Muslims and the Paradox of Normality

What is normal? Normal is something or someone conforming to the standard or the common type. But who decides what the standard or common type is? As Foucault has argued enforcing socially acceptable forms of behaviour is not only a function of modern states but also of individual citizens watching and regulating each other and thereby coercing each other and themselves into ‘normality’. We can see policies with regard to integration and Islam and their concomitant public debates as ways of policing practices among Muslims and fixating ‘correct’ identities, discourses and conduct often reducing them to neo-liberal subjects. One of the features of the policies and debates is the idea that Islam and Muslim identity should be something private in a ‘real’ secular society. But because we talk so much in public about Islam and Muslim identity, we give greater currency to Islam and Muslim identity rendering them by definition not private matters. This has consequences for the issue of normality. Consider for example the next commercial:
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SiEsm-UOioc]

Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, not an actor, features in the commercial about retirement. As Samuel L. Freedman notes about the ad in the New York Times:
Commercial Shows Muslim as Everyday American – NYTimes.com

What I had just seen was something rare and laudable: what seems to be the first mass-market product commercial featuring an identifiably Muslim person not as a security risk, not as a desert primitive, but as an appealing, everyday American.

And indeed, this is clearly something else then Pamela Geller’s anti-Islam ad campaign or Coca Cola’s ‘Arab on camelback’ commercial during the Super Bowl. Freedman visited Mr. Abdul-Rashid: Commercial Shows Muslim as Everyday American – NYTimes.com

Nobody from Prudential or from Droga5, the agency that created the “Day One Stories,” ever asked Mr. Abdul-Rashid about his religion. Nor does the commercial show him in any religious activity. Still, for any sensate viewer, his name alone attests to his Muslim identity.

“I’d never thought about the ad in those terms, because the thrust of the commercial had nothing to do with my religion whatsoever,” Mr. Abdul-Rashid, 61, said. “You saw an African-American family interacting and then my name at the end. But one day I went to a mosque in Oakland with my friend, and the imam said, ‘This is good, it lets people know we are the mainstream.’ ”

Mr. Abdul-Rashid’s first name, given to him by a Saudi Arabian teacher with whom he studied Islam before converting, is the kind of thing the Pamela Gellers of the world could have waved like a flag. Even some of Mr. Abdul-Rashid’s theater colleagues suggested after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that maybe he would be wise to change his name. He refused.

“The name Mujahid means someone who strives to live in the way of God,” he said. “And, yes, it means holy warrior, too. But if you ask me, that means fighting the good fight. If you see a hungry person and feed him, that’s fighting holy war. The greatest holy war is within ourselves.

The commercial shows Mr. Abdul-Rashid as a regular person living the American life as many people like to see it; religion is not to be hidden but also apparently not an issue. It in fact shows a Muslim man as a ‘normal’ man. However:
Commercial Shows Muslim as Everyday American – NYTimes.com

Not being an advertising specialist, I consulted several experts to hear their view of the Prudential commercial. They concurred on its uniqueness and importance.

“It expands our idea of the American Dream and it gives us a new way of looking at it,” said Timothy Malefyt, a professor of marketing at Fordham University who worked in the advertising industry for 15 years. “This guy shares our ideals, our fears. He talks about his work ethic, his love of family. Right away, you can see he’s Muslim. So he’s different from us, but he’s also like us. This lets us reevaluate American Muslim identity.”

The ad struck Nazia Du Bois, the director of global cultural strategy for Ogilvy & Mather, as singular in the American market. “I can’t think of any other ad as bold, as brave, as this,” she said in an interview. Amplifying her point in an e-mail, she wrote, “This commercial demonstrates an enlightened definition of what it means to be American. It does this by broadening the definition of the American ‘everyman.’ ”

Why do we see Mr. Abdul-Rashid here as a normal person while at the same time stressing the uniqueness of this ‘daring’ commercial? Of course, because normality can only be constructed against a background of deviancy, exoticness or more general ‘othering’. Claims about normality operate in the same discursive realm as claims of othering and may therefore actually reproduce it. Publicly declaring something or someone to be normal actually means that a person or event ceases to be ‘normal’ because his/her normality can only be newsworthy when stereotypes are deeply entrenched in our society (or when we think they are). The fact that the company of the commercial felt the need to stress that they had no idea Mr. Abdul-Rashid was Muslim is a telling example here. Apparently, ‘being Muslims’ begs for a public statement; a demand shaped by policies and debates in which many people hold negative opinions of Muslims and Islam. Even when we acknowledge good intentions on the side of the producers of the commercial and of Freedman (and yes of the writer of this blog as well) it proves to be difficult if not impossible to escape the dominant frameworks of representing Muslims.

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