I’m going to take a moment to share a student’s art assignment this semester.
The project was created by my student Mesut Mamaloglu, as a thoughtful art project in my class “Islam in America” at American Islamic College.
The project is a play on Shepard Fairey’s poster of the Muslim woman draped in a hijab made out of a U.S. flag.
Mesut critiques the perpetual representation of Muslim Americans as religious Arabs, or dressed in Middle Eastern or traditional religious attire. He rejects and the essentialization of this diverse community in one-dimensional and monolithic forms.
Such representations of Muslim Americans, even when supposedly shaped by Islamophilia, fuels Islamophobia.
To counter this monolithic representation, Mesut used software to work into the original image a mosaic composed of a hundred images of a variety of Muslim people from many walks of life – including celebrities, athletes, musicians, and a lot of regular people.
Mesut pasted this image onto a cardboard monitor that he created, to represent the spaces of the internet where these representations take shape, are circulated, and become solidified in public discourse.
This mosaic shows a complex and multidimensional community.
In the wake of the election and the Muslim Ban, popular culture that cashes in on liberal causes has chosen the Muslim image as their shorthand for pluralism, liberal inclusion, anti-Trumpism, and general coolness.
Of course there isn’t enough time to complicate this discourse, nor is liberal discourse typically profound enough to allow the voices of the underrepresented and marginalized to speak for themselves. White representation of Others must of necessity be simplistic. So the image of the hijabi Muslim woman suffices to say all. And it doesn’t matter that the vast majority of the Muslim American community is excluded in this representation, because of the way tokenism works in liberal spaces.
Tokenistic liberalism tells us: Be grateful for the hijabi image. Liberal culture doesn’t have room for more than that single image.
Mesut’s project rejects that shorthand. We are many. Sorry for the inconvenience, but no shorthand will do.