Bette Davis, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali...all transcendental figures who have been interviewed by Playboy magazine. Now 23 year old Noor Tagouri, the first American Muslim hijabi to become an anchorwoman, has recently had her own groundbreaking interview with Playboy. There has been much thoughtful commentary on the utility and effectiveness of conducting interviews on such mediums as well as the medium itself. As a man I don't really get to have an opinion on this, and this letter is not directed at any of those folks.
Rather, this message is directed at the knee-jerk reaction that Ms. Tagouri has already been receiving from many-particularly in the Muslim community-who's analysis started and ended with reading the word "Playboy", and whose brains immediately yelled "categorically shameful/disgraceful!"
The haters. This one is for you.
Perspective and Consistent Standards
First things first: Despite its name and reputation, Playboy isn't just a "softcore adult" magazine. Like any good business, it has diversified and has long featured interviews with a range of personalities, including all of the aforementioned figures. Playboy may have cemented its legacy for risque depictions of women, but it's equally accurate to describe it as a publication which has had some of the most fascinating and insightful interviews. Given its impressive pedigree and large platform, getting an invitation to be interviewed by the magazine is actually a huge honor. More importantly, context and content is everything, and Noor will actually be discussing the importance of modesty. In Playboy magazine. Think about how provocatively brilliant of a move that is. Policy scholar and Daily Show rockstar Dalia Mogahed poetically articulates:
"Every day, many of us are in spaces that are very polluted. Places where sin much worse than this is legitimate and normal, like murder, war, and usury. And we stand in those stained spaces and speak truth to falsehood. Barakah' comes from our effort and our intention. When God told Musa (s) to go speak to Pharaoh, He said that the tyrant had transgressed so go to him with gentle words. What was more polluted? The palace of Pharoah, or a magazine with this history? Our Prophet never turned away anyone wishing to to hear truth away, no matter their state of sin. [Noor] made dawah [to this readership]. She told them her truth."
So if you didn't know all of that before, you do know. Yet if you still persist on condemning Noor's interview on Playboy, would you similarly condemn Martin Luther King's and our own beloved Muhammad Ali's interviews? If the answer is yes, and if your answer is based on the logic that "Playboy features some haraam things, so the magazine in its entirety and everything in it must be haraam", I have just one more question:
Does this mean you will also never use YouTube, or watch professional sports? After all, YouTube contains both cartoons and children's lullabies as well as incredible levels of violence (both depicted and real) as well as sexual content. Likewise, many professional teams and tournaments are sponsored by companies which produce alcoholic beverages.
A part of something being haraam must mean the whole thing must be haraam, right? Throw out the baby with the haraam bathwater.
She was our community's hero when she shattered long-standing barriers in an infamously closed industry-yet as soon as she does something you deem unconventional, she becomes public enemy number one.
Be Like Noor
At this point, I have to disclose that I'm not a dispassionate observer of this saga involving Noor. True story: As a clueless but agitated 2L law student, I wrote a HuffPo piece on the constitutionality and effectiveness of the NYPD's vast surveillance program targeting Muslim students, mosques, and entire communities. I also launched a Whitehouse.gov petition to demand that federal agencies stop extending support to or engaging in these programs, which got the attention of a Vancouver radio station that invited me to discuss both the article and the petition.
At that point, I was sure I was way over my head. I could certainly talk shop about high school and college Muslim Students Associations ("MSAs") all day everyday, but I was no expert on the NYPD surveillance program or civil rights in general. Muslim Advocates and a host of other dedicated civil rights organizations were already making fantastic headway in challenging the program, and i wasn't sure what impact either my article or petition would have on advancing their work. Just when I was seriously considering either nixing or limiting the interview, I got this reply from Noor about my article and petition. I had sent out feelers to a number of Muslim organizations and personalities, yet out of all the replies I received, this one stood out. A personalized reply from Noor, right as her fame was deservedly sky rocketing for shattering barriers in journalism, just a few days before my interview.
Having such a fearless and badass journalist tell you that what you're doing is "such a great initiative" makes a WORLD of a difference, and I'm convinced the only reason I did a halfway-decent job on that interview was because of Noor's encouragement and support. A few weeks after my interview, the NYPD unit responsible for those surveillance programs was disbanded. In January of this year, New York City settled two federal lawsuits on the surveillance program, resulting in what should be permanent, concrete policy changes:
The settlement, which is subject to approval by a judge, will require that police obtain factual information about possible unlawful activity before starting a preliminary investigation into political or religious activity, and will limit the Police Department's use of undercover operatives and confidential informants. It will also formalize what the city said was an existing policy, by prohibiting investigations in which race, religion, or ethnicity are a substantial or motivating factor. The Police Department will remove from its Web site a report titled "Radicalization in the West," which critics had said justified discriminatory surveillance, and will install a civilian representative within the department to serve as a check on investigations directed at political and religious activities
I am certainly not taking credit for any of those victories. Yet I would like to think that my article positively contributed to public outreach and engagement, and helped enlighten ordinary Americans about the legal, policy, and human ramifications of such programs-as well as simply what a MSA is and does. I know for a fact that without Noor's encouragement, that interview would have been a far more stressful affair and I may not have gained the courage to continue writing and engaging the public throughout my student life. Such encouragement, support, and solidarity meant the world to me then-and inspires me just as much now.
Here's the thing: We've seen this sad story before. We live at a time where the general public both in the US and around the world has record negative perceptions of Muslims and Islam. Yet anytime someone from our community finds a new platform or launches novel initiatives to help counter these narratives, you will have those who will wrack their minds to find any and all reasons to tear those endeavors down. Those who have a singular focus on undermining and discrediting rather than engagement and community building.
Yet the old adage speaks true: It is far easier to resort to reactionary condemnation and criticism than to positively act. In the Muslim context, it is far easier to selectively quote self-reinforcing religious scripture and retreat into conventional paradigms; than to actually look at a problem which exists in our society and then apply your creativity, intellect, and energy to try and come up with a solution.
If 23 year old Noor can find the courage to engage our country in such a high-profile way-and if a still-clueless 27 year old law student like me can dare to try-then, we all can.
So please: Either do your part to constructively contribute to this massive endeavor -or kindly stay out of the way of those who stand ready and willing to fight your battles for you. We all have much work to do.