in the United States. I'm a wedding photographer by profession.
In an interview you mentioned how the shooting of three Muslims in 2015 persuaded you to start this project. Did you view the shooting in isolation, or was it the last straw in a line of discriminatory actions against the community that forced you to stand up and make a difference?
Early 2015 was marked by the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January, and then in February the three young Muslims were killed in North Carolina. I did not know the victims - Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha or her sister Razan - but a friend of mine was the young couple's wedding photographer, and other friends knew the families. There's been a long and steady history of vilifying Muslims in the media and elsewhere, but the murders of the three Muslim students, made Islamophobia terrifyingly palpable. I felt compelled to do something that might, in some way, contribute to a better understanding of Muslims.
What is the intent and goal of the project, and how was it initiated? Please take us through the process of creating this project.
As an American Muslim, I felt so frustrated by the prevalence of images stigmatising Muslims as violent and rigid people, as well as a general lack of knowledge of Islam that stood out in comments on social media and news sites. Unfortunately, anti-Muslim rhetoric from political figures also continues to encourage ignorance and breeds hate. I wanted to do something that addressed this atmosphere of divisiveness and reflected a bit of my experience as an American Muslim by photographing various daily life moments of Muslims. My hope is that anyone looking at the images can find something in common in them that they can connect with.
At the very least the photos can offer a more insightful view of Muslims. The project is certainly not representative of every American who identifies as Muslim, but it is an attempt to represent the shared experiences of many American Muslims.
I started photographing for the project shortly after the three young Muslims were killed in North Carolina; one of the first pictures I made was of a candlelight vigil held in their honour in Washington, D.C. By the end of 2015, campaigning for the U.S. Presidential elections was underway and Donald Trump was calling for a Muslim ban. I continued to photograph my friends, family, and people from various Muslim communities but it wasn't until after the election in November 2016 when I started to share images from the project publicly.
After I started the project, I connected with then AP Chief Photographer for the Middle East, Pakistan & Afghanistan, Muhammed Muheisen. He was very helpful and generous in offering guidance and advice about my photography and project. I met with Muheisen and Roos Wijngaards (both co-founders of Everyday Refugees page on Instagram) two weeks after the election. They encouraged and helped me set up the Everyday American Muslim project. It felt like the right time to start sharing the photographs, and Instagram, with its wide reach and easy accessibility, felt like the best platform to share pictures on.
How do you manage to create such a varied and informative archive of stories of the community? What kind of questions do you ask them to learn more about their lives as American Muslims?
Many of the pictures are ones that I made when I started photographing for the project in the beginning of 2015. Since then I continue to photograph and contribute images to the project, but I've also connected with other professional photographers who have worked on their own projects (as well as assignments) covering American Muslims. I reached out directly to some of the photographers and others had contacted me themselves.
Currently, ten photographers share their work as regular contributors, and we also try to feature photos from guest contributors as well. I'd like to expand the areas of the U.S. that are covered in the project by including more photographers as regular contributors. Most of the current contributors are based on the East coast. We also encourage followers of the project to tag their own photos using the hashtag #everydayamericanmuslim which we share every Friday as part of our "Follow Friday" posts.
When I'm photographing individuals for the project, I don't always ask specific questions about their lives as American Muslims. Often it's just a request to document an everyday moment whether it's at a birthday celebration or a day at the beach. I may ask questions that are relevant to the person or situation that I photograph. I make a conscious effort also to include images of Muslims practising their faith because it's important to emphasise that, as practising Muslims, we generally don't see or experience any incompatibility between being both American and Muslim. This idea of incompatibility is something that Islamophobes seem to fixate on.
The main goal of the project, though, is simply to document and share daily life moments which connect us all as people.
Do you think that there is a need for Islam to evolve and keep up with the times, and shouldn’t there be more outrage within the community when atheists or homosexuals are killed? Won’t having more discussions and debates around certain subjects that are considered taboo in the religion, make it more accessible to non-muslims, thereby reducing discrimination and ignorance to a certain degree?
Islam doesn't advocate for violence against anyone (whoever kills one person, kills humanity) and encourages tolerance (even during war Muslims cannot destroy sacred places for followers of other religions and non-Muslims have specific rights even in Muslim majority nations). The jurisprudence concerning many matters is complex and varied depending on who you ask. It wouldn't be fair to try and explain all that here, but there's a lot that's misunderstood and misrepresented.
Questioning and discussing ideas are actually encouraged within Islam as a process of understanding religion and faith. As for having discussions and debates to make Islam more accessible to non-Muslims, I would say of course! Many people think that the problem is with Islam and have several assumptions about Muslims. But they haven't spent enough time having meaningful discussions with Muslims or making an effort to understand Islam from a neutral point of view.
Has the project helped you understand the evolution of American attitude towards Muslims better– from before 9/11 to Trump-era politics? How (if) has the behaviour and attitude changed?
I don't think the project itself has helped me understand the evolution of American attitudes towards Muslims. I've lived that experience as an American Muslim. As I mentioned before there's always been a negative portrayal of Islam and Muslims in the media, whether it's through stereotypes depicted in movies and television or the media’s emphasis on only reporting about Muslims through the lens of terrorism, etc.
Now that social media is widespread, and political and media figures have made it normal and acceptable to single out Muslims as the "other", it seems like an increasing number of people are more vocal about their negative views of Muslims, which has also resulted in an increasing number of anti-Muslim assaults and hate crimes.
Islam is a diverse religion viewed differently by people belonging to different sects and countries. Do you think your project clubs every Muslim – irrespective of their country of origin, or sect, etc.,- together or does it enhance the differences and creates awareness about them among non-muslims?
I don't think we've photographed enough people or moments to really express the diversity of Islam (within the U.S. since that's the focus of the project), but the project does try to show some of the differences that exist both in the practice of the faith as well as the cultural background of Muslims.
Also, does the project try to highlight the discrimination that exists within the community as well?
Ideally, I would like the project to not only offer non-Muslims greater insight about the everyday lives of Muslims but also share pictures and stories that might encourage discussion among Muslims about many of the culturally rooted issues within our communities, whether it's anti-black discrimination or women's spaces in a masjid (Mosque).
When you approach someone for their pictures, are they hesitant or eager to share their stories with you?
Almost everyone I've asked to photograph has been happy and excited to share their story or let me document some moment in their life. A couple of people have felt uncomfortable because of the anti-Muslim atmosphere and declined my request to photograph them. In general, as Muslims, I believe we all recognise the need to take control of the narrative about us. Most of the stories and images in mainstream media do not represent who we are as individuals or as a community. The only way to combat these stereotypes is to share our reality through our pictures and our stories.
What kind of space do you think a project like yours occupies in an era marked by Trumps’s hate speeches and attacks like the horrific Christchurch shootings? How important has it become to depict Muslims as ‘normal’ and not as the ‘other’ or as ‘terrorists’?
Muslims worldwide have been dehumanised as a result of all the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric, so it's incredibly important to share and promote projects like Everyday American Muslim, particularly when most Americans have not even met a Muslim. According to the Pew Research Center's findings, the more likely a person is to know a Muslim, the more likely he or she is to view the community favourably. Offering an alternate source of images and stories at least allows [American non-muslims] the opportunity to see a more multi-dimensional view of Muslims.
What has the reception been like to your project? Do you have people messaging you that your project encourages them to be more open-minded towards Muslims?
The reception has been overwhelmingly positive so far. The project was featured by Instagram and was included in an article in Photo District News about photography projects that were started after the 2016 presidential election. Documentary photographer and filmmaker and founder of the Aftermath Project, Sara Terry, also included a selection of images from the project in her 10(X) Editions series of books. Aside from a few hate-filled comments left under various pictures, the general response has been positive. Both Muslims and non-Muslims appreciate seeing more substantive images than the stereotypical depictions of Muslims. When I first started sharing the project on Instagram a man from Michigan reached out to me and said, "I don't want to fear or hate you, I hope to learn and understand." That response to the project illustrates the reason I felt the need to create Everyday American Muslim.
What are the challenges you face in running such an account, and how do you overcome them?
The main challenge in running this account is finding photographers and sourcing images for the project. I'm still working on finding more photographers to bring onto the project as regular contributors. I've been reaching out to my network and also searching online. We also encourage followers of the project to use the hashtag #everydayamericanmuslim so we can share their images on Fridays, but it hasn't been used frequently enough for me to be able to curate images properly. I often spend time browsing various accounts and pictures on Instagram and reaching out to people for permission to share their pictures on Everyday American Muslim.
As a Pakistani Muslim growing up in America, did you face any discrimination? Could you identify with the stories that you were archiving for the projects?
I personally haven't faced any real discrimination, I think mainly because my name and appearance aren't easily identifiable as being Muslim or even Pakistani. I also don't wear the hijab, [so there are no obvious markers]. Nevertheless, as a member of a Muslim family and community, I do identify with the experiences and stories shared in the project.
Which story has touched you the most and reflected the very ethos of the project?
I don't think I can say that any particular story touched me the most. Every story has value and enriches the greater narrative about American Muslims. However, one post shared by a follower named Maryam, who also happens to be my cousin, was unexpected and a little eye opening. Maryam's picture is a photo of herself, a Muslim woman who wears hijab, with a group of friends, all moms of twins and all white non-Muslim women, who she originally connected with online. Their friendship grew, and they all ended up meeting and spending a weekend together at one friend's house in Georgia. The friend, Lindsey, actually admitted to Maryam that she was scared of Muslims before meeting her.
Likewise, Maryam was surprised to find that she could connect and have anything in common with a group of non-Muslim women, some of whom are from the conservative South. Their friendship and bonding over their shared experiences as moms of twins highlights the point of this project; although we differ in our faiths and cultural backgrounds, we also have much in common as people living everyday lives and striving for similar goals.
How enriching has this project been in terms of learnings: have you learned something about the community that you didn’t know earlier?
I'm not sure that I've learned anything new about the American Muslim community, but it has been enriching to personally get a glimpse into the lives of so many different people. We are an active, engaged, charitable community of diverse backgrounds who are tired of being stigmatised as the other.
What are the plans for the future with regards to the project?
I would like to continue growing the Everyday American Muslim project on Instagram by including more photographers who are based in different parts of the U.S. Everyday American Muslim is also part of the Everyday Projects, which is now a non-profit organisation. Part of their agenda is an education initiative, which they are working on with various schools to break down stereotypes and teach visual literacy through the different Everyday projects. I would like to do something similar in local schools but with an emphasis on the Everyday American Muslim project and understanding Islam/Muslims.
Follow Everyday American Muslim on Instagram.