Using Art to Improve American Muslims’ Image

One New York City college has launched an innovative initiative -- Beyond Sacred: Unthinking Muslim Identity -- to improve the Muslim community's image by using theater.

Posted on 09/10/14
By Mohsin Zaheer | Via ViewsWeek
(Photo by Mohsin Zaheer)
(Photo by Mohsin Zaheer)

Hala Shah is a New York-based choreographer. She will be one of the performing artists of LaGuardia Performing Arts Center’s (LPAC) program, that will highlight the life and experiences of Muslim in post 9/11 New York City.

“I am going to use dance not as some entertainment but to use it as an ‘artistic tool’ to let others know, how I learnt about Islam and how I practice my faith,” said Ms Shah.

Hala Shah who is married to a Pakistani American. As a choreographer, she would be part of an 18-month project “Beyond Sacred: Unthinking Muslim Identity” of the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center of LaGuardia Community College which received a grant of $240,000 for this project from Duke Charitable Foundation and the Doris Duke Foundation for the Islamic Arts.

“The main object of this program is to create awareness about the Muslim societies and to dispel the wrong impressions through performing arts,” said Steven Hitt, artistic producing director of LPAC.


“Beyond Sacred” programming is being developed by Hitt, who is also Managing Director of LaGuardia Performing Arts Center (LPAC) and the LPAC staff. The program supports U.S. arts presenters who create interdisciplinary cross-campus and community collaborations that expand awareness, knowledge and understanding of Islamic societies.


Through Beyond Sacred, LPAC will focus an entire season around the social issues, stereotypes and beliefs (real or misconceived) about the Islamic religion and Muslim culture and their impact on mainstream society. The primary geographic focus will be the Islamic cultures from the Middle East and South Asia.
“Although Muslims are a vital part of the fabric of our shared city, too many exist as outsiders,” said Hitt, who cited a Pew Research Center report that stated the number of Americans with favorable views of Islam dropped from 41 percent in 2005 to 30 percent in 2010.


“After 9/11 we still find too much misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and fear of the Muslim faith and culture. This project will use the power of live performances, cultural dialogue and academic engagement, across disciplines and genres, to inspire community-wide conversations to address those wrongs.”


The centerpiece of the Beyond Sacred project will be four theatrical performances developed by Ping Chong + Company, an internationally recognized theatre company known for bringing marginalized voices to the stage.

Participants of the initiative. (Photo by Mohsin Zaheer)
Participants of the initiative. (Photo by Mohsin Zaheer)

The in-person testimonies will be gathered by an artistic team made up of PPC and LPAC representatives that will travel to the five boroughs to conduct in-depth interviews of Muslim residents. The dramatic scripts will be developed from the collection of these interviews.
“In most of the cases we know each other by what is being said about ourselves by others,” said Ping Chong and added, “If we meet, listen and share our stories with each others then we could end the gulf between perceptions and realty.”

He further said, “One story could change a believe about whole group of people.”

“The artistic scripts will weave together interviewees’ individual experiences with historical events in a chronological narrative touching on both political and personal experiences,” said Mr. Hitt who noted that joining the cast will be six to eight interviewees who will perform a dramatic narrative describing their own experiences.

He further said: “I believe that when people are going to listen others stories through music, dance and theater then not only they will pay attention, listen others directly and come up with their own conclusions based upon their interactions.”

Hitt said through the activities the project will reach a minimum of 36,000 live attendees and an additional virtual audience of 45,000.


American Muslims have traditionally struggled with their stereotyping in the media, which largely contributes to their unfavorable image amongst their compatriots.


Dean Obeidullah, a leading Arab American comedian and author says lack of understanding of the Muslims besides negative stereotyping impacts the general perceptions about Muslim Americans.


“I don’t blame the average Americans for the negative thinking about Muslims when they are only see negative images over and over and over,” he told this correspondent at a function in New Jersey recently.


Dean says Muslims must get out and remove the misunderstandings about them. Click here to listen to Dean’s thoughts on how American Muslims can change the negative perceptions about them.


The writer is a New York-based journalist.

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