It is easy enough to be angry. But it takes real courage to do something about that anger. In 2015, a young photography student in Brooklyn called Carlos Khalil Guzman decided he could no longer stand idly by as physical and verbal attacks on people of Muslim faith increased across the Unites States.
Guzman felt that this was, in part, because elements of the media – emboldened by the rise of Donald Trump – were unfairly representing Muslims. Key to this was the repeated call for them to apologise for every act of terror.
“As Muslims, we know that terrorist attacks have nothing to do with our religion,” says Guzman, 29, who converted to Islam in 2012 after engaging with Middle Eastern politics at college. “I thought, you know what, we should be proactive about this. It’s time to reclaim the narrative that the media hijacked.”
Guzman began working on an ambitious photography project called Muslims of America. His aim is to take 114 portraits – the number of chapters in the Quran – of Muslims from all of America’s 50 states, in order to illustrate the astonishing range of people who identify as Muslim. He has so far taken 73 portraits and hopes to complete his undertaking by the end of the year. It has been a remarkable, life-affirming experience.
“If you look at the portraits, it’s a microcosm of diversity in the United States,” he says. “You see men, women, people with tattoos. [Many of these portraits] are of people who don’t conform to the stereotypical notion of Muslim conservatism. Islam is our religion but we can also be teachers, doctors, engineers and artists. Being Muslim is just one of our identities.” On his website, Guzman writes: “We are your neigbours, co-workers and classmates. We come in all shapes and colours.”
Each portrait in the series, which Guzman drip feeds onto Instagram, is accompanied by a verse from the Quran, or a hadith – the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Mohammed. These are chosen by the subjects of the photographs – friends; friends of friends; strangers Guzman has met on social media – who also explain why that particular passage is so important to them.
Sadiya, a college student from California, poses with quiet determination:
“Many of my subjects have had similar life experiences, but they often use different passages from the Quran to deal with those experiences,” Guzman says. “That’s interesting because it shows that the whole text can help you. There isn’t just one passage that will help you deal with, say, depression.”
Look through the portraits on Guzman’s website and you will quickly find your own favourites. I was immediately struck by a photograph of an African-Arab student from California called Sadiya. There is a steeliness to her gaze; a quiet determination – almost confrontational – in the way her left hand lifts her chin. “We were all created the same way by the same creator,” she says. “And for people to belittle one another because of their ethnicity, nationality, country, is just ridiculous.”
But it is as a series that Muslims of America is most effective, and Guzman hopes to exhibit all the portraits side by side once the project is finished. Ultimately, it is the sense of normality that is so poignant. “Take away the whole idea of the word ‘Muslim’, look at these people, and what you have is the fabric of the country,” Guzman says.
‘Reclaiming Muslim’: The Instagram series celebrating Islamic diversity in the UK
Muslim American Faces project uses social media to tell 'real stories' of US Muslims
How the video series 'Secret Life of Muslims' took on rising Islamophobia in the US
Depressingly – though perhaps inevitably – the response to Muslims of America has not been completely positive. “I have had a few people going onto my website and replying with your typical “you’re going to hell” messages and all that stuff,” Guzman says. “But for the most part, Muslims appreciate the fact that I’m letting them tell their stories.”
Guzman believes that projects such as these are needed in the US now more than ever. “Since Trump took office, it’s definitely getting worse. And not just for Muslims,” he says. “We cannot allow racism to be normalised, we have to fight back.”
In his own rather quiet way – simply by taking photographs of normal people across America – Guzman continues to play a vital role in what feels like a particularly vital battle.
Three of the subjects - and the hadith they chose
Myree, Medical Assistant, California
“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.” – Prophet Mohammed
This is so important to me not only as a Muslim but also as an Afro-Latina. This states that Islam is against racism and discrimination. All humans are created equal. All that matters to God is the good a person does and the devotion we have for our creator.
Shadi College, Student, Massachusetts
“Heaven lies under the feet of your mother” – Prophet Mohammed
This hadith is one of my favourites because it talks about being mindful of our parents. In today’s world, a lot of people do not respect their parents and treat them as if they are nothing. Of course there are times when our parents get on our nerves, but before I even think or dare to say anything to them, I remember this hadith and it brings me back to reality. It allows me to do good instead of bad, and this has helped me build a stronger relationship with my parents.
Ala, Filmmaker, Louisiana
“Even if the end of time is upon you and you have a seedling in your hand, plant it” – Prophet Mohammed
This hadith has significance to me because it encourages us to always do our best, and never stop giving. Be open about finding solutions and about wanting to grow even when things get hard and you feel like the world is crashing. Always be the positive change you wish to see growing around the world. Be the change, the light and the hope when everything becomes dark.
For more information, visit www.carloskhalilguzman.com