As we work to make inroads into local communities, one of the challenges Jamat and others face is the distorted representation of Muslims in the media and entertainment. As Salam Al-Marayati says, “We want to see Islam as a positive, integral, enriching element of American pluralism, not seen as a foreign religion.”
Salam is the President of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), a nonprofit that works to identify and improve policies that affect the lives of American Muslims. Recently, he was also a guest at an event hosted by the Ismaili Media and Communications Alliance (IMCA), a Jamati group that shares in MPAC’s vision. Sue Obeidi, Director of MPAC’s Hollywood Bureau, was also a guest.
Significance of IMCA
IMCA is a new professional group under the IPN banner that connects Ismailis in the fields of media and entertainment. There are obvious networking advantages to bringing these individuals together. The recent event hosted by actor Rizwan Manji connected professionals who can support each other’s current projects, whether in the ideation phase or acquiring equipment, or even with casting. But there’s a larger goal for Muslims in this field, and that is to change the perception of Islam in the public sphere by using our own voices to illustrate our talents and contributions.
Multiple individuals at the IMCA gathering admitted they closed off the Muslim part of their identity when they first entered the business. There were no other people who looked like them, so they wanted to blend in. IMCA offers a radical departure from that last line of thought. There are a growing number of Ismailis and other Muslims in the fields of media and entertainment, and that increased presence allows for increased influence. Changing policy starts with changing attitudes. That’s a task that entertainers and media members implicitly participate in every day.
Sonya Perl with Hanifa Haji of ITV
“This is still the main misperception of Islam: we’re the foreign guys, and Christianity and Judaism are the home team, and it will always clash,” explained Salam. He added, “Changing that in the media and policy to a large extent is really our objective so that people feel secure.” Change has to happen from within first, and that’s why we are really excited to be with all of you as brothers and sisters. We’ll continue in that campaign for making positive, effective change not only for Muslims but for all Americans.”
Salam’s colleague Sue noted, “We are proud Muslims and proud Americans, and there is no contradiction between the Qur’an and the Constitution.”
Prominent Muslims in entertainment beyond the Ismaili community were also present for the IMCA event, including actor Iqbal Theba, who starred in the television series Glee, and film maker Jami Mahmood Reza, both of whom provided advice for the younger professionals in attendance. Jami also offered camera rentals for any individuals in need of production support. As the number of Ismailis in these creative spaces continues to build, it’s helpful to be able to count on a more extensive network of Muslims.
It’s also comforting to see oneself reflected in so many others who have pursued this career path, one that didn’t seem plausible a generation ago for Jamati members. This is a challenging field to break into, and extra encouragement always helps.
“I didn’t think I had any expectations going into it, but it was nice meeting other people,” Mirza Sheriff, a sound engineer, said. “It’s also nice seeing brown people in non-traditional professions, so that’s been very nice. Everyone’s been super great and inviting.”
As the IMCA grows, it will pursue more projects beyond networking. One item on the list is adding more programming to Ismaili TV. Hanifa Haji, one of the content developers for Ismaili TV, believes this can be an incubator for more media/entertainment talent within the Jamat.
Professional networks are far from an original idea, even within the Ismaili community. The creation of the IMCA isn’t groundbreaking. But after just two meetings, it’s easy to get excited about the potential of this group of creatives. Within the 30-plus individuals who gathered last week, there are actors, directors, writers, producers, engineers, and executives who can take a show or a film from inception to airing. Perhaps the IMCA is the starting point for a new project, maybe one that spotlights Muslims and addresses misrepresentation head-on.
“I think it’s really cool that in our community, media/communications are very new, and we have people in this space that are together; they’re trailblazing not only for the West but for the whole community,” said Naaila Hossain, national IPN Alliances lead, and “Just to show up for each other, have a space to be together and network, it’s something that's going to take this community further.”