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Secret life of Muslims: The American web series that’s fighting Islamophobia

At a time when Islamophobia rages across the world, an American web series profiles people who are changing perceptions

HT48HRS_Special Updated: Feb 11, 2017 08:58 IST
Soma Das
The Secret Life of Muslims

Imam Khalid Latif, a chaplain working with the New York Police Department(Photo courtesy: Bryan Derballa)

At a time when Islamophobia rages across the world, an American web series profiles people who are changing perceptions

One of the most poignant videos in The Secret Life of Muslims is the story of Rais Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi American who worked as a gas station clerk in Dallas, Texas. Ten days after the 9/11 attacks, Bhuiyan was shot in the face by white supremacist Mark Stroman. “I felt at first like a million bees stinging my face,” says Bhuiyan, who was left partially blind from the attack. Stroman was later convicted and sentenced to death.

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In 2009, when Bhuiyan went on a Haj pilgrimage with his mother, he had an epiphany. “In my faith, in Islam, it says that saving a life is like saving the entire mankind,” says Bhuiyan. So he decided to fight to save Stroman’s life and went to the Supreme Court seeking clemency. While Stroman was eventually executed, Bhuiyan was among the last people to speak to him and told him that he forgave him.

Bhuiyan’s is just one of the notable stories in The Secret Life of Muslims, a web series that tries to challenge rampant Islamophobia, in the US, and globally.

Some of the other notable videos feature Egyptian-American comedian Ahmed Ahmed, who decides to not play the stereotypical role of a terrorist in films, and the creators of the Ask a Muslim campaign, Mona Haydar and Sebastian Robins, who encouraged people to just come and ask them any question over coffee and donuts.

Season 1 of the series, which started in November last year, features 14 videos (released till the end of February) shared every week on the digital platform Vox, and on Facebook. It was conceptualised by Emmy-winning filmmaker Joshua Seftel (War, Inc., Queer Eye, This American Life) and Reza Aslan, a bestselling author and social commentator. Given the sensitive nature of the topic, it took Seftel almost five years to raise funds.

“There are 3.3 million Muslims in the United States. I read a statistic that said that more than half of all Americans have an unfavourable view of Muslims. I feel it’s in part due to the negative and simplistic portrayal of Muslims in the media. We wanted to confront that,” says Seftel. As a Jew, he recalls facing a fair amount of anti-Semitism while growing up.

The videos are humorous and short, less than five minutes each, to ensure they can be shared easily. “There’s a power in short film; they don’t take long to watch. And in my opinion, humour makes every story better. It’s humanising, and a way of connecting with people on a visceral level,” says Seftel. So far, the videos boast of an overall 13 million views.

While the show profiles American Muslims, the issues it covers have global resonance. Apart from individual stories, there are videos on wider topics — a beginner’s guide to hijab, one helpful rule for being a Muslim on the internet, etc. “There are 1.7 billion Muslims in the world, yet we’re getting such a narrow set of stories about this vast and diverse group of people. Stories that help broaden this narrative are a good thing,” says Seftel.

To watch the videos, visit vox.com or facebook.com/SecretlifeofMuslims