Posted on Jan 27, 2020
By Layla Abdullah-Poulos
Finding a balance between one’s creative work and faith can be a struggle, something that SUNY Rockland professor Dr. Shamika Mitchell knows through her work. She moderated the second all-Muslim panel of creators, gamers and cosplayers at San Diego Comic-Con International last year.
That panel, Super Salaam! Muslim Nerds, Geeks, and Fandom, was the second of its kind. A year before that, Dr. Shamika made Comic-Con history by hosting the first all-Muslim panel at the 2018 New York Comic-Con convening. (Sidenote: Check out her popping lipstick!) Through her work in the world of comic books, Dr. Shamika is no stranger to the challenges Muslim artists face.
Dr. Shamika Mitchell and her Salaam Fandom panel at New York Comic-Con.
Muslim creatives must constantly navigate an array of cultural mores inside and outside of their faith identities. Many artists struggle to strike a balance, wherein they safeguard their relationship with Allah (S) while using their talents gifted by Him to embrace their inspired expressions. With social spheres challenging their voices and right to hone their skills, they are often wedged between ultimatums to shed their artistry by their coreligionists and Muslimness by their non-Muslim fellows.
Fortunately, along with Dr. Shamika’s work at Comic-Con, there are growing initiatives that highlight the unique cultural layers (faith, race, gender, national identity, etc.) embodied by Muslim creatives and serve as safer spaces for them to congregate and center their experiences and voices. In 2019, Haute Hijab co-sponsored the Black Muslim Authors convening at the Islamic Center at New York University. The #BlackMuslimGirlFly Film Festival is also a great example of a safe creative space to discuss art without having one’s religiousness questioned.
Spreading the Word
Dr. Shamika recently spoke with Haute Hijab about how she decided to center Muslim comics after attending the 2017 Muslim Women’s Leadership Program at Union Theological.
“We were supposed to come up with some action plans. I wanted to do something that was Muslim centered – whether it was Muslim writers or Muslim women writers – I wanted to do something like that. Because I was so knee-deep in comics, [I decided], you know what, let me ... let me put forward some panels on Muslim comics.”
“I’ve submitted panel proposals to New York Comic-Con in the past. Nothing stuck. It is really hard to get a proposal approved. Even if they love your panel and it does really well, it doesn’t guarantee that they are going to accept your proposal next year. It was in 2018 that I got two yeses, and one of them was for [the] Salaam Fandom [panel]. I was beside myself with excitement.”
Dr. Shamika expanded her panels, presenting them across the country and internationally. “I proposed it for the 2019 San Diego Comic-Con, and they said yes! So, we did the Super Salaam panel. I proposed again for the 2019 New York Comic-Con, and they said yes. I focused on cosplay for that one. Now, we’re heading to Chicago for C2E2 (Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo) in March this year.
Dr. Shamika poses with her New York Comic-Con panelists.
The United States Embassy of Algiers also invited Dr. Shamika to their Comic-Con. "I was out there for about four days. Salaam Fandom was very well received. People were really excited. I’ve also been talking to some publishers to find the most effective way to put together the Salaam Fandom anthology. So, I’m putting it out there!”
Big Tent for Creatives
Dr. Shamika’s network of creatives continues to grow; she does not restrict herself to working with certain types of Muslims. “I push intersectional, inclusive Islam. Someone who is Nation of Islam has just as much space as someone who is Shia, Sunni, Wahhabi or Salafi. We’re all in one ummah. My initiative is not to have a panel full of people who look or sound like me. I want to get as much of an intersectional representation as possible.”
Through Salaam Fandom, Mitchell also provides a platform for Muslims creating content that does not necessarily center on their Muslimness. “There [is] space for Muslim content. I don’t believe in stigmatizing people and [categorizing] only those who do Muslim content as the truly religious. If you [are a Muslim and] want to [feature Muslims in your] content, fine – if not, fine. We just need to know you and what you’re working on so we can support [and] uplift each other as necessary and grow the fandom.
Muslim Diversity and Creativity
Many artists struggle with being unapologetically Muslim, said Dr. Shamika, in their need to create and the push back they receive from Muslim communities because of that.
“In my personal conversations, some people don’t want to highlight their Muslimness for fear of being judged as doing something haram. People don’t want to be stigmatized. There are those artists who say, ‘If I come forward and say I am a Muslim artist, it may affect how many bookings I get.’ There are also people who, because of their own tenuous relationship with the deen, may not feel that it is something that they may want to openly identify [as Muslim] because they’re not 110 percent looking, acting or sounding like what a ‘good Muslim’ should be.
“[Then] there is this ongoing perception in the West [by non-Muslims and Muslims] that in order to be Muslim, you have to be ultra-orthodox, fundamentalist and conservative, and that’s the only kind of Islam. If you’re not that, then you’re not really Muslim. They really push a binary for us that they don’t push for themselves, whether they’re Christian, Jewish, Hindu [or] whatever.”
Dr. Shamika adds that “In the fandom community, because of this Westernized, Orientalist notion about Islam, [the artists] feel like either you are on one side of the binary or the other. The importance for Muslim artists to create from a genuine place is for them to understand who they are and know that they don’t have to put on a Muslim show. They don’t have to perform Muslimness to be authentically Muslims. Just live your life. If you’re identifying as Muslim then your life is a part of Muslim reality and not some manufactured idea about what it means to be a good Muslim."