‘Ramy’ and the New American Muslims of TV

Even positive portrayals of Muslim Americans after 9/11 seemed burdened with a responsibility to explain and defend. But that burden is starting to be cast off.

Ramy Youssef, left, with Mahershala Ali in a scene from Season 2 of “Ramy.” Unlike with a lot of previous portrayals of American Muslims, Youssef’s character is unafraid to display his faith.

Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu
By Bilal Qureshi

May 28, 2020
He’s a rudderless, sexually frustrated millennial. He’s also deeply religious. He’s Ramy, the Egyptian-American at the center of the comedian Ramy Youssef’s semi-autobiographical series, “Ramy,” returning Friday for a second season on Hulu.

For fans, it’s the welcome return of a nuanced portrayal of a young New Jersey Muslim struggling with his identity — a wry blend of sacred and profane that earned Youssef a Golden Globe Award in January.

But the freedom to work out one’s Muslimness on TV has only recently begun to be unburdened from the pressures to be a representative and palatable Muslim.

I’m one of the underrepresented viewers who has waited a long time for more layered portrayals of the American Muslim experience. The problems always lay less in the dearth of Muslim images in popular culture, however, than in the responsibility foisted upon those representations.

Yes, there were the many insidious Muslim characters in series like “Homeland.” But even when Muslims had a chance to counteract that image, their roles were too often reactionary, defined by victimhood, misrepresentation and the problem of terrorism.

What resulted seemed constantly to reiterate the same sentiment: “We are more than terrorists.” It was also rarely great TV. With series like the short-lived CW sitcom “Aliens in America” (2007-2008) and the web-based “Halal in the Family” (2015), efforts to create relatable Muslims felt akin more to public service announcements than to works of art. The TLC reality show “All-American Muslim” (2011-12) was well-intentioned but unwatchable.

“What made that show so terrible was that unlike every other reality show, this was off the formula because it was the only reality show that had a didactic element,” said Zareena Grewal, a professor of religion at Yale. Grewal grew up near Dearborn, Mich., which is home to one of the country’s largest Muslim communities and is where “All-American Muslim” was filmed.

“They would explain Wikipedia Islam, and there was never any real conflict,” Grewal added. “It just took itself so seriously.”

 

But in the past few years, American Muslims have become a presence on television screens in a way that feels legitimately new. Earlier this month, the former Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj returned to Netflix with the sixth season of “Patriot Act.” “Hala,” a semi-autobiographical film from the Pakistani-American filmmaker Minhal Baig, debuted on Apple TV Plus last fall. The Apple anthology series “Little America” concluded with a triumphant episode about a gay Muslim refugee’s arrival in the United States.

For a new generation of artists, the demonization of Muslims is a given — it just isn’t the subject of their stories. The new American Muslims of TV are freer, more experimental and frankly weirder than most who emerged in the burdensome age of countering stereotypes.

“I grew up with so much of the identity of being Muslim and being Arab tied around politics,” Youssef said last week in a phone interview. “I’m just kind of sick of it. The easiest thing would be to make a show that put politics on blast.”

“Or,” he added, “I could make a show that felt true to what I wanted to discuss.”

I was a college sophomore in Virginia on 9/11, and it became clear that my generation of Muslim-Americans would grow up swamped by rhetoric about a “clash of civilizations.” On campus, that meant Islam Awareness Week. Soon enough, it meant Islam Awareness Television.

With the debut of “Ramy” 18 years later, American Muslims finally had an unapologetically Muslim series, but it neither resembled nor aspired to be like anything about Muslims that had existed on television.

In the first season, the show leapt over boundaries of religious propriety and political correctness I had long assumed were sacrosanct. There were episodes about kink, pornography addiction, anti-Semitism and even an imaginary friendship with Osama bin Laden. All of this while maintaining its stylish and moody indie vibe. (The show is produced by A24.)

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