A new documentary web series uses humor and empathy to subvert stereotypes about American Muslims.
It’s called "The Secret Life of Muslims," and in the introductory video we see a montage of people answering this question: “What’s the weirdest thing you’ve been asked about being Muslim?”
"The Secret Life of Muslims" was created by filmmaker Joshua Seftel, who’s worked in TV and film for decades. The series is comprised of short first person documentaries. Among the five episodes that have been released so far are profiles of the comedian and actor Ahmed Ahmed, and of rising media star Amani Al-Khatahtbeh. She’s the editor-in-chief of the the website, MuslimGirl.
When we reached Seftel in New York, he was joined by two participants in the series: Negin Farsad is a comedian and the author of “How to Make White People Laugh”; and Aman Ali is a comedian, storyteller and producer. Seftel says he conceived this project back in 2012, but it was an uphill climb to get it made.
On why it was a hard series to get made:
JOSHUA SEFTEL: I guess it was around 2012 that we started, and it was hard on every front. We had trouble finding funding, we had trouble finding distribution. I won't name any outlets, but I'd go to places and say, We want to do this series about Muslims. And they'd be like, Yeah, okay, sure. And I could tell they didn't want to do it. Then, even with casting, there were some people who I think felt uncomfortable about being part of the series.
Do we really need to 'normalize' Muslims?
NEGIN FARSAD: I feel like it's really important to see Muslims in a regular light. We learn some things about Muslims, which is that they're really boring, that they DVR episodes of "Downton Abbey," and that they're obsessed with Pop Tarts. These are all the kinds of things you would learn about Muslims if you knew any. I think it's important to know how human and normal and boring and obsessed with our weight and credit card debt we are. The way that all Americans are.
AMAN ALI: As a Muslim, I'm just kind of exhausted. Doing these projects where it's like, Hey, I'm so normal, just like you. But knowing Josh and knowing creatively where he wanted to go with it, I said, Okay, this is totally different. But I do know for a lot of people that identify as Muslim, that are in the public spotlight, some of that is just like, Man, it's been how long? We're really still talking about this? We've been talking about this for 15, almost 20 years. Do we really need another "Hey, We're [American] Just Like You" video?
On combating the demonizing of Muslims with humor:
ALI: You mention that it's not funny — I personally find it hilarious because there are some things that people have said, whether it's Trump or other elected leaders, that are so offensive, sexist, misogynist and racist that it's hilarious to me. As a comedian, this is a goldmine. So what I like to do, instead of just slamming it, I notice that a lot of this pain and frustration that people feel, you're able to laugh [away] the pain. And it's a way to cut through the tension. Yes, we live in a very tense time, but laughter is a way to bring people together. Even if you believe in one particular thing or another particular thing, everybody laughs at jokes. So it's able to say, Okay, maybe there's some commonality with entertainment and humor.
On why normalizing can be effective:
FARSAD: The model we need to start going forward [with] is, Is it possible that these people are three dimensional? You know, we needed to see "Will and Grace" before we could have marriage equality. Not to say that fight is over. It's not over. But I think once we can see these people in our living rooms, we feel good about them and that helps. I think it's helped with movements that have come before us.
ALI: I think Hollywood is starting to resonate. One of the hit shows on TV this past summer was Mr. Robot. It got Emmy nominations. Rami Malek isn't Muslim, but just having an Arab American actor ... and there's a hijab-y, Muslim American woman that wears a headscarf [who's] a hacker. Her faith is completely irrelevant. She's just a dope, awkward, nerdy hacker that's doing it. And it's one of the hottest shows on TV. So I do think that people are starting to understand that we need to portray people that just happen to be Muslim, and not a Muslim show about a Muslim family. I think just normalizing the experience and having people live everyday life is one way to address a lot of these issues.
On the hope that things are changing:
SEFTEL: I feel like we're in a new place. This series, not only did we get it made really quickly — it all came together in the last year — but it's been quite popular. We've had millions of views already and it's being shared all over the place and it's got some heat. I think that says something about things changing. At least I want to believe that.