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Zayn Malik, the Unlikely Muslim

It’s sad that Zayn Malik has left One Direction. I’m saying this despite being able to name only one of their hits, probably even at gunpoint. This is also unrelated to Malik’s supposedly wild partying and alleged cheating on his fiancé. These sorts of headlines make him no more controversial than other prominent ex-pop groupers. 

Unlike other pop group retirees in the West, however, Malik wore quite unconventional religious and political beliefs on his sleeve. It must have been extremely lonely, because how many other truly global, chart-topping British or American pop groups can you name with an openly Muslim member?

True, there are other pop stars of Muslim background on both sides of the Atlantic including Amelle Berrabah (formerly of the Sugababes), the rapper Akon and apparently even Rita Ora. But none have been like Malik, who posted a Ramadan message on Twitter in 2012 and was attacked mercilessly afterwards. Right wing American blogger Debbie Schlussel accused him of “pimping Islam” and warned parents to keep their daughters away from his “enticing jihad”. Later that year, his family was trolled when a cousin innocently uploaded a picture of their Eid celebration. In 2014, amid Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, Malik was brave enough to tweet #FreePalestine and received death threats in return. Soon after he quit One Direction, Malik was compared by American television host Bill Maher to the Boston marathon bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev.

As if this were not enough, Malik also has to endure the numerous criticisms from Muslims about his supposed lack of piety because of his numerous piercings, tattoos and love of partying. Some reject his Muslim identity altogether since they claim the Qur’an clearly forbids pop music. Yet despite all this, Malik has never stopped publicly affiliating with Islam. Perhaps he has been encouraged partly by the legion of fans that see no discrepancy between his being British, Muslim and a pop star.

These fans are not alone. In their book American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell show that a majority of Americans believe that heaven is not reserved only for those who share their faith. The social landscape is such that most Americans have close relatives or friends – an “Aunt Susan” or “pal Al” – who epitomise goodness but follow a different religion. It therefore becomes impossible to think of them as being damned simply for holding a different belief.

The picture is different regarding Islam – only 35 percent of Evangelical Christians agreed that Muslims could go to heaven. Yet a much larger proportion, 58 percent, of Black Protestants believed Islam was a valid path to salvation, maybe because they were more likely to have a Muslim Aunt Susan or pal Al in their social network compared to white Evangelicals.  

Amid this backdrop, Malik is an “Aunt Susan” or “pal Al” not just to his family and buddies, but to millions of fans around the world who continue to defend him against Islamophobic idiocy. This is why it’s sad to see him go – by being himself Malik helped ensure to some extent that media representations of Muslims did not go only in one direction. (I know. Ouch.)

Shanon Shah has just submitted his PhD thesis on the sociology of religion. He writes about the lived or politicised aspects of religion, gender, sexuality and human rights, especially regarding Islam.