5 ways to build empathy for an American Muslim NOW!

Iram Parveen Bilal
Mar 21, 2017 · 5 min read
We’re Muslim Don’t Panic is a rad hip hop dance group you should know about!

Hi, nice to meet you. I’m Iram Parveen Bilal.

I exist somewhere in between the check boxes.

I’m an American Muslim engineer turned filmmaker from Pakistan. I’m a woman.

In Pakistan, I’m American, but not “white” American as they perceive all Americans to be. In America, I’m Pakistani, because let’s be honest, right now most Americans think you have to be white to be American. It’s confusing. I’m somebody who could be banned in this country.

I’m a Muslim woman but I don’t wear a hijab. (WE EXIST.)

I’m interested in BOTH science and art, and the films I make span from broad comedy to political drama.

Yeah, so which boxes am I supposed to check? Forms are hard for me.

I started realizing how this “hyphenate” issue isn’t just a personal issue. This is what it’s like to be a third culture kid. It is the side effect of a “global village”, where we leave our parents’ culture/city/country for careers, marriages, opportunities; where we are forced to redefine ourselves. So when the political climate takes a turn for the xenophobic, Americans like me — and there are tens of millions of us — start getting dumped into VERY small boxes labeled “OTHER.”

Right now, broadly speaking, Muslims are thrown into one of two boxes: TERRORIST or POTENTIAL TERRORIST.

And this is my justification for why I switched from a very sensible science career to an insane filmmaking career. Because science has no answer for this problem. Actually, science tells us we need to prioritize understanding one another: in recent scientific inquiry, empathy is cited as what makes humans unique at survival.

I believe in the power of art to elicit the kind of empathy that makes people’s minds more malleable. Malleable enough to make room for people like me to exist. To belong…here…as an American.

I recently directed a short film, EXTINCTION, about what the world would be like if the Muslim ban turned into an extermination — and this was before we really thought there would even be a Muslim ban. And now I’m making a film about a third culture kid — a Muslim dancer who struggles against her more traditional family and the society that doesn’t know what to do with her. When we started talking about launching a crowdfunding campaign, we wanted to use this time to empower non-Muslim people (how do you like THAT box?) to actually engage with American Muslim culture. By having fun!

So right here are five things you can do to deepen your understanding and empathy for an American Muslim like me, and I promise you, they aren’t what you think. (They’re WAY more fun!)

As a Muslim female who enjoys dancing, I am a bit of an anomaly…maybe to you. But there’s a hoard of us who will jam to Tupac and Bollywood at the same time. Join a Bollywood dance class and learn first hand why the world’s largest film industry has the secret to glue South Asia and the rest of the world. And while you’re doing that, learn about these amazing burqah-clad hip hop dancers or this hijabi ballerina. And if you show up to a class, you’ll also learn that NOT ALL MUSLIM WOMEN WEAR HIJABS, as much as the common media portrayal would have you believe otherwise.

That said, you must:


Have you heard of the Emmy-winning show about a female burqah wearing superhero from Pakistan, Burka Avenger? Well, you’ve heard about it now. Watch films by Muslim filmmakers or about Muslim characters, read books about Muslim characters. Have a kid? Did you know that there is even a Curious George book on Ramadan or that there are Amazon bestsellers that are Muslim children’s books? Empathy begins strongest from a young age, and now is a great time to help your kids see Muslims as people who are in their stories.


Ok, normally I would be worried about recommending fasting (because it’s TOUGH) but I live in LA and people here are fasting and cleansing ALL THE TIME. So why not make it a cultural experience as well? The beautiful thing about Ramadan is that after Sundown, you get to break the fast — and it’s an experience to be enjoyed together (and you better believe the food is delicious.)

Find the mosque or Muslim cultural center closest to you (I bet it’s closer than you think!). Don’t be scared, look them up and ask to go observe Friday prayers. In LA, there’s the fabulous Women’s Mosque of America and the Islamic Center of Southern California that host huge observing crowds on Fridays. Then there is World Hijab day, every February 1st, where you are invited to wear a Hijab and see how it feels (I’m guilty of not having tried it yet myself and NEED to) or Ramadan Fastathons where you fast with Muslim students at your college or better yet, Islamic theology extension courses at scholarly institutes like Bayan Claremont or Zaytuna College.


When protests against the ban happened here at LAX and in airports across the nation, people who had never openly voiced their support of Muslims had an opportunity to come out in solidarity. They connected to each other by looking in each other’s eyes, being in the same space. If you believe in it, you have to show up for it. Not just in solidarity, but to set an example to your friends, colleagues and future generations. It’s tiring to go to a rally, but it’s also actually fun. Feeling the energy that’s out there fighting for change can be invigorating, too.

Everyone shifts closer to the cause when it is made public, out of personal feelings or answering the wake up call, which is important; the first step to solution building is the realization of the challenge at hand. The crowd has power in lifting the veil of self-denial and inertia.


I bet you didn’t know about the uber-cool Muslim Writer’s Collective or the MuslimFunnyFest? In fact, we are organizing an open mic for the Muslim Writer’s Collective here in LA in mid April. Attend it. Go listen, and talk. Exchange. Attend Interfaith Organizations events. Are you religious? Local to me in LA, and elsewhere throughout the country, groups like the Carter Center, Council on American Islamic Relations, The Jewish Muslim Alliance, Daughters of Abraham, United Religions Initiative, Muslim Public Affairs Council hold regular interfaith discussions and gatherings where scripture is used comparatively to un-demonize the “other.” Surprising things happen when you sit next to a perceived enemy on a business class flight and just TALK!

So go out into the world and experience the nuance of my piece of American Culture. You will have to do it this way for now, because in our largest scale tool for helping people understand others — cinema — you have never seen me. I have never gone to a theater and seen a mainstream film that addresses my culture as a Muslim and an immigrant to the United States. Which means you haven’t either.

Don’t worry, I’m working on that very problem right now.

Iram Parveen Bilal

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I make stories that matter. Pakistani. American. Artivist. Filmpreneur. I exist between your check boxes. @forbiddensteps