Soft Power

How pop star Zayn Malik is rebuilding the modern Muslim man in an age of Islamophobia.

Illustration by Kelsey Dake (photo by Dominique Charriau/Getty Images)

Have you seen Zayn?” My friend, Sara, messaged me a few months ago. It was the summer and I’d been on Tumblr, my newsfeed virtually a photographic exploration of the ex-One Direction superstar. I knew exactly what she was referencing: when Zayn walked past the cameras at a Louis Vuitton show, sporting newly shaved platinum-blonde hair and a silk floral shirt with a brocaded “Louis Vuitton” stretched across his chest, like a banner. Before Zayn’s departure from the monochromatic boyband lifestyle, he was a poster boy for on trend. Now, all of the sudden, he was an eccentric. Every action filled with a resoluteness that comes naturally with mapping your own destiny. This Zayn, this handsome Gary Busey-esque creature of well-timed defiance, conquered all questions of masculinity, and its servile definitions.

The cruel abstraction of masculinity is that men must be macho, unfeeling; devoid of emotional truth and honesty. Essentially, men who aren’t real. Zayn is a new breed of male. Soft-spoken and mysterious, with a gentle repose, Zayn is both a heartthrob and an idealist. People tend to think that humans exist in binaries, but through the ostensible oxymoron that is “Muslim pop star,” Zayn is a new category in himself. He has feelings. He has emotions. The world pushes men like him towards the patriarchy, towards categorization — but as a Muslim pop star, he exists outside of it.

You see, Zayn is a Softboy. Someone who is “Nice yet Complicated,” according to Softboy luminary Alan Hanson. As a Pisces Moon, Zayn is an emotional creature. The nuance of his unease is rooted in an unabashed honesty. In April, he tweeted: “Wanna say thanks to everyone that’s been there for me over the last few weeks, love you all.. you know who you are x.” In typical Softboy fashion, he’s generous — he bought his parent’s house for them, and he funds his cousin’s private school education. He prefers to call his fans “passionate” as opposed to crazy; he knows the cost of impertinence. Zayn, however, is also aware of his mistakes — his penchant for alcohol, girls — but wants to make them anyway. The Softboy oscillates between being kind-hearted and scathing. Earlier this year, he tweeted about former friend and producer Naughty Boy: “You fat joke, stop pretending we’re friends.” But we all know that Softboy Zayn probably felt really bad after that.

Sensitive. Self-aware. Coy. Despite The Softboy’s connotations, this status is powerful — because Muslim men aren’t ever seen as Softboys.

Muslim men aren’t ever seen as docile. They are feared and vilified, marginalized and taunted — and even if they are “shy” that’s always characterized as something more nefarious. When the world pictures Muslim men, they see beards and cloaked bodies, gangly, dirt-smeared refugees. And they think: terrorists. Or at least that’s what a Texas teacher thought this year when 14-year-old Ahmed Mohammed was arrested for making a clock in school. His teacher labeled it suspicious because of his name and ethnicity, but Mohammed later explained that he made the clock to “impress his teacher.” His innocence was misread as a threat. His shyness and softness were seen as incongruent within the construct of Muslim masculinity.

If you Google “Muslim boy” there’s no accompanying photo of Zayn being a shy kid at a British elementary school, getting good grades, challenging stereotypes. These Muslim boys turn into Muslim men; they are never shown to exist within the appurtenance of innocence. So when Muslim pop stars publicly identify as such, it proves that Islam — a religion that’s so often been reduced to an exaggeration — has cultural value. The very presence of Zayn, then, a British Muslim male superstar, who has captured our hearts through his demure shyness, ruptures the dichotomy of us versus them, because one of them becomes an us.

But the one that becomes an us still has to explain the actions of them — or namely the violent, extremist ones. When Zayn tweeted “#FreePalestine” late last year, he was confronted by death threats. The public statement was innocent, but others didn’t read it as such. And in a matter of seconds, Zayn’s honest thought was overridden and dismissed by a pugnacious readership.

That wasn’t the first time Zayn experienced this type of xenophobia in his career. In 2012, after The Telegraph declared that One Direction’s success hinged on the fact they were “clean cut, wholesome, whiter-than-white,” (which in itself is problematic), Zayn was accused of pimping Islam on people’s children through “boy band Jihad” by blogger Debbie Schlussel. In another stinging move, earlier this year, Bill Maher gleefully joked about the supposed likeness between him and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber. To most, these jokes are innocuous, but they are indicative of something far more nefarious: the synecdochic treatment of a marginalized people, a single person plucked to represent the entire group. No matter their fame, Muslim men are treated as second-class citizens.

But it’s obvious that Zayn doesn’t want to be defined by his Muslim leanings or his Softboy ideals; he just wants to be a person who exists in his own impersonal limbo. He wants the chance to figure himself out, outside of the world that had been shaped for him; he wants “to be a normal 22-year-old who is able to relax and have some private time out of the spotlight.” With his residue of softness, there is an irrevocable desire for truth and integrity: “I just need to be me now, because I’ve had enough.”

After leaving the group, Zayn drastically changed his hair — buzzed, then lime green, platinum blond, representative of a diminutive Amber Rose. In itself, this is a statement: he’s grappling with the idea of finding himself and being true to what that means. By not giving a fuck about his Muslim ideals or what the Western world wants, he’s effectively declaring his validity as a young Muslim man. I’ve also sometimes felt splintered in two: I’m both a child of the West, and deeply rooted in my Muslim and South Asian heritage. I’ve always wanted to dictate how I live, by my own standards, never by what was imposed on me. By the same token, I crave Islam; it’s in my bones. The world sees Islam as incompatible with Western values, but what if these two cultures colliding into a spectacular swirl — like a soft serve with two flavors — is what best represents Zayn and I?

By saying very little about what he’s up to, or where he stands politically, Zayn’s pushing off decolonization, and starting anew. Working with mostly people of color on his forthcoming solo album (Malay, who is half-Asian, and who has worked with John Legend and Frank Ocean, is producing the album) shows an interest to be true to his definitions, to be a perfunctory role model by just being himself. He’s separating his identity from the pallid whiteness that previously bled out his other dimensions. His irreverence of fame — his desire to be a person of his own design, no matter what it costs him publicly — feels resonant of something much more vital: he’s carving a space for himself. He’s reclaiming what it means to be Zayn Malik, and thus a Muslim man of his own making.

His back-and-forth search of personhood is tantamount to watching a quiet revolution. Of self, yes, but that can hardly be dismissed when Muslim masculinity is defined by ISIS soldiers beheading Western journalists. The war on terror has been waged against men who look like Zayn. When Western culture has institutionalized the erasure of men like you, it is a sincere revolution to be yourself. This is when self-love — as in being true to yourself — is an act of resistance. There is nothing hyperbolic about what he is doing; no exaggeration of his impact. He’s simply being. Being in a world that wants you to be a certain way, a way that he is not.

Inspiration can’t be false-hearted, and although he’s only just 22, he represents the halcyon of an era that’s to come where we respect Muslims to be, but also where we allow men to be charged with emotionality. Men are taught to have egos, but never to truly like themselves. Within his framework, you see Zayn trying, through acceptance, to shift our perceptions of Muslim men, and even all men. Softboy, or not.

When I look at Zayn, I see my brothers in my faith who have been guilt-ridden, traumatized, and blamed for actions outside of them. So when Zayn shows off in public what’s done in private, he’s asking for change. Muslims aren’t allowed that kind of transparency — they are not leveled that same tolerance, either. There’s a power in claiming the privilege exists outside of you; to act badly, but to demand respect. The kind of respect your white peers get so easily, without the same need to be perfect, or to behave elegantly all the time. To subvert while complying, is an act of resistance. To be gentle, when men like are you seen as anything but — well, that’s change.