I’m not a Directioner, but it’s not like I’m averse -- One Direction just missed my particular age group.
So, before he left the band, whenever someone mentioned Zayn Malik, my brain would prompt “the hot one” and that’s about as far as my knowledge went.
I’ve been learning more about Malik since he left One Direction, thanks in part to profiles from Fader and the latest Billboard. I’ve learned his musicality leans R&B, he’s into street art and he only smokes Sativa weed because it’s “creative” (lol).
And I’ve learned his dad is British Pakistani and his mom converted to Islam in marriage, but Malik doesn’t particularly like talking about being Muslim. In 2012, he told the Mirror:
I don't think you should stick [your religion] in people’s faces. I think you should just keep it to yourself and that's how I've always been with it.
Malik hasn’t been much more forthcoming recently. He told Fader:
I would never be trying to influence anything or try to stamp myself as a religious statement or portrayal of anything. I am me. I’m just doing me.
Malik declined to talk about his faith with Billboard.
But at a time when Muslims around the West are facing increasing discrimination and persecution, Malik’s voice (in song or spoken words) could be more useful than ever.
Although Malik’s standing among Directioners isn’t exactly steady these days, he was accepted as one of the world’s biggest pop stars for several years.
Pop stars have historically used their platforms to discuss issues they care about, like Miley Cyrus and her foundation for homeless and LGBT youth. Malik could similarly use his status to stand up to Islamophobic sentiment.
Duncan Cooper at Fader suggested Malik shies away from speaking about his religion due to the horrendous backlash he gets from bigots, saying he may not feel “safe enough” to be more politically outspoken.
This is understandable; Malik has been harassed, mocked and sent death threats for even slight mentions of Islam and a “#FreePalestine” tweet.
And anyway, it shouldn’t be every Muslim person’s job to defend his or her religion from Islamophobes and One Direction haters.
You could argue Malik is doing enough by living as a normal 22-year-old who wants to relax and have some private time out of the spotlight.
Malik is a hugely successful pop star with an Arabic name who tweets “Eid Mubarak” to 17 million followers for the major Islamic holidays.
Even if you want to laugh away One Direction, you can’t laugh away the impact Malik's image has on millions of young people around the globe.
Diyana Noory, now a university student in Ontario, wrote about how Malik simply living while following his religion and culture helped her embrace her own as a teenager in an essay for Noisey:
Zayn shared that his favorite food is samosas; I stopped hiding the tabouleh that I brought for lunch. Zayn tweeted Eid Mubarak; I quit typing ‘happy eid’ and instead proudly posted ‘Eid Mubarak’ on social media.
In a piece for Medium, Malik expert Fariha Roisin explained Zayn is helping to redefine the image of Muslim men both by being accepted as a pop star and by being forthcoming with his personal emotions.
Malik is showing non-Muslims that Muslims are no different from anybody else. He lays claim to the privilege his actions aren’t necessarily dictated or influenced by his religion. He’s not perfect, and he doesn’t have to be perfect -- he’s human.
This is a form of the “contact hypothesis” -- the theory suggesting discrimination can be lessened simply by biased people interacting with someone from a group they don't like, thereby seeing people from that group as real people and not false stereotypes.
Malik is showing the world young Muslim men can struggle with their career choices because they’re growing up, not because they’re wondering if it fits their faith.
He’s showing the world young Muslim men can be sh*tty boyfriends because they’re bad at communication, not because they oppress women. He’s showing the world young Muslim men can be withdrawn because they’re shy or awkward, not because they’re plotting jihad.
Malik is showing the world a young Muslim man is the same as any other young man.
They do dumb things sometimes and are trying to figure out the best use for their talents, and sometimes they piss off millions of teenage girls (OK, maybe that one's just Malik) because they are human and that’s what humans do.
So you can argue Malik is doing enough simply by being the formerly “hot one” of One Direction who also happens to be Muslim.
But then again, if he’s already moving mountains by just doing him, can you imagine the effect he’d have if he actively and regularly spoke out, even a little bit, against Islamophobia?
Maybe it’s time for Malik to use his powerful position to stand up for something important. To create change, it’s not enough to just exist -- Malik has the platform to light up the world like nobody else and make it more beautiful.