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Mainstream Minority: Zayn Malik's Role as a Muslim Superstar Is Only Going to Grow

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By Diyana Noory

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Zayn Malik accepts his award for Outstanding Achievement in Music during The Asian Awards 2015 / Photo by Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

When Zayn Malik left One Direction earlier this year, it changed the way people looked at the world’s biggest boy band: Longtime fans wanted to know the real story and demanded to know why Zayn couldn’t vocalize his problems. They wondered why his bandmates Harry, Louis, Liam, and Niall didn’t seem to react as negatively to the pressures of fame as Zayn did. The fanbase split into groups of people who support only Zayn, people who support all five boys, and people who strictly support “OT4,” or the boys who are still in One Direction. Meanwhile, the media was quick to turn crying fans into a spectacle or make mean-spirited and condescending jokes at Zayn’s expense. Whether laughed off or cried through, the departure was treated as just another insignificant chapter in the ongoing drama of boy bands. However Zayn Malik’s struggle with fame as a British-Pakistani Muslim is unique, and it’s one that’s resonated with me as both a devoted One Direction fan and a member of an Iraqi Muslim family who sees bits of myself reflected in Zayn.

Zayn is the first Muslim artist to reach such wild levels of global popularity, and, as such, his presence in the entertainment industry has set new precedents. Although he has not been particularly vocal about his faith, both people who celebrate his Muslim identity and those who reject it have tried to forge their own image of him as a spokesperson for Islam. His unique identity has inevitably shaped his reception and the discussion around him in ways that have not been the case for his former bandmates.

Asked about his religion in 2012, Zayn shared: “I believe that your religion should be between you and whoever your belief is in. I don't think you should stick it in people’s faces.” Unfortunately the world has not allowed him to keep any aspect of his life private, and even his limited tweets about religion have attracted scrutiny and hatred, surely encouraging him to stay quiet. Small actions to educate his fanbase on social issues through a "#FreePalestine" tweet and a retweet in support of Peshawar were heavily dissected, with some media outlets suggesting Zayn was interested in these issues because he was more personally connected to them as a Muslim man—as if natural compassion played no role. Despite the hatred he faces for it, Zayn has publicly taken pride in his identity: In his recent Asian Award acceptance speech, he thanked his parents for making him Asian in addition to thanking God. On the Islamophobic comments targeted at him, Zayn stated: “I thought we had moved away from that and we’re living in the 21st century and people could accept people from different religions”.

One major change I noticed in my local Muslim community when One Direction started becoming more famous was the increase of dialogue about pop culture and what it “means” to be Muslim. I started hearing girls who rarely listened to music “for religious reasons” gushing over that cute brown guy from One Direction. Meanwhile mothers would joke about letting their daughters marry Zayn rather than any of the other boys, and looked past his religious transgressions in favor of highlighting instances where he has displayed piousness and love for his family.

On the other end of the spectrum, it’s not just the international media who have made Zayn out to be the music industry’s sole agent of Islam. Many individuals within the Muslim community criticize Zayn for not being as vocal about his religion and including religious ideas in his music, regardless of the fact that his former bandmates do not identify as Muslim and as if One Direction isn’t a heavily marketed global product with no room to incorporate any sort of important racial or spiritual ideas. I’ve heard people compare him to artists like Sami Yusuf, who sing religious songs as opposed to regular pop music. To this audience, Zayn has found himself standing in for the world’s questions like a modern prophet: Can you drink, smoke, and sport tattoos while calling yourself a Muslim? Is music haram? Was Zayn marketed as “dark, brooding, mysterious, etc.” because of his status as the “other” in the band, and does this reflect how minorities are generally treated in everyday society? Rather than chastising Zayn, the Muslim community would do well to take pride in the fact that one of our brothers has overcome adversity and discrimination to become one of the most successful artists on the planet while maintaining his faith in a way that he sees fit.

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Because of his introverted nature and status as One Direction’s sole person of color, Zayn has always felt the sting of criticism more intensely than the rest of the band. When a video of Zayn and Louis smoking marijuana leaked online Zayn received the most backlash, regardless of the fact that Louis used a racial slur (“nig”). He’s also been villainized throughout coverage of his breakup with Perrie Edwards. Despite frequently coming to his bandmates’ defense, Zayn was marketed from the beginning as the “Bradford Bad Boy” and as the group’s moody, mysterious member. The leaked promotional presentation for One Direction’s movie This Is Us framed him as the “poser,” “dark horse,” and “vulnerable player” in contrast to the unambiguously positive descriptions of his white bandmates’ personalities. Curious how the only brown guy in the group gets the worst narrative.

The reverberations of these instilled perceptions have played out quite clearly in the media reaction to Zayn’s departure from the group. Zayn has faced countless parody songs and taunting tweets suggesting he’s a terrorist and joking about him leaving 1D to join ISIS. Right-wing bloggers have accused Zayn of "boyband jihad”, and gossip bloggers have suggested his actions have stirred up trouble in the band. One of the most egregious media comments was Bill Maher’s remark comparing Zayn’s appearance to Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokar Tsarnev, a "joke" that was not only hateful and Islamophobic but also alarmingly divorced from reality. Imagine a similar situation: Say Harry Styles had left the band, and a TV host had joked about him leaving to join the KKK. The international community would instantly denounce such comments. They might say the quip was not funny and the host ought to spend time thinking of more creative jokes. A lot of the discussion about the outrage Maher sparked was instead dismissive, focusing on the frenzied fans mad at him for insulting their idol rather than on the people very reasonably offended by his discriminatory words. One Direction's fan base is predominantly teenage girls, which leads many people to regard their complaints as hormonal drivel and dismiss their love of Zayn as meaningless adolescent passion even as his critics remain blatantly uninformed and offensive.

Furthermore, while leaving One Direction has exposed Zayn to a whole new demographic of fans who respect his decision to embark on a new creative adventure, it has also caused some people to turn on him. He’s seen by many as a disruption to the social order of the One Direction fanbase, and fans seem to be condemning his efforts to break out as an urban solo act because they only want him to be successful if he is a puppet of the One Direction brand. While fans advocated for Zayn to speak up more while he was a part of the band, now that he has finally gained the confidence to defend himself against hatred they are misconstruing his actions as audacious and traitorous. Meanwhile, blogs speculate Zayn is “self-destructing” simply because he’s become more outspoken and made new friends. Strangely enough, aside from Liam, Zayn’s former bandmates have never publicly defended him from discrimination. Perhaps that’s the result of their PR team’s instructions, but it is sad to see that the issue has largely been swept under the rug. The objective for the One Direction machine has always been to make as much money as possible in the shortest amount of time—not to make much of a social or political impact. But Zayn has the potential to do exactly that.

Zayn’s increasingly open acknowledgement of his unique identity is something that has helped many people of color and Muslim fans break out of their shells, myself included. I used to hide my love for One Direction in the same way I hid my ethnicity. I find myself being judged based on my background and status as a second generation immigrant when I share it. Before the band stormed into my life, I was an insecure 14-year-old from a family of Kurdish Muslim Iraqis who felt different but just wanted to fit in. Although I have light skin (which I’ve been told isn’t brown enough to “look Arab”), some people still take note of my dark hair and eyes and single me out as foreign.

When I was younger this affected me heavily; I still had plenty of friends, but I had to do a lot to fit in with them. I’d laugh along with the terrorist and sand monkey jokes. I showed off my knowledge of rap music and hid my love for Justin Bieber. I’d say anything to make people laugh, and I remember being pretty rude sometimes. I dressed to blend in with my friends, afraid to try anything new. I begged my mother to let me get my eyebrows threaded thinner so I wouldn't get made fun of for having “caterpillar brows” (only to see thick eyebrows become trendy a few years later). I spoke in a hushed voice when my parents addressed me in Arabic, Kurdish, or Turkish in public rather than being proud of my knowledge of different languages. I was trying to seem cool as possible, as normal as possible—essentially, as white as possible. I was also ashamed of loving a band that people loved to hate, of loving something so "mainstream" and "girly."

Zayn was the first boy in the band to catch my eye, and ever since I've gone on to proudly claim my love for One Direction in addition to my love for my culture. Seeing someone like him be so cool while remaining true to himself inspired me to no end as a young teen. I shot down racist insults and began taking pride in my appearance. I stopped pretending pop music sucks. Zayn shared that his favorite food is samosas; I stopped hiding the tabouleh that I brought for lunch. Zayn tweeted Eid Mubarak; I quit typing "happy eid" and instead proudly posted "Eid Mubarak" on social media. During my final year of high school, I wore a beautiful galabiyeh to school for a Culture Day celebration with absolutely no feelings of shame or insecurity. I cannot credit Zayn’s influence completely for these changes in my personality, but he definitely has been a hugely helpful in emboldening me to reclaim my identity and take care of myself. I am forever thankful for how One Direction and namely Zayn have helped me become my own beautiful person.

It might seem that upon Zayn’s exit from One Direction, the Asian and Muslim communities have lost their only voice in the world of elite fame. Zayn’s departure instantly made One Direction feel a bit less special; his originality added a wonderful spark to the group’s appeal, and people of color are able to relate to him the most out of the five boys. The issues we face are unique, and having an individual who embodies our struggle become wildly famous showed us that we have the potential to be beautiful, loved, and successful. Such representation in the media is invaluable. At the same time I applaud Zayn for doing what is best for him and stepping out of the spotlight that has illuminated him so ruthlessly for the past five years, taking time out of this toxic environment to protect his mental health.

That being said, Zayn leaving his band does not signify his complete abandonment of the entertainment industry. Recently he was a front row fixture at Paris Fashion Week, and he’s been busy recording in LA. He has a new team at RCA who will hopefully help him share his true self with the world. It will be exciting to see what that looks like now that he is liberated from the constraints of being a part of One Direction, a brand that overworked him (and the other boys), repressed his creativity, and marketed him like an exotic toy. Additionally his image will not be tied to four other people’s, allowing him to make impactful statements and strengthen his ties with the Muslim and Asian communities if he wishes to. Zayn is currently a proud ambassador for the British Asian Trust, and he made his first public appearance since leaving One Direction at the Asian Awards, where he was honored with The Outstanding Achievement in Music Award. Shah Rukh Khan, the “King of Bollywood”, had nothing but kind words to say about Zayn at the event, and the pair’s selfie became India’s most retweeted tweet. Additionally, Zayn landed his first solo magazine cover at Asians UK Magazine. He seems to be very happy and in his element when interacting with members of his community. The possibilities as to how Zayn will further influence both his community and the art world are endless, and I look forward to seeing what brilliance he has in store. As Zayn said in his Asian Award acceptance speech, “Here’s to the future.”

Diyana Noory is a student living in Ontario. Follow her on Twitter.

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