Earlier this week, the Muslim Students’ Association and the South Asian Awareness Network hosted Buzzfeed’s Ahmed Ali Akbar to discuss the experiences of being Muslim in the Unites States, his podcast and how Muslim identities are discussed in journalism. About 25 people attended the event.
Akbar is best known for his podcast “See Something Say Something” where he invites guests to discuss Islam in America — the title, from his cousin’s band, is a riff on security culture, although he admits the show itself is “not as punk”.
Originally from Saginaw, he graduated from the University of Michigan in 2011. During his graduate school years, Akbar ran a blog called Rad Brown Dads which showcased immigrant fathers and their stories.
When applying to Buzzfeed, Akbar said he was never on a Muslim-related beat, but was asked often to read articles related to the identity with his fellow Muslim co-workers in order to avoid misidentifications.
He said he never saw himself in the journalism field before, and was reluctant to do the podcast when asked by Buzzfeed since prominent Muslims voices were South Asian men in the industry. However, Akbar said he hopes his show can “pass the mic” to other voices of the Muslim community and try to represent different communities in a panel, such as queer Muslims and Black Muslims.
The show also avoids having to explain too much of the Islamic experience in American, Akbar said, hoping to prompt non-Muslim listeners to Google and do more research on their own, thus able to learn more about the religion.
Muslims in Hollywood were discussed briefly, especially Kumail Nanjiani’s “The Big Sick” which received criticism from those who believe Pakistani women were portrayed poorly in favor of the white female lead in the film. Akbar said the issue was a complicated one, since the story is based on Nanjiani’s real-life experiences meeting his wife.
Akbar also introduced a game of “Halal or Not” in which he asked students to judge headlines of stories with Muslim subjects. The game also doubled as tips and guidelines for journalists to use when writing about different identities and cultures — such as not prescribing what it is to be a “good Muslim” in an article.
One headline used as an example was “Female Muslim Hip-Hop Dancers Smash Stereotypes.” Many students at the event said the headline did not have to identity the dancers as Muslim, since it makes the dancers “otherized.”
Akbar added the phrase “smash stereotypes” assumes a white audience, and thus, takes Muslims doing something for their enjoyment and creates an agenda out of it.
While Akbar said he understands frustrations with headlines that directly identify Muslims, he also acknowledges Muslims are a rarity in the media and attracts readers.
“We are not there yet,” he said.
Another example used was the Washington Post’s coverage of Nabra Hassanen, a Muslim teenage girl who was killed in Virginia. The lede, Akbar explained, said Nabra was described to be more interested in makeup than the mosque — thus trying to portray her faith in ways the writer could not prove. Even though the writer was Muslim, Akbar emphasized there are still ways to misrepresent a topic.
SAAN board member Eman Mubarak, an LSA senior, said Buzzfeed reached out to her to see if they could stop by the University since Akbar is an alum and because he is heading to Dearborn for a live show.
“It went really well,” she said. “It had a really good turnout. We talked about a lot, everything from news articles, some of his work and his podcasts. We also got to talk about the meaty stuff like representation and allyship and stuff. It was really cool — we had a good conversations over chai.”