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Narratives Are About Power, And They Matter.

In August, I had the pleasure of publishing an article in Islam and science fiction called Should a Muslim narrative matter in science fiction. The main idea behind this article was to discuss how, at its best, science fiction as a genre possesses an uncanny ability to offer insightful social commentaries. It presents itself as an interesting and creative outlet to tackle some of the most controversial social, political, and economic issues plaguing mankind. By often taking place in an ever shifting and evolving context far removed from our own reality, it allows people to take a step back, and in doing so disentangle themselves emotionally from the subject matter; thus offering individuals the necessary space to reconsider and revisit the topic from a different perspective.

Fast forward to a month later, and parts of my article were quoted in an article published on IO9, a well-known hub for all things science fiction related. IO9 is traditionally a rather liberal space where gender, racial, and cultural diversity in science fiction is advocated for and prized. Granted, since its merger with Gizmodo much has changed in IO9. Commenters on the site have always been known for their restrain and mature discussions. Since the merger however, it seems a certain contingent of the more extreme commenters from Kotaku, and Gizmodo have found their way to IO9’s comment section. Some of the vindictive and demeaning comments pertaining to the article in question piqued my interest, as they seem to reflect something of a pattern emerging where Muslims and Islam are concerned in mainstream discourse.

The very idea that there could be (should be) a Muslim narrative was seen by some of them as a problem. These are people who for the most part would cheer on and even welcome the advent of African, Asian, or Russian science fiction for the diversity in perspective and tone this would  bring to the genre. Islam however, is apparently where they draw the line. Ranging from mockery to reflexions on the “possible future extinction” of Muslims, these types of comments are nothing new for those seeking to construct a Muslim narrative through fiction and non-fiction writing. In this case, the legitimacy, necessity, and utility of a Muslim perspective in science fiction storytelling is deemed not only wholly irrelevant, but also harmful to the genre itself as shown by these few exerts from the comments:

“Hopefully they have Islamic stories like salt water and fresh water being unable to mix together…. Lol”

“I look forward to the day when “Islamic sci-fi” is considered by sites like io9 just as ridiculous as “Christian sci-fi” or “Mormon sci-fi”

“Now that I would read. Ideas like that (which come from a publication that is the final word of God, no less) do limit you in a hard science fiction way. Or maybe they’ve learned to ignore what was written in their holy books, like other people.”

“In Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, Earth is a peaful, harmonious place in the 23rd century, which means that petty religious arguments are a thing of the past, or that Islam has been completely wiped off the face of the Earth, or they have all moved to Uranus. Just sayin’…”

For others, the discussion about the importance of a Muslim narrative in science fiction is in itself an attempt by Muslims to conflate different issues and “guilt” Westerners into reading their works. Since obviously Westerners are the only audience that matters and Muslims have nothing better to do then to seek their approval via trickery nonetheless.

“Strikes me as a clumsy attempt to make it “relevant” to Westerners, and guilt them into reading it. I trust the authors have larger views than Islamic victimhood, but Ahmad’s statement put me off for a moment.”

Although one would be tempted, at first glance, to simply describe these types of comments as the rancid diatribes of small minded bigots blinded by their own ignorance, it is important to look at the bigger picture. This resistance to Muslim narratives is not happening in a vacuum. In more ways than one, the events of 9/11 brought back into Western consciousness the colonial narrative pertaining to Islam. For all intents and purposes, Islam has been labelled a political and civilizational threat to the Western world, and to deliberately ally yourself with such an entity makes you a focal point for the type of sentiment that transpires from these comments. Present-day Islamophobia is not confined unfortunately to far-right circles alone, it permeates almost every aspects of Western societies. The ideas pertaining to the “dangers”, the “alienness”, or the “incompatibility” of Islam with democratic values are not simply found in the speeches of Donald Trump, they are instead constantly being reiterated in books, tv shows, and movies alike.

The hit tv show Homeland is particularly guilty of relying heavily on stereotypical depictions of Muslims, while presenting Islam as something, dangerous, suspicious, and ominous. In order to convey the strangeness and perilous nature of Islam, the creators of the show chose as their promotional poster for their fourth season a picture evoking a blonde, white Red Riding Hood lost in a forest of faceless Muslim wolves.  Shows like 24 and Sleeper Cell have consistently normalized the torture and extrajudicial killings of Muslims characters often portrayed as duplicitous, fanatical, and dangerous. These shows are based primarily on a narrative that justifies the ongoing wars,  covert operations, the drones strikes, illegal detentions, and racial and religious profiling of Muslims as necessary evils required in order to protect the Western world against the dangers of Islam, and by extension Muslims. 24 is another show that follows the same logic. Of all the Chinese, Russian, African, and Middle Eastern villains fought by Jack Bauer, none where more loathed than the  Araz, a suburban Muslim family who turned out to be a terrorist sleeper cell.  Even police procedural shows like Bones can’t seem to escape this trend. When a Muslim character is added to the cast, what was emphasized was not his exceptional educational background, his talent, or what he brings to the team, but rather his “strangeness” due mainly to his religious background.

“Almost every character in the lab, with the exception of Cam, has a serious problem with him taking the time to pray during the day. Hodgins blatantly says that Muslims bother him. Brennan seems to have a problem with it because she dislikes and distrusts all religion… but she isn’t nearly as critical of Booth’s Catholicism, and is harder on Vaziri than any of the other interns. Which doesn’t really make sense, as he has a lot of good ideas. Angela, who is generally one of the most free spirited characters on the show, asks him point-blank if he’s going to quote the Qu’ran at her when she breaks up with her girlfriend. (He isn’t, in fact. He’s giving her a CD of breakup songs that he finds cathartic. The look on her face is priceless when she finds this out, but she doesn’t apologize.) [1]

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What The comments in IO9 showcase is the discomfort the very idea of a distinctive Muslim narrative causes even in liberal circles. The power that narratives hold comes from their ability to shape our identities, define our perspectives, and give a unique voice to groups. Whether used in memoirs and documentaries to convey true stories, or made-up ones in books, movies, television shows, and video games, narratives give us access to experiences that otherwise elude us. They allow us to gain a better understanding of the world we live in by introducing us to the multitude of realities that make up the human condition. At almost every level—from the family unit to the highest instances of political power—narratives are used to create a core identity that distinguishes us from others, and helps us strengthen social cohesion through the establishment of specific sets of values and norms. To control a narrative gives one the opportunity to influence the very perception of reality itself. Emory Psychology professor Drew Westen, touches on the  importance of narratives in his New York Times Op-Ed.

“The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred. Our brains evolved to “expect” stories with a particular structure, with protagonists and villains, a hill to be climbed or a battle to be fought. Our species existed for more than 100,000 years before the earliest signs of literacy, and another 5,000 years would pass before the majority of humans would know how to read and write.

In the Orientalist discourse that emerged from the colonial experience in the Orient, and particularly in the Muslim World, the entire Muslim civilization was defined as utterly alien and inherently dangerous. Out of the colonial endeavour emerged powerful ideological formations reiterating the notion that certain nations require domination, and certain narratives need not exist. As a system, colonialism was not satisfied merely with dominance and possession. It was a process that required the negation of any previous system, an erasure of any previous originality. The past was to distorted, disfigured, destroyed, and eventually expunged from the colonized’s memory. This perceived irrelevance—and intentional depiction—of the Muslim narrative as useless, unnecessary, and even detrimental to Muslims themselves is a belief present-day Islamophobia has inherited from the Orientalist discourse of the colonial project.

Narratives become in this context a site of oppression. Battling Islamophobia effectively demands that Muslims take charge of their own narrative and control it. Instead of trying to change the depiction of Muslims and Islam in the works of others, Muslims must create their own creative outlets. There is not much we can do to stop the ongoing onslaught of vehement Islamophobic rhetoric, but there is much that we can do in creating a counter narrative that showcases the true nature of Islam.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Narratives Are About Power, And They Matter.

  1. Beautifully written, GM, as always! I didn’t even consider there would be push back in the sci Fi community, too. Did you respond to those comments? I love how you concluded. Instead of trying to change the narratives put out there by others, let’s all flood the markets with our own! 🙂

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    1. Fortunately, the push back is not as bad amongst Sci Fi fans, but every community has its less than stellar people. I think lately with all the Islamophobic rhetoric though, you can definitely feel a change in the air, even in spaces that were previously welcoming. I adhere to the idea that in every situation (no matter how bad) there is always a silver lining to be found. This is the perfect opportunity for Muslims to create their own venues, and spaces and make them inclusive and welcoming, and basically show the world how it should be done. There is so much in our collective history as a community of believers, that we could use as inspiration to bring our own touch to fields like the sciences, architecture, literature etc…. We have to get out of this mindset where we are basically either victims or simply powerless.

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      1. Yes, there is always a silver lining to be found! We have to see challenges for what they are, opportunities to grow and learn, or at least teach others. I say this to myself firstly, but we gotta remind ourselves of our Prophets – these men were chosen by Allah (swt) to spread His message, but that didn’t mean they had it easy. Discomfort in this life should remind us that this world never was meant to be our final abode. Insha’Allah, this can give us hope and aspire to do good with the time we do have on this planet… including writing about life on other planets! 🙂

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