It’s been four months since we began our work in the Narrative Change Lab. Our plan for the Lab has been to develop it in phases, while intentionally integrating different narrative approaches and theories, building networks of consultation and exchange, and inviting allies, supporters, and stakeholders into each part of the process.
This initial phase has focused on asking the deeper questions around both Muslim experiences and Muslim narratives in Canada, as well as other places. We centered engagement and consultation, allowing us the opportunity to connect with both Muslim and non-Muslim creators, practitioners, and industry executives in different arts and media sectors in Canada, the US, and Europe. We also focused on the critical work of building the Lab’s narrative foundations by exploring what a Muslim model of narrative change could look like and how to design a process that incorporates the tools and customs specific to Muslim approaches to community engagement, building, and consensus. The research and the conversations have moved us to think about the wide-ranging issues affecting Canadian Muslims, the critical events that have shaped different generations and their relationship to Canada, the current state of Muslim narratives and where they need to go, and the possibilities for Muslim Futurism.
So far, we are discovering that:
- Narrative change for Muslims has focused considerable attention to countering Islamophobia. However, this is limiting to the expansive potential of what Muslim is and can be. More importantly, speaking only to and about Islamophobia results in narratives that focus on responding to the racism of others, promoting only trauma stories, and/or overemphasizing the ‘good citizen/good neighbour/good community’ tropes;
- A model has yet to be developed for narrative change that is specifically and tangibly Muslim. The rich histories of both Islamic and Muslim cultures with respect to building community, as well as customs of collaboration and consensus offer critical tools for the design and process of narrative change that is grounded in being Muslim. We look to the examples of other communities, particularly Indigenous communities, who have connected change with their rituals, customs, and identities;
- There is a lack of a Muslim creator community and network in Canada. Muslim creators often feel siloed in their work and alone in their career paths;
- In spite of commercial and critical success for many Canadian Muslim creators, they are seen as outliers, a fluke to the ‘normal’, and this has not translated into a wave of opportunity for Muslim stories because most industry gatekeepers continue to believe that there isn’t an audience for Muslim content, despite the fact that there are five million Muslims in North America;
- And, the systemic racism and discrimination facing Muslims are not particular to this community. Indigenous and Black communities have long struggled with these issues and cross-community learning and collaboration are fundamental to the narrative power for all. As well, Muslim is a multiracial, multicultural, and multi-ethnic identity, characteristics that allow for the great potential to build community power.
An important lesson we have learned, particularly from consultations, is that in every Muslim’s story is a moment when a decision is made to break rules and boundaries, and to become something more than current narratives allow. These moments are not only transformative on an individual level, but also critical in moving forward to a place where Muslims create and own their narratives without having to constantly look over their shoulders at the expectations of others.
As we move forward, it is important to recognize that expanding Muslim narratives in Canada’s public space is complex. Facts to consider include:
- Islamophobia continues to kill Muslims in Canada;
- Provincial governments are allowed to legalize Islamophobia and racism without federal oversight or intervention;
- Prime Minister Trudeau’s relationship with Canadian Muslim communities has not extended beyond the yearly Eid/Ramadan video messages and fundraising events in campaign season;
- The problems of state violence facing Muslims stem from the colonial and systemic racist structures on which Canada was founded, and which has and continues to affect Indigenous, Black and other communities of colour;
- Political leaders attend Muslim funerals, claim to stand against Islamophobia in the spotlight, but do not activate or lead substantial change in parliament and laws;
- State security organizations such as CSIS have been accused of racism and continue to spy on mosques and student organizations creating a constant state of fear and exclusion;
- The CRA actively uses its powers, unchecked, to target Muslim organizations;
In this political and policy context, Canadian media continues to recycle and promote Islamophobic and racist tropes without accountability, and, TV and film content about Muslims excludes them from the public space, emphasizes their ‘otherness’ and encourage non-Muslims to believe these narratives as truth. The result is that Muslims have spent decades trapped in the toxicity of Islamophobic narratives produced by the unchecked racism and discrimination promoted by politicians and media.
But these are not insurmountable obstacles. We move forward with the optimism that there is a historical moment of opportunity for Muslims to lean into their power as a community of communities, to connect the network of creative content creators who change narrative in their everyday work, and to build on the historical tools and cultural wealth of the diversity of Muslims. This Lab is pivoting towards a new space, by moving beyond those narratives and imagining something wildly different.
As we continue this phase of designing the narrative change process and finalizing details for the activities to come, we move closer to recruiting the cohort of Muslim creators and practitioners. They will be part of the Lab with us to figure out how to make the imagined change a reality.
Written by Angie Balata | July 21, 2021