Bio: Aymann Ismail is a video editor and producer at Slate whose work focuses on politics and identity. His current project “Who’s Afraid of Aymann Ismail?” is a video series that moves beyond stereotypes of both American Muslims and their self-professed adversaries, finding hope and fault in both. Before joining Slate, Aymann was the video and photo editor for art and city culture site ANIMAL New York. He lives in Newark NJ, where he grew up.
Marilyn Shannon (MS): Tell everyone who you are:
Aymann Ismail (AI): I am a Muslim American who was raised in Jersey City to two immigrant parents who came from Egypt. I grew up so close to the Twin Towers that when they came down I could smell the smoke. After that, we were faced with accountability that was not our own. I want to bridge that gap and introduce myself to the world what Muslims look like.
MS: How are you doing that and what are you saying?
AI: I got obsessed with journalism and media. I would see people who looked like me and had names like me, but no journalists. I worked as a photographer and got introduced to writing. From there, I felt that I had responsibilities to share stories. Because of who I am and what I am facing, I feel that I have to be an ambassador.
MS: You’re an ambassador showing what Islam is so you’re talking to non-Muslims, but you’re also talking to people who are scared to be Muslim. You’re showing what freedom can look like.
AI: It’s impossible to say what this community of so many looks like and thinks. What I’m trying to do is focus on my personal story. I am trying to dismantle stereotypes about Muslim. I want to introduce people to individuals and how they are connected to Islam. I am working on a series for Slate. It’s about trying to understand who Muslims are in the west and the problems they face and how complicated it is because of how public the identity is. I produce an episode about Christmas and it’s all about the issues that come with it for Muslims. What about Muslims who want to celebrate it as a secular holiday? And what about Muslims telling Muslims not to celebrate because it’s a Christian holiday?
MS: I am writing a series of books called, “In Just One Afternoon.” My first book was Listening Into the Hearts of Men about their emotional life journey. I am working on about 7 at one time! If you want to understand, listen to people’s stories. I love what you’re doing and the stories you’re coming up with.
AI: I think it’s the best way we can spread truth. There are too many decisions to play political football with. Part of the reason it becomes so dangerous is how it’s used. We can complicate the narrative so that politicians, etc. can no longer describe a group as a singular model.
MS: I want to go into the stories with you. How do they tell Muslims not to celebrate Christmas?
I am Jewish and I’ve never heard anyone tell me not to have a Christmas tree except from another Jew.
AI: We weren’t sure if we wanted a tree. What message would it send? It seemed like a good idea to tell the story. We had people who never wanted to celebrate Christmas and we had people who wanted to set up the tree because they liked the lights. I’m interested in having conversations where no one is right or wrong. It doesn’t put people into a box. Our identities are so public and used in politics.
AI: My sister has been one of my biggest inspirations. I picked her as one of my stories because I wanted to keep it in the family to describe as a family issue – this wearing the hijab. My sister, it comes up a lot. My mother didn’t wear one until she came to America. She couldn’t wear it in Egypt. My mother wanted to and could wear one when she came to America to exercise her religious freedom.
MS: What is the Islam that you want us to know?
AI: Mine is not the same as what I want everyone to know about. There is no singular Islam. This is an individual relationship with god. There is no top Muslim official who is supposed to guide all of the believers. Every Muslim is expected how to be taught and learn their religion. We were taught what to believe. It is a set of beliefs. Everything else is between you and god. What it isn’t is Sharia. What I do believe is that what you are doing is correct, and you did your due diligence. There is only one god and that Allah. There is fasting and daily prayers and giving to the poor. There is making the pilgrimage. There believing in religious texts like the old testaments. The headscarf and sharia are not core beliefs. These definitions are not shared by all Muslims and that is the biggest obstacle!
MS: What would you do if you were in the White House?
AI: I’d take care of the people who need help the most. I grew up in Newark New Jersey. I saw someone the other night and his hands were frost bitten. I believe in taking care of people and it should be the highest responsibility. People need to have the best chance to right for their rights, disarming people from weapons.
I don’t think Trump is doing a good job at letting people know that help is on the way.
MS: As far as immigration, etc. How would you handle that?
AI: I am not a foreign policy expert, but I would expect that any strategy to bring peace to the Middle East is to stop giving them weapons.
AI: After the tragic shooting at the Pulse Nightclub, I went to Stonewall. It was the scene of an uprising of the homosexual community in NYC. There was a huge vigil. In that crowd were Muslims and gay Muslims. These are people I respect a lot. These are important voices. These are regular people and not everyone’s identities should be political football.
AI: There is evidence of homosexuality in the Islamic community. To say it’s bad does not exist in the Koran. This is a very controversial identity. It’s talked about in politics. These are voices we need to hear more from.
AI: I started as a photographer. I want to write a book about a kid who likes rock and roll and his transformation into a man who wants to be a voice for his people. I’ve been taking pictures along the way.
If you believe in wanting to understand v. not wanting to tell people what to believe, then there’s a place for you in this project. My wife is a chaplain. She is using her religion to help people when they need it the most. Everything she says is gold.
MS: I interviewed a bisexual man for one of my books. I’m not bisexual, but I think I see how you can be. I don’t have to be scared of it. I am not it. But I can hear his story and I can be a witness to it.
AI: How to be a good Muslim. I think there is a whole generation that is growing up in the west with immigrant parents. There are these monolith groups. It’s only my story. If it helps you understand the greater politic, then great. No one’s story should be used to characterize an entire group.
MS: It’s a collage.
AI: It sucks when people like Bill Maher says Islam is the worst religion. How can you do that when there are so many of us!?