Why Sci-Fi Gives Me Hope for the Future as a Muslim

Writing science fiction stories can provide a safe, sacred space and an alternative to our current realities.
16 November 2016, 12:00am
Photo by Robert Couse-Baker

As a Muslim woman, I've been struggling to hold my head high since the election. I've felt helpless, suddenly aware that I've been thrown into one of the worst positions to confront the racists who believe they have been given permission to spread hateful rhetoric. I am a writer, I tell myself—a Muslim woman writer; what the hell can I do to show people I'm just as human, just as worthy of love and respect as they are?

Friends have shared Carl Sagan's reflections on Earth, our " pale blue dot," to bring me comfort. But let's be real: It's easy to look at Earth from a distance and find humanity's troubles insignificant in the grand scheme of things. It's easy to tell people that they should deal more kindly and compassionately with one another when you're not the one getting your hijab ripped off or being told that you're a terrorist. As much as I want to gaze upon our planet from afar with the same fondness that Sagan held in his heart, I can't. Not now, and maybe not for the next four years. I'm stuck here on Earth, wondering how I can help people like me get through these trying times.

I do not see a pale blue dot. All I see is red.

So I pick up Octavia Butler's Dawn and I read. And in my head, I'm in outer space.

After Mars One announced plans for a 2025 mission to Mars, Muslim clerics in the United Arab Emirates issued a fatwa deeming a colony on Mars to un-Islamic because, they claimed, even going to Mars poses an unnecessary risk to life that's tantamount to suicide, a sin. As such, to those clerics, Muslims don't belong off earth. Yet the Quran itself is not at odds with space exploration: "O assembly of Jinn and men! If you can pass beyond the zones of the heavens and the earth, then pass!" [Sûrah al-Rahmân: 33]. And thank goodness for that, because it seems that at least 25.5 percent of the United States—the percentage of eligible voters who cast their ballot for Donald Trump don't want us here on Earth, either.

Dreaming of space exploration feels like an attractive alternative to, well, everything. Many Muslims simmer in fear and fury, rightfully and righteously so. With Donald Trump's win on most of our minds, it's difficult to take a step back and realize precisely what could be at stake, and what may still, hopefully, remain safe. But the reality for many Muslims is that Trump's win means a victory for the normalization of hate against us in this country. Now we mourn. We mobilize. We scramble to make safe spaces.

Muslim writers can bring comfort by making safe spaces. I don't mean "safe spaces" in the typical sense of the word, but safe space—outer space. The stuff of science fiction sprinkled with reality, writing stories about Muslims exploring the fringes of the galaxy, far from a hateful political climate. To do so would be to take our present and place it on an imagined futuristic stage, providing a new perspective and ultimately clarify what we define as the status quo. As Deka Omar wrote this year for the website Islam and Science Fiction, "Much like Orwell used science fiction to voice his trepidations about communism, Muslims could also use it to bring their own experiences to a wider audience in order to dispel misconceptions, and question the vehement discourse of Islamophobia."

Omar also, perhaps unintentionally, draws parallels between science fiction, historically viewed as a "lesser" literature, and Muslims, viewed as a "lesser" human: "As a community often subjected to a narrative that demonizes them and depicts them as the ultimate 'other,' this type of [science fiction] storytelling could help bridge the gap separating them from mainstream society." And yet there's a dearth of Muslims writing about science fiction, in part because writing about aliens and fictional planets has been questionably deemed un-Islamic by some clerics (ironic, in a sense, because the Islamic world birthed some of the earliest genre writing). But is it not entirely fitting for Muslims to use science fiction as a tool to envision themselves as the protagonists of their own stories, not only existing, but thriving on a timeline far separated from the very real oppression of today?

Last year, the Pakistani sci-fi author Usman T. Malik made a case for the his country's embrace of science fiction as a social justice tool: "Science fiction in its imaginative glory seeks to report and resolve and recreate a world filled with possibility. It provides us with so many lenses to look at the world around us, lighting up minds with revelation." Science fiction, Malik believes, can plant the seeds of change by allowing Muslims to create bomb-less, bigot-less, carefully controlled spaces that are filled with possibility and hope. In that futuristic space, they can place their pain upon a stage to evoke an all-too-real empathy that will hopefully transfer to their readers' present being. Similar beliefs prompted editor Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad to create Islam and Science Fiction, the first hub of its kind for Muslim writers to gather and share ideas for Islamic science fiction. But it's still the only one of its kind.

Other marginalized writers have successfully used science fiction as a rumination of their place in the universe. For example, Octavia Butler famously used science fiction works like her Lilith's Brood trilogy to muse on race, hierarchy, and slavery in an alien world. Her work was influential because she symbolized why both black writers and science fiction can and should be taken seriously as meaningful additions to the literary canon. The publishing industry reflects an anti-black world, particularly in regards to science fiction, which has always been primarily a white male space. Butler usurped science fiction's tropes and transformed the genre into one where she could imagine a black woman as an agent of her own future. She used science fiction to demand that people like her exist now, and will continue to exist on every level of imaginings of the future. As a fledgling writer myself, seeing a marginalized woman surmount the genre has been invaluable to developing my own self-confidence and belief that I too deserve a space of my own.

This week, the FBI reported a 67 percent surge in hate crimes against Muslims in 2015, and the Southern Poverty Law Center has counted more than 300 allegations of hateful incidents since Election Day alone.

But our repression is fuel for a rebellion of the pen; just ask Saladin Ahmed, G. Willow Wilson, and of course, Usman T. Malik, all prime examples of Muslim science fiction writers who channel the real issues and contemporary politics facing the Muslim community into approachable stories. Science fiction written by Muslims provides a sacred space for Muslims to investigate their own identities, and also further presents Muslim identity to readers as it could exist in the future. After all, if we allow ourselves, even fictionally, to exist in the future, then we can be reminded of why we must exist in the now.

Follow Farah Rishi on Twitter.