Liberal Fascination with "Islam-Lite" and the Humanizing Muslims Industry

Civil Rights

Source: Muftah, May 20, 2017

The second season of the popular Netflix series, Master of None, is being hailed by many as one of the best shows offered by a streaming service today. One reviewer called the show warm, welcoming, and audacious, while another enthusiastically praised it as “a perfect mix of sarcasm and sincerity.” Perhaps the most unique and amusing review, however, comes from comedienne Negin Farsad, who wrote in The Guardian that Master of None is a “nuanced portrayal of Muslim life” and a “refreshing change” from the otherwise antagonistic depictions of Muslims as “terrorists” in mainstream media.

As Farsad claims, “Aziz Ansari’s hit Netflix comedy provides a much-needed, bacon-eating, Tinder-using, liberal-minded antidote to tired terrorist stereotypes.” She goes on to state that the show’s tour de force lies in its ability to humanize Muslims, by showing how they too, like anyone else, can “make up silly jingles with their friends, [or] go on horrible first dates, and that they sometimes drunk-text.” The ultimate takeaway, we are told, is that Muslims “don’t come in one violent shape. They’re not born with weapons and beards. Some of them are cute but slight.”

On the surface, Farsad’s Master of None review may seem to be a celebration of Muslim diversity. But, in esteeming an image of the Muslim that is practically detached from anything Islamic in the theological sense, it represents an attempt to gratify liberal fears of the religiously conservative Other. In other words, it is a celebration not of diversity in Islam, but of “Islam-lite”—the visible absence of Islam in the actions and mannerisms of self-identified Muslims. Indeed, Farsad tries to sensitize readers to the idea of a “friendly” and “normal” Muslim without actually centralizing Islam in the discussion, in any way. By ascribing positive value only to actions, which prescriptively defy the ethical norms of Islam, she is promoting an unabashedly secularized semblance of the religion.

Consider, for example, how Farsad commends the fact the show’s main character proudly eats pork. In a sense, she is critiquing her own tradition from the outside—through the perspective of a liberal—to tell us why we ought to be happy that a Muslim is openly flouting basic Islamic rules. In doing so, Farsad not only encourages the “secular Muslim” as an ideal (unlike the sandal-wearing, miswak-using, Salafi-bearded, halal-eating Muslim), but also makes normative assertions about what is “good” and “bad” by drawing on the moral standards of mainstream liberal culture. The reason why a pork-eating, alcohol-drinking Muslim is a “good” thing is because “it gives Muslims the same sense of spectrum that Christians and Jews have long enjoyed.” That is to say, it makes Muslims “American” in the most unavailing, regimental sense of the term. Apparently, this is something worth celebration.

Farsad’s desire to break the so-called Muslim binary—of “pious” versus “extreme”—is problematic because it involves throwing conservative Muslims under the proverbial bus. By subtly implying that the religiously conservative and the violent extremist are both equally contemptible categories, Farsad leaves us with only one conclusion: that Muslims who are fully assimilated into the habits and customs of mainstream liberal culture are the “normal” ones.

Notably, Farsad’s article is part of a broader phenomenon, which I have previously referred to as the Humanizing Muslims Industry. Simply put, this “industry” involves making the Muslim palatable to Western audiences by identifying her with mainstream liberal norms—instead of the orthodoxy of Islamic ethics—and thereby secularizing the very idea of what it means to be a Muslim. In a short piece I authored in June 2016, I claimed this industry “attempts to make Muslims ‘relatable’ by focusing almost exclusively on moral, cultural, and political qualities that resonate with, and therefore appease, mainstream American culture,” which is the precise deficiency of Farsad’s article. It is, like other notable examples of the Humanizing Muslims Industry, just “a very sad attempt to prove Muslims are worthy of the same respect and belonging that all other people should have.”

The problem with the Humanizing Muslims Industry is that, rather than challenging mainstream liberal culture, it actively affirms it. What Farsad and other members of this “industry” fail to understand is that the more they “humanize” Muslims in a secular light, the more conservative-leaning Muslims will become sidelined, feared, and ultimately Othered. More importantly, the purportedly “nuanced” portrayals of Muslims they champion also visibly disregard, and thereby further entrench, the moral double standard mainstream liberal culture applies toward Islam. Time and time again, this double standard appears in news stories, movies, and other media and art forms to remind us that the only way mainstream liberal culture will ever be truly satisfied with Muslims is if they contort their moral boundaries and appear “secular” like everyone else.

Muslims, whether “secular” or “conservative,” have very little to gain and much to lose from the Humanizing Muslims Industry. At best, the “bad” ones will be sidelined in contempt, as the “good” ones are treated like spectacles, to be observed and inspected in the literary bastions of liberal high culture, like The Guardian.

There has never been anything desirable about shooting yourself in the foot, but the Humanizing Muslims Industry continues to do just that—with a smile.