One of the last times I give a talk for my book (“Al’ America: Travels Through America’s Arab and Islamic Roots”), a woman in hijab asked me when Americans would begin “trusting” Islam. By that, she meant, “When will Islam be considered just another religion – like Judaism and Christianity – and not a faith to be treated with fear and suspicion.” Speaking into a microphone, I made an analogy to AIDS and to soccer. In 1985, Rock Hudson’s HIV-status put (for the first time) a famous public face on the disease, helping Americans come to terms with an illness that was marginalized by mainstream culture. In 1998, French soccer player Zinedine Zidane led his national team to World Cup triumph, putting a positive public face on France’s large Arab and Muslim population. Zidane and Hudson weren’t panaceas – they were celebrities who brought humanity to people’s thinking.
Flash ahead to February 14th of this year, when “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell became engaged to an Afghan-American woman who hails from a Muslim family. Cowell’s fiancée, a make-up artist named Mezhgan Hussainy, met the “Idol” curmudgeon on the set of the famous music program. There is rampant speculation (see here, here and here) on whether Hussainy is a practicing Muslim – and whether Cowell will convert to Islam before their announced wedding date in July. The fever has reached such a peak that it spread a few hours ago to my in-box. There, I got an urgent email from elan magazine that was headed, “Simon Cowell Converting?” The email teaser refers to the magzine’s blog post, which has a photo of Cowell grinning with these words superimposed: “WTFatwa!”
Nice. elan magazine is devoted to covering “global Muslim youth culture,” and its emphasis on humor and pop matters is a refreshing antidote to the seriousness often attached to its subjects. Simon Cowell is a polarizing figure, but his reach is undeniable. Millions of Americans (and Brits, and other nationalities) admire Cowell for his (choose one or mix and match) entrepreneurship, put-down-manship, fame, wealth, power, smarts, and doggedness. “American Idol” is a genuine phenomenon, and for Cowell’s procession of fans (and enemies), his conversion to Islam would be akin to Cassius Clay’s change in faith and name. Some of Cowell’s followers aren’t taking too kindly to his engagement to a woman from Afghanistan.
“Yes, she is very pretty,” said one person about Mezhgan Hussainy, “but I’d be worried she could be a ‘cell’ for Afghanistan, and have a bomb under her coat someday to kill as many of us as she could. Stranger things have happened. Think about it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
I’ve thought about it, and the comment is saturated in paranoia. Like I told the hijab-wearing woman in my book talk, no one thing or person will change the perception of Islam – it will be a series of events, some of them unforeseen, that humanize the religion. Picture this: Cowell’s wedding takes place this summer, and TV cameras record a procession of Afghan men (Hussainy’s uncles, cousins, et al.) in traditional dress who shout out their religious blessings in Dari. That in itself would be worth noting. Never mind if Cowell converts to Islam, which is expecting too much from someone like him: An arrogant man who shows his disdain for anything that’s bigger than Simon Cowell.