Ramy, streaming now on Hulu, follows the life of Ramy Hassan, a Muslim American man who lives in New Jersey with his family. It delves into the classic trials of being a first-generation immigrant Muslim. The show’s creator, 28 year old Ramy Youssef, is also an Egyptian-American Muslim from New Jersey. While the show isn’t autobiographical, elements of it reflect true events in Youssef’s life.
The 10-episode first season explores a small ecosystem of Muslim American life in New Jersey, and the show manages to do a decent job of adding unique, specific elements of Youssef’s life and tying it to Muslim American life more generally. 9/11, for example, which had deep, often traumatic social and political changes for Muslim Americans was handled delicately and grotesquely at the same time. The show made the event as horrific as it was, showing the ways in which a 12 year old Ramy dealt with his friends accusing him of terrorism, while also focusing on puberty in all its unpretty reality.
The show often wraps larger political statements in bizarre and human circumstance, pulling out moral gray areas. For example, Steve, Ramy’s friend who has Muscular Dystrophy, makes Ramy drive him to an underage girl’s house with alcohol. Upon arriving, Ramy discovers she is in high school. He tries to stop Steve but Steve points out, “Ramy, I don’t have the same options you do. I can’t just go to a party on the Upper East Side. I can’t just use apps to meet people.” And Ramy, conflicted, lets Steve spend time alone with the girl.
Ultimately, this show does what almost every show with Muslims does – makes Muslim characters digestible by stripping them of their Islam and turning Islam in America into a religion that limits what you can do.
These moments of extreme discomfort, where you acknowledge that the character’s hands are tied because the circumstances are so messed up, occur frequently in the show. This kind of contradiction, where the truth is kind of funny, kind of horrific, is where Ramy excels as a show. Where it maybe gets complicated is when that contradiction applies to being Muslim American.
Ultimately, this show does what almost every show with Muslims does – makes Muslim characters digestible by stripping them of their Islam and turning Islam in America into a religion that limits what you can do. It says there are rules, which if you break, make you a Bad Muslim. This simplistic way of looking at Islam is also how Muslims look at the faith, often defining it the way the show does – no sex, no alcohol, no drugs. We do this because we are defining it relative to something else, which is what our American or non-Muslim friends are doing.
Online, people have rightfully claimed that they’re tired of shows that do this. They say yes, there are Muslims who engage in these things and it’s no big deal. Or it is a big deal and why are we just showing Muslims who do this, why can’t we get a show about Muslims who “follow the rules”?
But that’s not the point the show makes. It’s not about the rules. It’s about the inconsistency of following or not following them in a country that makes it hard to follow them all the time. It’s that we have defined our faith, for so long, against being American and that necessarily led to inconsistencies which turns Islam into a set of rules to follow.
So when Ramy realizes he’s done too much “haram” and is craving spiritual enlightenment and a connection to God, he goes to Egypt, to find a solution to this problem. He tells his cousin, “I feel like the problem’s really that I just don’t know what kind of Muslim I am. Like there’s Friday prayers, and then there’s Friday night, and I’m, like, at both, you know. I’m breaking some rules, and I’m following others. And I thought coming here would give me some clarity and help me figure it out, but I don’t know, obviously that hasn’t really worked.”
When you focus on what you can’t do as a Muslim, it’s hard to switch and talk about what Islam can do for you.
When you focus on what you can’t do as a Muslim, it’s hard to switch and talk about what Islam can do for you. And maybe that’s what being Muslim American is, you’re so busy defining your faith by what it isn’t that you forget what it is. And when you go look for it, it’s not as simple as you thought to find.
Ramy has received fair criticism, but ultimately, it does a good job of showing how Muslim Americans are often denied the consistency of being Muslim or being American because we are defining those two things against each other.