Earlier in the week, comedian Dave Chappelle — who converted to Islam nearly 20 years ago — won a Creative Arts Emmy (guest acting in a comedy series) for his controversial post-election “Saturday Night Live” episode.
Last year, Mahershala Ali, a black Muslim, won an Academy Award in 2017 for best supporting actor in “Moonlight.”
Ali noted that it was a honor for him to be the first Muslim actor to win an Academy Award. “Regardless of one’s theology, as an artist my job is the same — to connect with these characters as deeply as possible,” he said. “I’m just an artist who feels blessed to have the opportunities I have had.”
The Muslim community cheered British-Pakistani actor Ahmed’s Emmy win this year, and Indian-American writer Aziz Ansari’s the year before; both portrayals showcased elements of second-generation life in America and addressed Muslim identity.
However, there was far less fanfare for Chappelle or Ali, whose Muslim identity was challenged by some members of the Muslim community. The son of a Christian minister, Ali converted to Islam in his 20s. He made his shahada, or the Muslim declaration of belief, after attending a prayer service at a mosque with his partner, Amatus Sami-Karim.
Ali belongs to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, which includes an estimated 20,000 adherents in the United States and is also a minority in mostly Sunni countries like Pakistan. Because of their distinct beliefs — Ahmadis believe their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, is the faith’s “long-awaited messiah” — some Muslims do not consider Ahmadis fellow followers of Islam.
As a result, they refuse to recognize Ali as the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar. Some went as far as sending hate-filled messages on Twitter, condemning Ali’s win and expressing disgust that in addition to being Ahmadi, Ali won his role in a movie about a gay black man.
“I don’t think it’s just because Mahershala Ali is Ahmadi,” said Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, a professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan and author of “Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop in the United States.” “I also think it’s because Mahershala Ali is black.”
There’s a double-standard for Muslims in entertainment, and race, cultural background and class play a part.
Muslim-born stars with South Asian heritage fail to garner such backlash, even when they leave their faith. “Secular Muslims” Ansari and Kumail Nanjiani (acclaimed for “Silicon Valley” and his recent hit movie “The Big Sick”) are applauded for on-screen portrayals of forgoing Islamic customs — eating pork in secret, consuming alcohol or engaging in premarital sex — as both the actors and their characters move away from the tradition in which they were raised.
Black Muslim entertainers aren’t afforded the same leniency, since Arab and South Asian Muslim communities are more likely to question their religious authority or authenticity.
“It’s a conflation between your ethnic identity and your religious identity,” Khabeer said, referring to Ansari and Nanjiani. “I think [South Asian and Arab Muslims] are able to look the other way, or choose to emphasize with something else.”
It’s hard for Muslim Americans to celebrate black Muslims’ success in entertainment — whether it’s Ali, Chapelle, Busta Rhymes, Akon, Lupe Fiasco, Ice Cube, Iman or many others — when black people are not seen on par or as equal with the immigrant Muslim diaspora due to class divides.
“Muslim immigrants came over empowered in a particular way, they came over with resources we didn’t have, and they also didn’t have the social stigma many African Americans had,” said Zain Abdullah, an associate professor of religion at Temple University and author of “Black Mecca: The African Muslims of Harlem.” “We cannot compare African American Muslims with South Asian or immigrant Muslims, because we’re on two separate class levels.”
As immigrant populations grow, African Americans constitute a smaller proportion of the adult American Muslim community, just 13 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. The lack of inclusion, or celebration, for black Muslim entertainers could hinder broader efforts to destigmatize Muslim identity.
Obviously, Muslims have faced the challenge of fighting stigma and stereotypes, particularly involving terrorism, ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Within the Muslim American community, the parents of second-generation children were moved by the ideas of integration and normalizing Islam, while their children want to find a way to be Muslim in a country where they continue to experience anti-Muslim sentiment.
Out of these generational shifts, Ansari and Nanjiani’s comedic characters emerge to buck the stereotypes of South Asian immigrants.
Perhaps the best example of overcoming the generational challenges of being Muslim in America could be found in one of the country’s most beloved adherents of Islam, the African American boxer Muhammad Ali.
“Muhammad Ali showed how to mainstream yourself,” Abdullah said. “Even though he was a heavyweight boxer and all, he still represents that kind of popularity. He was one of America’s favorite sons. His [Muslimness] was integrated into a the larger narrative of what it is be American.”
Ali called himself “The Greatest” and preached Islam at the peak of the civil rights era, when black activists were in danger and groups like the Nation of Islam were viewed as a threat to America. Still, Ali refused to minimize his blackness and Muslimness.
Instead of aspiring to whiteness, Ali exemplified relentless pride in his faith and radical self-love for his racial identity. He didn’t need validation, but rather, those in power needed his. He loved the communities and identities he represented, and the world loved him back for it.
Sarah A. Harvard is a New York-based reporter covering the intersection of religion, race, immigration and politics. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, VICE, HuffPost Politics, TeenVogue and Mic.
Correction: The title of Zain Abdullah’s book has been updated.