Dear J.J. Abrams,
When you were younger, did your elders ask you questions like, “If you could have lunch with anyone in the world, who would it be?” I have a hunch your answers were a lot like mine: Jean-Luc Picard, or rather Data. Possibly Q. Definitely Princess Leia. Maybe Darth Vader. (On second thought, maybe not Vader. I feel like he’d be distinctly unimpressed with me.) Star Trek gave me hope. Star Wars was my happy place.
Which makes you my hero. And a lot of other people’s, too.
You’ve rebooted both sacred franchises. You not only get paid to live in some of the greatest worlds ever conceived, but to extend them into our age. What an honor and a privilege it is to re-imagine our most cherished tales. But with great power, as Ben Parker would say, comes great responsibility.
This should be a joyous time for me, with the release of the new “Star Trek Beyond” trailer, and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Had you asked me about this a few months ago, I would’ve told you so much happiness in so few days should be banned. But that was before Paris, San Bernardino, before leading presidential candidates began actually talking about people like me being banned. The national climate for Muslims is uglier than I can recall.
That’s where we are right now.
When it comes to Islam, a fair proportion of Americans seem to go nuts. We’ve had Ben Carson saying Muslims aren’t loyal enough to be be president, Jeb Bush claiming Muslim refugees shouldn’t be let in, Donald Trump talking about special IDs, databases, surveillance techniques, killing family members of the San Bernardino shooters, and Klu Klux Klan members are recruiting anew on the fear of Islam.
I think you can see where I’m going with this. Many Americans fear Islam and think our faith is incompatible with U.S. values. We cannot possibly change these narratives on our own. Whether or not someone likes Muslims is dependent on whether or not she even knows a Muslim. It’s unlikely, even if every Muslim had a transporter device, that we could meet everyone, and change minds single-handedly.
There are a few million American Muslims. There are over 300 million Americans.
Movies and music, art and popular culture — your purview — they can make the introductions we need. At light speed. I know there will be many other projects and films with your name, your vision and your lens flares inside them. (I’m hoping someone gives you the money to make “The Silmarillion.”) But please, Mr. Abrams, consider going back to Sector 001 one more time. There’s just nowhere like it.
Especially for the away mission we need you to go on.
A Pakistani kid growing up on the margins, I was an awkward child with overly large glasses and way too much hair, who had his first conversation with a girl he was attracted to many years after most of his peers forgot about their braces. I adored Star Trek because it portrayed a future where imagination, discovery and courage were all that mattered. Who cared about races or religions when there was an entire universe out there to explore and discover?
That’s the very kind of place where America can not only meet a Muslim, but see her as a hero. What other franchise can do that? A white guy called Luke, born on a planet named after a city in overwhelmingly Muslim Tunisia (Tataouine inspired Tatooine), that we can all believe. But a Jedi named Muhammad? Right now that feels unlikely.
By bringing a Muslim to Star Trek or Star Wars, you’d be so very faithful to the enterprise, too, continuing a proud tradition of breaking boundaries, of reconfiguring the stuff of our stereotypes. Just like Gene Roddenberry, of course the original creator of the Star Trek TV series.
When the Star Trek creator cast Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura, he made a Trekkie out of Martin Luther King Jr. One of America’s greatest leaders knew the power of visibility. In fact, he urged her to stay even when she was disillusioned with her role. (When Kirk and Uhura kissed, the show was banned by CBS affiliates in parts of the South.) There was a Russian character too, Pavel Chekov, when Russians were the evil empire on the other side of the world. There was Hikaru Sulu, too, of Japanese descent, when the internment camps were not so distant a memory.
All of them, on the bridge, against Khan or, better yet joining forces to expand our knowledge of the universe. These weren’t characters briefly introduced and revoked. They were protagonists who opened the door to the diversity many of us now take for granted, precisely because they challenged the norms and expectations of their time. Let’s do it again.
A crew of Asians and Caucasians, Vulcans and Muslims (bottom line, there would need to be a few of us to represent anything close to global population stats, but I’d be satisfied at this point with one), seeing what’s just around the corner, facing down danger together: Star Trek against the clash of civilizations, a movie that inspires generations, that takes hold of our imagination, that forces us to wonder whether the things that divide us today might not tomorrow. Make it so, please.
Haroon Moghul is a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches, a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, and is working on a memoir, “How to Be a Muslim.”