Taking Back Control of the Muslim Narrative

By Saad Haq

I credit my passion of storytelling to a mixture of Bollywood movies, Hollywood movies, and American television shows.  Earlier movies in my life such as Stand By Me, The Breakfast Club, and Dil Chahta Hai to recent movies such as Boyhood, Piku, and Kapoor & Sons depict stories of family, friendships, relationships, and the transitions and challenges life presents.  These movies are not the normal 2-3 hour marathons, consumed by the masses, giving an escape from reality through colors, opulence, romance, explosions, special effects, and logic defying action.  These are stories that can relate to many of us; the movies themselves may not be true stories, but we can find truths in them that apply to our lives.

In addition to movies, television shows have had the same impact on me.  Shows such as Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Lost, The Wire, and The Sopranos have been heavily popular, even after they have stopped airing, thanks to online streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, and the test of time.  Shows such as these have defined the Golden Age of Television.  This period is continuing, not just because of hours of programming available outside of the normal broadcast and cable channels, but due to a great number of original content being offered.  In a world of movie and TV remakes and reboots, shows with original content, character depth, and multi-layered plot – and all its simplicities and complexities – are winning the hearts and minds of the viewer, myself included.

Taking Back Control of the Muslim NarrativePeople invest their time in telling, listening, and watching stories.  They invest in a character who resonates with them because it may represent who they are and who they want to become.  There is at least one negative outcome; people may invest in a character who may be like them, but may not best depict who they are; that is when the divest from that character.  And when they realize this pattern continuing, it gives a negative representation, which people take to believe to be the norm, when it truly is not.

For Muslims, this is well known to us, whether depicted in TV, Movies, or in the News – this has been happening well before 9/11.  It is a narrative being told by people who do not have a correct understanding of what Islam is and who Muslims are.  Our response should be to take back control of the Muslim narrative.

In the Qur’an, Allah tells us in Chapter 49, Verse 13:  “Oh Mankind, We have created you from male and female and made you nations and tribes so that you may know one another (not despise each other). Indeed the most noble of you is the most righteous of you.”  This verse has been used in many occasions in the context of interfaith collaboration, bridge building, and solidarity, and it should still be used for this. What if we take this verse and ponder on it some more?  Allah is telling us to know one another and one way to know one another is by telling our own stories to different nations and tribes.  Muslims by themselves are made of different nations and tribes.

When pondering on this, I had to ask myself, how well do I know my Muslim brothers and sisters?  How much do they know about me?  We know each other through the Masjid, activities, Eid prayers, and other programs, but when do we sit down and learn about one another at a deeper level, beneath the surface?  If we are not doing this as much within the Muslim community, how can we tell others about ourselves?

To take back control of the narrative, and to use my passion for storytelling, the best way I could contribute was to create a podcast, which is called Muslim StoryTellers, or MuST for short.  The goal of this podcast is to bring Muslim voices to the forefront, countering the false narrative with stories of our own to define the true Muslim narrative.  These stories can be about family, friendships, relationships, and the transitions and challenges life presents, or they can be about anything else.  There are many stories that can be told; we forget that our stories are relatable to many people, regardless of age, religion, or ethnicity.  The mission is to flip the script, to be the protagonists, not the antagonist.

The podcast has 16 episodes with stories from different Muslims.  One story we have is a person’s journey to Islam through a Muslim who fought for America in the war on terror.  Another podcast we aired was about a Muslim navigating out of Ground Zero on 9/11.  Our most recent one was about Muslim changing career paths to Mass Media and Journalism as her contribution to promoting the Muslim narrative.  InshaAllah, we will be airing Episode 17 at the beginning of Ramadan.

We are looking for more people to share their stories.  The storytellers can be anyone, there is no prerequisite, one just needs to be willing to share their story, and we can help you through that process.  Stories one may not think are good stories may turn out to be great stories.  If you are the person that may not know where to start, perform this simple mental exercise by asking yourself one question:  “If had to tell one story, what would it be?”  Once you have it, believe in it, because there is power and wisdom in every story.

To visit our website, you can go to www.muslimstorytellers.org.  If you are interested and you know of others who are interested in sharing their story, feel free to reach us at muslimstorytellers@gmail.com

The morning after the election, my children asked who won, and I told them.  The one who they hoped would lose became the victor, and they reacted with some concern.  Their very first question after my response was “What happens next?”  I replied “You will need to grow up a little faster.”  The best way we can help them grow is to help them become great communicators.  They can be whatever they desire to be, but they need to be effective communicators because they will need this skill for the rest of their lives.  We all need to be effective communicators to convey our message better, only then will people invest their time in telling and listening to these stories.  I hope for myself and for all of us that Muslim StoryTellers will be the first step in that direction.

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