BY: TARYN DANIELS
Ammarah Rehman is a sophomore in the School of International Service, working to find new ways to tell stories about the Muslim experience. She is the founder of The Muslim Project, an online campaign that uses social media and videos to begin to accomplish that very goal. In addition, she is also apart of the Islam Awareness Coalition, which works to use a political focus to create awareness about the Muslim experience on campus.
The Blackprint sat down with Ammarah to discuss these amazing projects, her family, and what she thinks her hidden talent is.
Taryn Daniels: Let's talk about The Muslim Project. How did that come to be? Where do you see it going?
Ammarah Rehman: I met this wonderful woman named Blair Imani. She has a non-profit called Equality for Her, which [creates content] focusing on the female spectrum. [After meeting her], I thought it would be cool to create a series highlighting Muslims. We bounced ideas back and forth, then she created a domain and website for it. Originally, we were going to do a photo series, where we created these posters that say "Muslim," with different definitions underneath. We had another set of posters that said "Islam," followed by definitions underneath as well, and people would hold them and take picture of them. It looked amazing, but it still didn't really capture the story. I really wanted to emphasize people's stories, their experiences with Islam, their experiences facing Islamophobia, why they choose to be Muslim and what they would like someone who has never heard about Islam to know about it. A lot of the stories had this repeated [theme] of "the media says this and the news says this, but we aren't like this and I am not like this." Then I started to feel super selfish about [the whole thing], because I had all of these amazing stories and I just kept thinking "oh my god, I have to get them out [somehow]!" But I also started realizing that a lot of people don't read written content anymore. So I [changed] my approach to include videos, similar to AJ+ or Now This. The views were just ridiculous! I went from getting maybe 30 reads to 700 views on a video. Right now I use a lot of content that I can find of people, but eventually I would love to buy a camera to do my own interviews and more long-form content.
TD: Have there been a lot of stories that have surprised you or brought new things to your attention?
AR: Obviously there's discrimination and Islamophobia, but it almost seems like with the people I've talked to, they are more saddened by the idea of their own community not accepting them than [facing adversity] from another community. One of the people I interviewed is Egyptian and he talks about how although his experience wasn't as bad as it could've been, coming out as a transgender Muslim was difficult. A lot of the stories about Islamophobia get to me too. Some people talk about experiences they had in high school and it's always pure ignorance. One time someone told me that they put on a town hall event in their high school about Islam and advertised it on the parent email list, and parents came to the event asking these horrible questions. As a high school student, that person was just not prepared for it to turn into that.
TD: On the site itself, it says that you are trying to educate people while also combating the way Muslim American stories are told in the media. What does the media do right in portraying Muslim identities? What do they still need to do?
AR: Last year I wrote a research paper on this, focusing on how Muslims and Arabs (specifically men) were portrayed in media. I found this documentary called "Reel Bad Arabs," which goes through hundreds of movies going back from the early 1900's to 2000, and he found only 7 that portrayed Muslims and Arabs as positive characters. He even puts them into different categories like how Muslims are portrayed, how Arabs are portrayed, how women are portrayed, etc. He talks about how women are portrayed as belly dancers or seductive, while the men are portrayed as Arab kings with oil, land and riches, a narrative that has been around way before 9/11. Then [he compares that] to recent movies, which portray them instead as terrorists. I think he does a wonderful job of demonstrating this idea and it's sad that I [barely need two hands] to count how many positive roles there are for Muslims and Arabs. If every time you see an Arab man on television as a terrorist or as someone who is filthy rich and treats women horribly, that transforms into the idea that "Islam treats its women horribly etc." There's even one movie with Samuel Jackson called "Rules of Engagement", where they shoot into a crowd of children in Yemen, but the narrative was like "they shot first and the American soldiers are the heroes."
But there are certain things that are going on right now in the media [that are positive]. Hasan Minhaj is a Muslim on "The Daily Show." When have we ever seen that? He's bringing his perspective on a lot of issues that are happening, which is fantastic! How many people watch "The Daily Show" every week? Everyone's heard of it. There's "Little Mosque on the Prairie," which shows a Muslim family navigating their everyday and living a normal life. It took until 2016, but "Quantico" had the first ever hijabi character. So that's great representation.
I think that we always want to sprinkle a Muslim here and a Muslim there, a Black person here and a Black person there and we want to create diversity, but no one is ever pushing for representation. So there's no American-Muslim channel. Because of this lack of representation, we have this narrative that Islam is the way it is even though that's not necessarily true. But I think the media is getting there.
TD: Let's talk about the AU Islam Awareness Coalition. What are its objectives?
AR: Whereas the Muslim Students Association (MSA) is more of a social club, the Islam Awareness Coalition (IAC) takes more of a political stance. We are trying to bring in a different narrative but have it be politically centered. Generally, we are trying to create the idea that there is this diversity in the Muslim background. We had a queer identities in Islam event last semester. We had a fundamentalism in religion event, which was a panel of clergymen and women, and it was a really amazing event. We are planning a big event this semester around April. It's going to be our Islamic art exhibit, featuring Muslim artists. We'll have poetry, literature, henna and we'll also have actual Muslim artists selling their calligraphy or any type of work that they've done. It's essentially a night to explore modern day Islamic art. We want to say that we are here, we want a big presence on campus and we want to be heard. We feel that there is a lot of Islamophobia on campus but also a lot of people on campus who want to study in the Middle East. You can't study in the Middle East without consideration for the community. It's great that you're taking a class here, but many of the classes [focused on Islamic culture] are taught by white professors who can't really speak to that narrative. We want to show people what Islam actually is, as opposed to what you study in government.
TD: Have you faced any negativity or resistance with either project? How do you deal with that?
AR: I can't really speak to either project, because the Muslim Project is online with a primarily Muslim audience. I don't really get it with IAC either, but definitely in some classes. I remember I was in class once and some girl said something like, "the United States went into the Middle East to show them that there are more job opportunities than terrorism." I was like, "no actually, terrorism was coined after Americans went there. That was not a term we used."
TD: Who are your idols (Muslim, activist, or otherwise)?
AR: I would say my dad. He left Pakistan at like 17 or 18 and worked for a Greek cargo ship. He got to travel the world and learn multiple languages, which sounds all great, but he was also exploited for labor because he was a poor Pakistani laborer. He's just the hardest working person I've ever met. When he first came to this country, he said he used to work 130 out of a 160-hour week, which is ridiculous. That sort of dedication towards improving the lives of your family members, and then setting up a foundation for your kids in the future is just amazing. And if you ask him what he's ever done, he'll say nothing. He's the most humble and selfless.
TD: Your AmWord article, "A Veiled Life," has this great line in it about fashion changing blanket perceptions about your hijab. Can you elaborate more on this? How do you pushback?
AR: I don't veil 24/7. Since I'm Pakistani, I have a very casual representation of it. You can wear it whenever you want and you don't have to wear it all the time, but then it again it would be fine if I just decided to wear one [everyday]. It is true for a lot of my Muslim friends, that if they are in an airport, they'll tie it into a turban because then people just perceive them as fashionable and not as a threat. So when I'm seen as religious then I'm seen as a threat, but if I'm seen as fashionable then I'm okay. It's not necessarily the idea that I'm covered, but it's about [how people see me] once religion is involved.
TD: 10 years from now, what are you doing?
AR: In ten years, I would like to be a contributor in the research towards Islam. Not necessarily an Islamic scholar, [but I'd like to] create content like "what's the difference between cultural Islam and Islam according to the book?" or "how does class affect Islam?" I would also love to teach because I find the ability to convey ideas and see them make sense to someone else is really beautiful.
TD: What's one talent that most people don't know you have?
AR: I would say I'm a pretty good dancer, like not the best but also not the worst! Whenever I go places with people and they see me dance, they are always shocked. With me, it's always work, school, intern. So they [are always surprised] that I also have a fun side.
Cover photo provided by Ammarah Rehman.