‘The Secret Life of Muslims’ Creator Joshua Seftel on Pop Culture’s Potential to Change Minds


Filmmaker Joshua Seftel had been working for years to secure funding for his new series, The Secret Life of Muslims, which began streaming on Vox in early November. Then Donald Trump was elected president, and suddenly the project took on a whole new resonance.

The Secret Life of Muslims is a 14-episode, multi-platform series that aims to undercut the stereotypes surrounding Muslim-Americans, particularly in the wake of 9/11. At a time when the president-elect’s transition team is openly mulling a national registry of Muslims, the series is unfortunately more relevant than ever. Designed to be shareable — the bite-sized episodes are around three minutes each — The Secret Life of Muslims is a blast of clarity and humor in the face of so much fear-mongering.

With the exception of four videos that address broader questions (“What does it mean to be Muslim?”) each episode is a mini-profile of a different Muslim-American, who speaks to the camera in his or her own words. The premiere features comedian Ahmed Ahmed, who describes how his phone stopped ringing when he decided not to audition for any more terrorist roles; last week’s episode features Khalid Latif, who became the NYPD’s youngest-ever chaplain in 2007, at the age of 24.

Flavorwire spoke to series creator/director Joshua Seftel about the (waning?) power of pop culture, the importance of reaching a wide demographic, and the failure of Transparent to bring this great nation together.

Flavorwire: What prompted you to create this series?

Joshua Seftel: We made this series [in 2011] called The Secret Life of Scientists, and the idea was to humanize scientists. At the time, a friend of mine had just made a film about Muslim-Americans, and she said, “Hey, we should do a series called Secret Life of Muslims.” She kind of laughed, but I went, wait, that’s a great idea. So we spent five years trying to get the funding. Maybe there’s a silver lining to the long wait of trying to get this project out into the world. Sadly, it seems like there is more of a need for it now. It’s not a good thing.

How did Vox get involved?

Vox is a really important partner in terms of social media. We’re about to have a partnership in place with USA Today. We also have a partnership with Public Radio International and with CBS Sunday Morning. We made this content to be seen, so we’re working with a few different partners to help us get it out into the world and ideally reach different demographics. That’s our goal.

I was going to ask if you were worried about the echo-chamber effect — the people who read Vox are probably already down with this series’ message.

Well, I think change occurs incrementally, and I know that for me, working on this project, my mind has been opened in new ways. So I have to believe that other people like me, maybe people who read Vox, will fall in the same category of, “Wow, I know I’m liberal, but I’m learning more and opening up more to this, understanding it more deeply.”

I also think a lot of change happens through people that we know. If we put these videos on Breitbart News, I don’t know if anyone’s going to watch them. If we put it on Vox and someone says, “You know what, my mom should see this video,” and they tag their mom on Facebook and say, “Mom, you need to watch this,” chances are their mom’s going to watch it. In fact, that story I just described happened yesterday — this woman named April tagged her mom on Facebook and said, “Mom you should really watch this.” And now there’s a whole chain of comments.

How did you choose the participants in these videos?

We wanted to really show an array. There are 1.7 billion Muslims in the world, 3.3 million in the U.S. — how can you capture that with ten people? It’s impossible, but we tried. We wanted there to be a mix of high-profile and more everyday kind of people.

Have you gotten good feedback so far?

For the most part. April’s mom is probably the highlight for me so far, it’s just exactly what I’d hoped for, that kind of interaction. People were saying, “Why preach to the choir.” I think the choir has power to change people on the fringes of the choir. And I also think the choir may not be as big as we think it is when it comes to this issue, so I think this is a topic that really needs to be talked about. Hopefully this is a good gateway.

You said earlier that making these films opened your mind. In what way?

Well, one thing that happened was that I remembered some things from my childhood that I’d forgotten about. I grew up Jewish in upstate New York, and there were Jewish people but not that many. I remembered that kids used to pick on me for being Jewish — kids used to throw pennies at me and call me “Jewish Josh.” Someone threw a rock through a window of our house. There was definitely some anti-Semitism going on up there, and I had sort of forgotten about it.

I think that’s one of the reasons I was drawn to these stories. I probably spent about 30 hours talking to an array of Muslim-Americans. Getting to spend so much time with a group of people and hear their stories — in particular what struck me is, we think about how much our country changed as a result of 9/11. We think about all these families that lost lives and how it changed day-to-day life in our country. One thing I hadn’t thought about until I started this project was that [the] 3.3 million [Muslim] people in this country, their lives changed in a major way on 9/11, and it hasn’t been the same since. And I don’t know if it will ever change back. Every person had a story about what happened to them on 9/11 — what happened when they went to school the next day, or went to work, or walked down the street.

A lot of people cite Will & Grace as something that changed attitudes toward gay marriage. Do you think pop culture still has that kind of power now?

Definitely. I think Reza Aslan’s right on. [In an upcoming episode], he said he’s quit being a pundit, and now he’s going to produce a sitcom, for exactly that reason — Will & Grace, among other things, changed the way people thought about gay marriage, and he thinks the world can change based on pop culture. And I agree with him.

Even now, when pop culture seems to be so at odds with the way this country is about to be governed?

Well, I think it might be harder, because pop culture is becoming so niche. There are fewer and fewer shows that everyone watches, so in that sense it may be harder. Certainly something like Transparent has had an impact, but what percentage of people watch Transparent?

Many more millions of people watch a CBS sitcom that just reinforces every nuclear-family, everyone-in-their-right-place kind of message you can think of. I think that’s part of how so many of us were so blindsided by the results of the election — wait, but what about Transparent?!

Or how many people listen to NPR? NPR is like my lifeline to the world, and even if ten million people are listening at any given time, that’s like, three percent of our country. What’s the other 97 percent listening to or watching?

Do you feel like your role as a filmmaker has changed as a result of the election?

Sure, I feel a responsibility to do something. The fact that we have this content ready to go right now is helping me to cope with the last couple weeks, giving me some false sense of control.