The problem with Muslim celebrity culture


On April 4, the online platform Muslims of the World announced on its Instagram account a competition to win a ‘free trip to New Zealand’ PHOTO/screenshot/Instagram

Last week, Muslims of the World (MOTW) – a platform describing itself as “designed to give a voice to Muslims around the world” – launched an Instagram contest offering a free trip to New Zealand. It claimed the winner would meet families of Christchurch shooting victims and visit the mosques with the platform’s founder, Sajjad Shah, Imam Suhaib Webb, and author Khaled Beydoun – all US-based.

The announcement swiftly provoked a backlash, including from Maha Elmadani, the daughter of one of the victims, who wrote, “I don’t know who you think you are but you and your idiot friends are not welcome to come here and look at us like animals in a zoo.”

The contest has since been cancelled and Muslims of the World issued an apology, and so did Beydoun – who deleted his Twitter after the controversy – and Webb. It is tempting to see all this as a one-time, isolated occurrence – an individual mistake – but it is not. This type of social media-related opportunism has many manifestations and is very much rooted in Muslim celebrity culture and trauma tourism inspired by Orientalist attitudes.

The trend of Muslim figures rising to almost untouchable celebrity status has been noted in closed circles for some time, but many have been reluctant to speak out about it on a public platform.

Part of this is due to fear of being ostracised and harassed. Black Muslim women, for example, have often discussed on private forums how some celebrity Muslim figures take from their scholarship and silence them when they speak up.

Muslim celebrity culture very much illustrates problematic power dynamics of gender and race within the Muslim community that are rarely addressed. It is not lost on anyone that primarily cis/het, non-black Muslim men acquire celebrity status at the expense of others and often assume the position of official commentators on Islam and all Muslims, regardless of whether they have the expertise or not.

The aftermath of the Christchurch massacre demonstrated this perfectly. As details of the horrific attack started surfacing, US-based Muslim celebrities were quick to take centre-stage, drowning out Muslim voices from New Zealand. This was not only disrespectful to the Muslim community there, but it also shifted the focus away from important discussions about the local context in which the shooting took place.

Many local Muslims, for example, were pushing back against the narrative that the government was unaware of white nationalist extremism and threats against them. Members of the Maori community were also challenging Prime Minister Jacinda Arden’s claim that “this is not New Zealand,” pointing to the country’s bloody colonial history.

In their eagerness to dominate the online discussions after the attack, some Muslim celebrities went as far inadvertently propagating misinformation. Under the guise of “humanising the victims”, for example, Beydoun posted effusively on social media, using what some have claimed to be either wrong or plagiarised information.

It was celebrity Muslim culture that allowed outside voices like Beydoun to position themselves as owners of the Christchurch narrative, even when some New Zealand Muslims protested. And it was this same culture that made him, Shah and Webb feel entitled enough to put their faces on a poster and advertise a “free trip” to New Zealand.

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