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Muslim American “representation” is a myth

I have one question: What are we really challenging by fighting for token representation?

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On Tuesday, Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota announced that he was running for Minnesota attorney general. This opened a seat in Congress and Ilhan Omar, a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives, filed for candidacy. If she wins this race, she will make history as the first Muslim woman to be in Congress.

Keith Ellison and Ilhan Omar are not new to being the “first.”

Ellison is the first Muslim to ever have a seat in Congress and in 2016, Omar made history when she won the general election and became the first Muslim to be a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives. If Omar wins this race, she will become the first Muslim woman to have a seat in Congress. However, Ilhan Omar isn’t the only one that wants to have the chance to be the first Muslim woman to have a seat in Congress. In March, Refinery29 profiled a first-time candidate, Fayrouz Saad, that was also hoping to be the first Muslim woman to have a seat in Congress. Granted, Saad could not predict the future or the domino effect created by politicians retiring or changing posts, but the fact is everyone is fighting to be the first.

With the growing visibility of Muslims in the mainstream––both in politics and entertainment––I have one question: What are we really challenging by fighting for token representation?

Representation of Muslims in the mainstream media has increased since Trump got elected. It wasn’t until after Trump got elected that the first hijabi model, Halima Aden, walked the runway during New York Fashion Week. The Bold Type, a show on Freeform, has a queer Muslim character on it. L’Oreal ran a campaign with Amena Khan, a fashion blogger, who later left due to the online abuse she faced for being pro-Palestine. Even MAC mistakenly advertised a glam suhoor makeup tutorial to an audience that, as Twitter would say, couldn’t relate––only to leave it up on their Middle Eastern social media accounts. Muslims are everywhere in the mainstream now, and – not to be that person – but isn’t it odd how we continue celebrating these firsts on a planet with over one billion Muslims? Why now? Muslims were being deported, prosecuted, jailed and killed long before Trump was elected.

With the growing visibility of Muslims in the mainstream––in politics and entertainment––I have one question: What are we really challenging by fighting for token representation? Click To Tweet

Let’s also look at who tends to get these coveted token slots––slots with a quota–– in these various industries, because there is a particular archetype: light skin, conventionally attractive, able-bodied, with bonus points for light eyes. More often than not, these tokens also hail from middle/upper class, college-educated families as well.

Tokenization, or what some would mistake as representation, does not happen in a vacuum.

The most “respectable” Muslims tend to become the tokens, thus recreating the hierarchy that all of us wish to escape. The messaging is clear: in order to succeed, you must be respectable and have proximity to wealth, whiteness, and thus, power. Instead of subverting the systems that will inevitably find a way to turn its back on them, tokens give in to the myth that they are the exception and they should lead us.

Representation of Muslims in the mainstream media has increased since Trump got elected. Click To Tweet

I can analogize representation with a technique used in information and graphic design called the exploded view diagram. If you’ve ever assembled furniture from Ikea, you’ll know what the drawings in instruction manuals look like: they’re meant to show the marriage and the place of all the pieces waiting to be assembled. Every piece has a place and function in the foundation of the furniture.

After assembling, let’s say, a coffee table together, representation is the coffee table book that rests on top of the table. Interchangeable and aesthetically pleasing, the table is the systems of power, standing firm. It doesn’t shake the table to have a coffee book sitting there, quietly. And the foundation, or in this case, the table, was not built with marginalized people in mind.

Similarly, identity-based politics is at the forefront of the work any tokenized individual does.

So why not just throw away the old coffee table? Why ask for a seat?

The fight to win first place displays the limitations of representation in an oppressive system.  Even though corporations are partnering with hyper-visible Muslims, the beauty, fashion, and entertainment industries have clearly picked their tokens.

Representation is an opportunity for these companies and individuals to look “woke.” Plastering Black and brown faces on campaigns and women in hijab in ads won’t change policy, it doesn’t change the very white, very male political sphere. To quote Laila Alawa, who wrote about this two years ago, “serving as the diversity quotient means that you will not be able to create true change.”

Let’s also look at who tends to get these coveted token slots, because there is a particular archetype: light skin, conventionally attractive, able-bodied, with bonus points for light eyes. Click To Tweet

Because these diverse ads create a new audience for companies that have historically neglected these people, they are parading them around in an effort to distance themselves from further critique.

With the commercialized and politicized increase in interest in Muslims and our narratives due to Trump, what has become evident is how fickle and superficial representation and identity politics has become. Kimberly Foster recently wrote about the left’s misuse of identity politics, saying:

Thoughtful conversations and meaningful activism require a measure of openness that the current paradigms for identity politics don’t always allow. We have to make sure that our exchanges do not reproduce oppressive power dynamics, but every challenge is not oppressive.

Amena Khan feared for her safety when tweets of hers surfaced denouncing Israel, which is a good example of the way identity politics has almost become either apolitical, or a political ideology of its own supported by corporate, mainstream imagery. Keith Ellison silently voted in favor of a Blue Lives Matter bill that Congress recently passed, and if it becomes law it will be a federal crime to “knowingly caus[e] serious bodily injury to a law enforcement officer, or attempts to do so.” Ellison voted in favor of this bill even though Philando Castile was killed by police in Minnesota almost two years ago. Ilhan Omar has publicly supported pro-CVE candidates––such as Deqa Jibril and Mohamed Noor, even though CVE (Countering Violent Extremism), is a program that has disproportionately targeted and harmed Black and brown Muslims in Minnesota.

Representation suspends a veil of false community and unity, and it blinds us to the fact that representation won’t solve the majority of our problems. Seeing people that look like us is important, especially when the erasure of Muslims in art, politics, academia, etc. dates back to the inception of the invasion of this country, but, under what conditions and under whose gaze are we represented by?

Representation has no real substance outside of the people being represented having control of their own narratives.

Because what can a very visible population gain from visibility and representation, aside from more surveillance and a recreation of oppressive power dynamics? Hypervisibility has been and will always be surveillance. Unfortunately, the majority of tokenized Muslims in the mainstream unwittingly and unsuccessfully occupy their time defending the contradictions in their own aspirations by deflecting when held accountable, or by weaponizing the language of social justice to reduce the very valid critiques people have. It is important for any of us that do work publicly- from work office to public office to entertainment- to be patient.

This is a systemic issue.  

I want us to break this cycle, to challenge the notion that winning recognition from institutions, based on individual accomplishments, is not a feat for our community. Every time one of us claims to be the first, every time one of us gives into wanting to be the “first,” it adds on to a history of Muslim erasure, and it distracts us from the sustainable, communal work we need to be doing.

Even though corporations are partnering with hyper-visible Muslims–– the beauty, fashion, and entertainment industries have clearly picked their tokens. Click To Tweet

To succeed in this, however, we will have to confront the underlying problem in our approach to criticism that happens within the community. Everyone needs to be held accountable for having their hand in this problem. Individualism must be rejected. We face unrelenting attacks from a white supremacist capitalist system – so accountability and critique from members of our own community is integral to our progress.

It is in our interest and our obligation as people that care about our community’s collective future to demolish the illusion and fantasy of representation.

Until we do that, we’ll be stuck in an endless rut of celebrating a facade while being showcased in a systemic cage that is meant to keep us there, stagnant and carefully watched by those both inside our community – and outside it.

Until we do that, we’re stuck debating the same minutiae every few months.

Najma Sharif

Najma Sharif

Najma Sharif is a writer living in NYC.

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