‘Allahu Akbar’ is probably one of the most misinterpreted phrases in the turbulent times we live in. It has fuelled major backlash against the Muslim community because a certain minority among Muslims chose to propagate fanatic ideas that have created a vicious cycle of fear psychosis in countries as diverse as India and Hungary.
The phrase popped up on my mobile screen after Ramy Youssef won the Golden Globes Award for Best Actor – Television Series Musical or Comedy. As he came up on stage to receive the award, he politely greeted the audience: ‘Allahu Akbar!’
He said, “I would like to thank my God. Allahu Akbar. Thank you, God,” and in an innocently charming tone, he continued, “Look, I know you guys haven’t seen my show. We made a very specific show about an Arab Muslim family living in New Jersey, and this means a lot to be recognised on this level.”
Woke up to Ramy Youssef saying Allahu Akbar on the Golden Globe stage so I think it's gonna be a good day. pic.twitter.com/bLPq7K4prV— Mohamed Hassan (@MHassan_1) January 6, 2020
Muslim identity, post 9/11 attacks, has been clinically oppressed by mainstream public discourses — so much so that it is exceptionally difficult for a Muslim to express his/her identity in public spaces because it is almost always correlated to terrorism. The nuances of Muslim identity depicted in the show have been missing historically.
The show ‘Ramy’ talks about a story of a young Egyptian-American Muslim living in New Jersey. Ramy's struggles with faith – in addition to the usual array of teenage pressures such as romance, career aspirations, parents, and adulting – are beautifully depicted in the series, highlighting that each story is different and one show cannot represent all the nuances pertinent to one group.
It’s a simple formula, but after decades of Muslims being depicted onscreen as terrorists and villains or otherwise pushed to the peripheries of societies, its humaneness and tenderness is moving, making the idea a radical one in today’s world. At the very least it is a sincere attempt at it in the ‘Netflix’ era.
The phrase ‘Allahu Akbar,’ which means ‘Allah is great,’ is extremely common for Muslims all over the world. We say it almost daily on numerous occasions, and it is a harbinger of innumerable emotions; at funerals, heavy rains, when there is thunder and lightning, when a child is born, when we are travelling, when there is a happy moment of achievement and to praise god.
The said phrase, however, has been politicised around the world; it has come to be perceived as a war cry.
But the difference comes when Ramy, very subtly, inserts an ‘Allahu Akbar’ wearing that fancy suit, and tries to normalise it in popular discourse. And to one’s surprise, it is the Golden Globes Awards at the Beverly Hilton Ballroom where these words were dropped very strategically.
And this means a lot to me, as a Muslim girl who is struggling with the nuances of her fragile identity.
The juxtaposition of English and Arabic in Ramy’s acceptance speech also throws a bright light on the blend of cultures that America, especially the Hollywood fraternity, so proudly claims to represent. This was indeed a genuine show of cosmopolitanism.
Standing beside the likes of Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, what Ramy Youssef pulled off helps to change the narratives around Muslims in popular culture, and it is about time. The audience comprised of the crème de la crème of the Hollywood — Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Brad Pitt, you name it and they were there.
Ramy did a great service not just to the Muslim community but humanity at large by showing that real assimilation can happen when ideas, that on the surface seem to clash, come together under a roof and the elite and the influential begin to normalise it. Embracing one’s identity, even in a light-hearted manner, paves the road to acceptance.
The Quint’s Hiba Beg, while explaining on video how the show is silently fighting Islamophobia, put it aptly by saying, “People’s idea of faith is very personal, the more you politicise religion, the more you make it a thing of public consumption, imposing your ideas of religion on someone, the messier it gets.”
It’s really strange and frightening how two mere words used in daily life by a particular community can be politicised so much so that it leads to a phobia that is capitalised on by demagogues to no end.
Youssef might not be the first Muslim to win the Golden Globe, but he is definitely the first to celebrate his identity unequivocally and articulate on such a public forum about an aspect of one’s identity which has become the cause of a severe “othering” and marginalisation in the globalised world today.
This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own.
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