Sunday Night at the Oscars

Arab websites were ecstatic about Rami Malek's win - and curiously silent about his background.

Rami Malek, the son of Egyptian immigrants, won the Oscar for Best Actor last night. Arab websites were both ecstatic about his win, and curiously silent about Malek’s background. Here is the story as Al Jazeera covered it:

The actor of Egyptian descent said his win for the role of late Queen frontman Freddie Mercury was ‘monumental moment’….

Malek speculated about what he would have made of the honor as a child.

“I think his curly-haired mind would have been blown,” he said. “That kid was struggling with his identity, trying to figure himself out.”

He lauded Bohemian Rhapsody for telling the story of a gay man and an immigrant who lived his life as “unapologetically himself.”.

Mercury, who was born in Zanzibar to parents from India, moved to England with his family as a teenager.

Malek noted that he himself is the son of immigrants, from Egypt, and a first-generation American. He gave a shout-out to his mother – “I love you, lady” – and regretted that his father was not alive.

My dad didn’t get to see me do any of this, but I think he’s looking down on me right now,” said Malek, who gained attention in the television series Mr Robot….

Malek was asked about what the role meant, especially on an Oscar night that celebrated diversity in movies ranging from Roma to Black Panther.

“I grew up in a world where I never thought I was going to play the lead on Mr Robot because I never saw anyone in a lead role that looked like me,” Malek said.

“I never thought I could play Freddie Mercury until I realised his [birth] name was Farrokh Bulsara.”…

Growing emotional when he called the award “beyond any expectation” that he or his family could have had, he said it was proof that “anything is possible”.

Fellow Egyptians and fans around the world were quick to congratulate Malek on his win.

Twitter users posted their heartfelt wishes and appreciation for Malek’s remarks, which he delivered in his acceptance speech….

“Rami Malek is paving the way for Egyptians and any kind of middle easterners you can be great in anything you do if you put the work in to it, don’t let the fact that you came from a third world country stop you.”

Repeatedly Al Jazeera referred to Rami Malek’s Egyptian background: “The actor of Egyptian descent”; “the son of immigrants, from Egypt”; “Fellow Egyptians”; “Rami Malek is paving the way for Egyptians.”

Al Jazeera, however, carefully left out any mention of what is surely of most significance in Rami Malek’s background: he is a Coptic Christian. It may even be that his family came to America in order to escape from mistreatment by Muslims, and from the general atmosphere of fear which so many Copts must endure. Al Jazeera’s writers and editors no doubt hope that readers will simply assume that Rami Malek is Muslim; their silence is telling.

And also telling is how they covered the story of Freddie Mercury, the frontman with Queen about whom Malek notes that “I never thought I could play Freddie Mercury until I realized his [birth] name was Farrokh Bulsara.” That’s all Al Jazeera chose to report about Freddie Mercury.

But Mercury belonged, and Malek belongs, to peoples who suffered similarly from the arrival of Islam. Mercury was a Parsee (Persian), a descendant of those Zoroastrians who migrated to India from Persia during the Arab invasion of 636–651 AD to escape persecution, and possible death, from the Muslim conquerors. According to his parents, Freddie Mercury was very proud of his Parsee ancestry, though he did not often speak of it. Al Jazeera doesn’t mention Mercury’s background at all, save for giving his birth name as “Farokh Bulsara.” Al Jazeera thus leads many to assume that Freddie Mercury was Muslim at birth — how many would recognize that name as Parsee? — with “Farokh” taken to be  a variant of “Farouk,” a common first and last name among Arabs that means “the Redeemer.”

Other Arab websites never mention Malek being a Copt. Arab News, for example, has this:

Born to immigrant parents, the Egyptian American is poised to make history as the first actor of Arab descent to clinch the top acting prize at the Oscars, seen as one of the highest recognitions in the field. In 2016, he scored an Emmy for his performance in the hit TV show “Mr. Robot.”

Al-Arabiya was equally cryptic about his identity: “Rami Malek, whose parents immigrated from Egypt to the United States, took home the best actor prize for his turn as Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Neither the New York Times, nor The Washington Post, nor NPR or  CNN or the BBC, mentioned that Rami Malek is a Coptic Christian. Most media outlets stuck to describing him as “Egyptian.” Some Arab outlets described Malek as an “Arab-American.” Arab News, for example, carried the headline: “Arab glory as Rami Malek wins an Oscar.’’ Many — possibly most — Copts, deny that they are Arabs; they see themselves as descending from the original Egyptians, present for millennia before the Muslim Arab invaders arrived.

As for Freddie Mercury being a Parsee, descended from the Zoroastrians in Iran who had escaped religious persecution by fleeing to Gujarat in India, that has not been mentioned in any of the stories about the Oscars among the the major media.

A well-prepared reporter, with a sense of history, might have used the awarding of the Oscar for Best Actor as a teaching moment. In the midst of all the Hollywood hoopla, it might have been noted that just as Freddie Mercury was Zoroastrian, and thus a descendant of those who were driven out of Iran by Muslim Arab invaders in the 7th century, so the actor who played him, Rami Malek, is a Coptic Christian whose people have endured persecution, and worse, since Muslim Arabs arrived in Egypt in the 7th century. Well-prepared, and intrepid.

The Copt, Rami Malek, and the Zoroastrian, Freddie Mercury, had much in common as the descendants of non-Muslims in islamized lands.

There is one more piquant detail pertaining to the “Muslim” winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, Mahershala Ali. The Arab media have been hailing Ali as the Muslim winner of an Oscar. But Ali, a convert, belongs to the Ahmadi sect. That means most of the world’s Muslims do not regard him as a genuine Muslim. He is not allowed to identify himself as a Muslim in Pakistan, according to the Second Amendment to the Constitution. And there have been repeated pogroms against Ahmadis, with many victims, in Lahore, in 1953, 1974, and 2010. In Saudi Arabia, too, Ahmadis are not considered to be Muslims, and are officially banned by the Saudis from entering their country, which means Mahershala Ali cannot make the hajj. Ahmadis have faced strong resistance in many other Muslim-majority nations, where they have been considered heretics and non-Muslim, and subjected to persecution and systematic, sometimes state-sanctioned, oppression.

In Afghanistan, any affiliation with the Ahmadiyya movement is a capital offense. In Algeria in 2016, a planned Ahmadi mosque was raided and shut down in Larbraa. Since March 2016, more than 280 Ahmadis were arrested and  prosecuted. Algerian officials have publicly called Ahmadis heretics and a threat to Algeria. in Bangladesh, large, violent marches against the Ahmadis have taken place; some Ahmadis have been placed under “house arrest”; all Ahmadi publications have been banned; mainstream Muslims have demanded that the Ahmadis be declared to be “kaffirs.” In Egypt Ahmadis have been harassed and detained by the police.

In India, Muslims have exhumed and desecrated the bodies of Ahmadis; Muslims have demanded Ahmadis cease to proselytize for Islam. In Indonesia, Ahmadi mosques have been attacked and Ahmadis killed. Many Indonesians believe that the Ahmadiyya movement should be banned outright as a heretical and deviant sect that is not listed as an officially recognised religion in Indonesia. In Malaysia, Ahmadis have been banned from offering Friday Prayers in their central mosque. In Israel, the leader of the Ahmadi community has complained  that the Palestinian Authority is “encouraging the cold-blooded murder of Ahmadis” by “failing to take concrete action to protect the community.” In the U.K., an Ahmadi shopkeeper was stabbed to death by a Muslim for “religious” reasons. In April 2016, leaflets were distributed across London’s universities, mosques and shopping centers, calling for the killing of Ahmadis.

So for now the Muslim Arabs can proudly claim Mahershala Ali as their “Muslim Oscar winner,” while carefully refraining from mentioning that he is an Ahmadi. And someone better warn Ali, if he doesn’t know already — to  steer clear of most of the Islamic world. It could be bad for his health.