The problem with Muslim celebrity culture

A failed giveaway trip to New Zealand illustrates all that is wrong with Muslim celebrity activism in the US.

MOTW giveaway
On April 4, the online platform Muslims of the World announced on its Instagram account a competition to win a 'free trip to New Zealand' [screenshot/Instagram]

Last week, Muslims of the World (MOTW) – a platform describing itself as “designed to give a voice to Muslims around the world” – launched an Instagram contest offering a free trip to New Zealand. It claimed the winner would meet families of Christchurch shooting victims and visit the mosques with the platform’s founder, Sajjad Shah, Imam Suhaib Webb, and author Khaled Beydoun – all US-based.

The announcement swiftly provoked a backlash, including from Maha Elmadani, the daughter of one of the victims, who wrote, “I don’t know who you think you are but you and your idiot friends are not welcome to come here and look at us like animals in a zoo.”

The contest has since been cancelled and Muslims of the World issued an apology, and so did Beydoun – who deleted his Twitter after the controversy – and Webb. It is tempting to see all this as a one-time, isolated occurrence – an individual mistake – but it is not. This type of social media-related opportunism has many manifestations and is very much rooted in Muslim celebrity culture and trauma tourism inspired by Orientalist attitudes.

The trend of Muslim figures rising to almost untouchable celebrity status has been noted in closed circles for some time, but many have been reluctant to speak out about it on a public platform.

Part of this is due to fear of being ostracised and harassed. Black Muslim women, for example, have often discussed on private forums how some celebrity Muslim figures take from their scholarship and silence them when they speak up.

Muslim celebrity culture very much illustrates problematic power dynamics of gender and race within the Muslim community that are rarely addressed. It is not lost on anyone that primarily cis/het, non-black Muslim men acquire celebrity status at the expense of others and often assume the position of official commentators on Islam and all Muslims, regardless of whether they have the expertise or not.

The aftermath of the Christchurch massacre demonstrated this perfectly. As details of the horrific attack started surfacing, US-based Muslim celebrities were quick to take centre-stage, drowning out Muslim voices from New Zealand. This was not only disrespectful to the Muslim community there, but it also shifted the focus away from important discussions about the local context in which the shooting took place.

Many local Muslims, for example, were pushing back against the narrative that the government was unaware of white nationalist extremism and threats against them. Members of the Maori community were also challenging Prime Minister Jacinda Arden’s claim that “this is not New Zealand,” pointing to the country’s bloody colonial history.

In their eagerness to dominate the online discussions after the attack, some Muslim celebrities went as far inadvertently propagating misinformation. Under the guise of “humanising the victims”, for example, Beydoun posted effusively on social media, using what some have claimed to be either wrong or plagiarised information.

It was celebrity Muslim culture that allowed outside voices like Beydoun to position themselves as owners of the Christchurch narrative, even when some New Zealand Muslims protested. And it was this same culture that made him, Shah and Webb feel entitled enough to put their faces on a poster and advertise a “free trip” to New Zealand.

Their attempt to transform a site of suffering and death into an exciting destination for a visit is nothing new. Plenty of other US celebrity activists engage in trauma tourism on a regular basis by making a career out of travelling to sites of trauma and speaking about it with self-proclaimed authority when they come back.

While promoting the event on Instagram, Beydoun said, “We will be doing work with the community inshallah”; yet it is unclear whether the Christchurch community actually knew such work was going to be done. An executive member of Al Noor mosque told the New Zealand Herald that nobody had approached them about the competition.

Although the giveaway didn’t mention money, the condition for entering the draw was: “Must tag three people in the comments below and follow @suhaib.webb @khaledbeydoun and @sajjad12345.” It is hard not to wonder whether there was really no mercantile motive behind the giveaway, given that we live in a digital era, in which social media can be a powerful tool.

The attacker himself chose to livestream his attack on social media, hoping to amplify its impact beyond the borders of New Zealand and succeeding. When social media has such a potential to influence, clout becomes currency and getting more followers – a necessity.

Trauma tourism is also a very obvious extension of voluntourism – the idea of travelling to “exotic” destination to “do good” – practised mostly, but not exclusively, by white Westerners. In rationalising the trip, MOTW borrowed directly from the voluntourism rhetoric of “doing work” and “being agents of healing”, seemingly ignorant of where these ideas come from.

Imperialism, Orientalism and their derivative, the white saviour complex, postulate that the Western civilisation is superior to all others and its representatives can and should spread its superior thought and ways to try to uplift the inferior, dejected cultures of the “Orient”. Unfortunately, some Muslims in the West seem to have unwittingly adopted these attitudes and have come to believe that they are the only ones capable of helping another Muslim community heal.

It is indeed quite troubling to see members of the Muslim community lean on these capitalistic and predatory models of engaging with communities, especially when black Muslims – like Malcolm X – have led the way in fostering meaningful transatlantic ties. There is a blueprint to follow, but there is also an apparent refusal to engage with it.

These issues are largely driven by the pervasive lack of critical engagement with Islamophobia. Hate and hateful acts against Muslims tend to be exceptionalised and isolated from the larger context in which they occur. Discussions are often limited and stop short of exploring Islamophobia as a phenomenon rooted in white supremacy, colonialism and imperialism.

As a result, the response to it is often superficial activism (limited to social media posts and inconsequential speaking events), rather than a deep and methodical interrogation of existing systems of oppression and the development of a sophisticated strategy to challenge and dismantle them. Forging connections at home and abroad within the Muslim umma and with other oppressed communities has to be an integral part of that process.

Celebrity Muslims are among the least qualified to lead these efforts, because their platforms are always elevated at the expense of the more marginalised voices. In fact, their pursuit of self-promotion is counterproductive and even damaging.

The MOTW giveaway may now be gone and will probably be forgotten soon, but the ideas that gave it life remain, and they must be urgently addressed and countered.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.