Does Zayn Malik Have It Harder As A Muslim Pop Star?

Photo: Matt Baron/BEImages.
For as long as Zayn Malik has been a celebrity, the media has been quick to point out his faith. It's not just innocent mentions that Zayn is Muslim, the same way it might be if another public figure were Jewish, Buddhist, Jain, or Christian. For Malik, his religion has made him a public face of Islam, and his personal choices and actions are often related to the fact that he was born and raised Muslim. 

In a web-exlusive segment recently posted to the Real Time With Bill Maher YouTube channel, Bill Maher joked about Zayn Malik leaving One Direction. "Just tell me two things, Zayn: Which one in the band were you, and where were you during the Boston Marathon?" The latter questions was accompanied by a split screen of Zayn and accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The comparison wasn't that shocking as far as Maher's rants against the Muslim faith are concerned, but this isn't the first time Zayn Malik has been the face of Islam for mainstream pop culture. The media has been making the connection since he first became famous as part of One Direction.

"Definitely, any time you're a Muslim and you're somewhat famous, Islam is going to figure prominently in any discussion of you or any issues surrounding you, whereas that wouldn't be the case with someone Jewish or Christian or whatever. That would normally be out-of-bounds. There's a lot of differences in rules when it comes to Muslims," says Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations

Zayn's faith is frequently brought up in articles about the pop star, even though it probably wouldn't come up in a typical celebrity interview. In a 2013 profile of Trisha Malik, Zayn's mother, the BBC carefully notes that she converted to Islam after marrying a British Pakistani man. "I've always tried to learn as much as I can about my husband's religion and culture," Mrs. Malik told the BBC. "I made sure the children went to the mosque. Zayn has read the Koran three times."

In a similar style interview that Harry Styles' mom gave to Heat in 2012, the topic of religion never came up.

Religion has never been a part of the image Zayn Malik presents to the public. "I believe that your religion should be between you and whoever your belief is in," he said in an interview with Britain's Mirror. "I don't think you should stick it in people's faces. I think you should just keep it to yourself, and that's how I've always been with it."

Still, a piece in today's Guardian cites numerous occasions when Malik's faith has earned him increased scrutiny and made him the butt of anti-Muslim sentiments. One Direction fans took The Daily Show to task in September for a joke about a member of the band joining a new terrorist supergroup. "Basically a TV show called Zayn a terrorist because of his religion. #thedailyshowgonetoofar," user @1DFinders tweeted. The Daily Show was finally forced to tweet an apology, claiming ignorance of the individual band members' identities and religions. 

While the media seems to have an obsession with Zayn's faith, fans the world over have managed to respect his wish that it not become an overwhelming part of his identity. After Maher's damning comparison, a Change.org petition garnered over 5,000 signatures demanding the HBO host "apologise [sic] for racist joke." #RespectforZayn immediately trended on Twitter.

"This is because Malik’s following keenly understands what polemics on both sides fail to grasp — that there is no dichotomy between being a pop superstar and identifying as a Muslim," the Guardian notes. "You can be someone inspired by beliefs, but not constrained by the limits we impose on religious language, or the jokes we pull out of simplified views of those we choose not to understand."

In the case of Zayn Malik, this means the media should respect his wishes that his religion remain a private matter. The fact that he's Muslim shouldn't get Zayn inserted in any current events story pertaining to Islam, nor should it make him the mainstream celebrity example of someone who is Muslim. If millions of Directioners can see that, why can't members of the media? This shouldn't be Zayn's one thing. (The Guardian)
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