Depicting the Diversity and Nuance of Our Community is Hannah Allam's Passion

Posted by Guest on August 02, 2017 in Blog

by Dina Al-Zu'bi

IMG_5787.JPG.jpegIt is not news that Arabs and Muslims are misrepresented (and often conflated) in U.S. news and entertainment media alike. The consequences of this misrepresentation are ones that Arab Americans and American Muslims know all too well. In more pleasant features, we are exoticized and condescendingly mystified, and in less pleasant ones we are terrorists or otherwise backward individuals to be feared or avoided. These archetypes are boringly cliché and absurd to those of us who have been aware of their presence all our lives, but as I am too often reminded, those misrepresentations are believed by many to be true—and worse, are a backbone to the bigotry and even violence experienced by our communities.

Within the past year, racial, ethnic and immigrant communities have increasingly been targeted with hate crimes. Anti-Muslim and xenophobic policies, like the Muslim Ban, legitimizes and propagates false narratives about Arab American and American Muslim communities justifying bias. On Friday, July 7, I was reminded that this phenomena of backlash is not new. Hannah Allam, AAI's brown bag guest, and a journalist and reporter for BuzzFeed News, joked that it feels like her career has come full circle. She began her journalism career amidst the violence and bigotry facing Arab American and American Muslim communities in the aftermath of 9/11, and today, more than 15 years later, she still finds herself reporting on the Arab American and American Muslim communities' resistance to violence and bigotry.

Ms. Allam was a war correspondent in Iraq for McClatchy, she was also the Middle East Bureau chief in Cairo during the revolution. She reflected on how striking (and scary) the similarities are between Egypt at the time and the US currently in terms of mistrusting the media and dismissal of facts. She reminded us of the importance of dispassionate and factual reporting. Upon returning from reporting on the ground in the Middle East, she covered Foreign Policy in the US, and has now transitioned into writing about American Muslim communities at BuzzFeed.

We talked about how even though the misrepresentation, bigotry and violence against our communities has not changed much today, our communities themselves have. With the momentum of activist movements, our communities are called in to confront the issues that we face, and are prompted to be more intentional and active in our solidarities and more inclusive in our practices. Further, our responses to misrepresentation are no longer merely commenting on its inaccuracy, but rather, calling for more complex, and genuine, representation. Informed representation which does not tokenize and does not paint a one-dimensional image of our communities is refreshing, and unfortunately, rare to find in U.S. establishment media. More often than not when reading a piece that features Arabs or Muslims, I find myself frustrated at the erasure and reduction loaded into the narratives.

Allam's most recent piece, highlights a new form of erasure as it relates to anti-Muslim bias. She discusses how Islam is markedly absent from Muhammad Ali's legacy, despite it having been central to his identity. This is not the case for American Muslims who celebrate Ali as a superhero because of his pride in and unapologetic approach to his faith. A few weeks prior, Allam wrote another key piece about an Iftar held by and for LGBTQ Muslims and allies -- a reminder to many that LGBTQ Muslims exist, and a challenge to narratives that paint the identities to be mutually exclusive. 

As a young Arab and Muslim, I am reassured to see pieces that depict the diversity and beauty that so many of us cherish and relate to. I am also reminded that with richer stories, and less reductive portrayals of members of our communities, we can do better at holding space for each other to be unapologetic about how we identify, despite bigotry and misrepresentation.

Dina Al-Zu'bi is an external intern with Just Vision.

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