Aymann Ismail is an award-winning journalist, podcast host, video editor, and photographer. His work focuses on how identity and religion interact with politics. He wrote and produced "Who's Afraid of Aymann Ismail?," a video series that moves beyond stereotypes of both American Muslims and their self-professed adversaries, finding hope and fault in both. He's been featured on CNN, Adweek, GQ, HuffPost, and NPR.
We talk to Aymann about his experiences as a Muslim journalist, his thoughts on Islamic art and culture and the importance of creating our own spaces and telling our own stories.
What does Islamic art and culture mean to you?
The was first exposed to Islamic art as a teenager. My sister invited me to browse the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was around fourteen years old. We came across a new Islamic art exhibit, which displayed manuscript leaves from old copies of the Quran, old shields and armor, which left an impression because I still think of them today. This piqued my interest in Islamic art; I later did my own poking around online and found out about Zellīj and the eight-pointed star and continued from there.
I have a relatively narrow idea for what constitutes as “Islamic” art. Since art can’t worship itself, it has to have been created by Muslims specifically responding to their religion. In America I’ve noticed an Arab ownership over Islam and the way it’s represented that I think is quite ugly. It is the most culturally diverse religion on Earth. I think that should be reflected in the way we think of Islamic art too. I have a strong attachment to it because as an American, I’ve always waved my Muslim flag and felt responsible for being my community’s greatest advocate. I’m still learning about Islamic art, and I’m excited to see it developed by a new generation of contemporary artists like el Seed.
As a writer and journalist, who did you look to for inspiration?
My favorite journalists insert themselves into the story. Journalists are not unbiased. I don’t understand why any journalist would pretend they can cover a story absent of their own perspectives. One of my favorite writers is Olivia Nuzzi, who also hails from New Jersey like me. She has a talent for slowing things down and letting you in on the subtle things that she finds interesting. I also appreciate Jamelle Bouie. He is incredibly careful and considerate about what he includes in his reportage. Through their work I have learned how to put myself in the story more and embrace both my own humanity, and humanity of my subjects.
Has your faith as a Muslim influences your creative practice?
I went to an Islamic school and was bought up around a lot of validation. There were 3 other Aymanns in my school, and when I transferred to a public school I became a minority. I felt I needed to defend my Muslim identity. I fielded a lot of stupid but innocently curious comments that reeked of prejudice, for example about my sister wearing a hijab.
This showed me what power validation has over me, without leaving my comfort zone I can’t really confront negative perceptions. It also helped me learn to be empathetic and sympathetic as well, which helps a lot in my work as a journalist. It opens a lot of doors for me, putting me in the room with people who I might not be able to connect with if I hadn’t gone through these experiences.
What has been the most memorable moment of your career?
I have been a journalist for a long time now, and I feel fortunate to have so many memorable moments. I reported on the Arab Spring in Egypt and was recently reporting from the Capitol Riot. But the most memorable experience was interviewing my mother about her hijab. That was extremely difficult. I was doing a story about what the hijab means in America and asked my mom and sister about their experiences in choosing to wear it. I asked my mom how she would feel if my sister took off her hijab. She cried and said she would think she hadn’t taught her daughter to love Allah swt. This moment stuck with me. I will never forget it.
Are Muslims represented in the creative industry more widely or do we need to address issues around inclusion?
That is a hard question to answer because there is such a variety and diversity of Muslims. I don’t think it’s enough for Muslims to be trying to get into the right rooms. I think we should also be making our own rooms. Making our own shows. Representing ourselves in our own spaces.
Islam is the most diverse religion in the world. No religious group speaks more languages. I’d like to see this become more visible, and I think it can only be done if we are more proactive with creating our own content, writing, directing, producing and investing in our own productions. We are nowhere near where we used to be in terms of inclusion - at the same time we are nowhere close to where we should be. We have several Muslim network TV anchors, like Ayman Mohyeldin, Mehdi Hasan and Ali Velshi, which is incredible! Muslim actors are winning Oscars and Golden Globes. We have Tan France on Queer Eye! It’s getting harder and harder to avoid us.
Does storytelling hold power?
Of course. It’s the oldest artform. It’s how we made it out of the caves. Storytelling makes us human. Every videogame, every blanket, everything made by someone tells you something about them. Storytelling is a tool or a weapon, you can use it for good and bad. Storytelling is at the heart of Islam. The Quran is the most sophisticated piece of storytelling I have encountered in my life. Storytelling is the dialect of Islam.
Does the Muslim community need to reclaim narratives and tell our own stories and how can we do that?
No to reclaiming narratives and yes to telling our own stories. I came to realize this recently. I am tired of reclaiming narratives. It can be a horrible crutch that prevents us from seeing ourselves as sophisticated. I am tired of seeing my religion as constantly needing to respond to bad-faith criticisms of it. I am now challenging myself to see Islam without politicizing it. Can we as an ummah explore it with non-Muslims without considering what Trump thinks of us? I want to see more celebrating our unique diversity in Muslim identities, and using storytelling as a way to connect and build a strong united community.
For more information follow Aymann Ismail on Twitter https://twitter.com/aymanndotcom
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