Professional Wrestling Doc, Team Taliban, Looks at the ‘Muslim Bad Guy’

Professional wrestling has long promoted characters that play on popular stereotypes and contemporary politics and prejudices. During the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, popular wrestling villains were often “Soviets” and Russians, while during the Iranian hostage crisis they were Iranians and generic “Middle Easterners/Muslims.”  

24-year-old Adeel Alam is—in street clothes at least—not your average professional wrestling villain. Introspective and engaging, he is the focus of Team Taliban, a highly recommended if all-too-brief documentary on Alam’s experiences portraying a generic “Middle Eastern/Muslim” villain, “Prince Mustafa Ali,” a member of “Team Taliban.”

The film provides a glimpse into Alam’s debate with himself, his family, and his fellow American Muslims over his portrayal of such a character while also being a practicing Muslim—the “most religious” in the family according to his brother.

In the ring, Alam, an American Muslim of South Asian descent, fulfills the stereotype of “Middle Easterners” and Muslims, speaking in fake accented English, shouting in a foreign language (in his case, Urdu), and often entering the ring in robes and kaffiyeh. Alam’s out-of-ring introspection, alluringly captured in Benjamin Kegan’s film, and the fact that he is an open and practicing Muslim, are what make him stand out.

While the film contains some truly compelling scenes—as when he recounts the discussion with his parents after telling them that he planned to portray a “terrorist” character—the film’s eleven minutes and change is a major hindrance to the development of a personal narrative leaving the viewer with significant questions about Alam’s inner struggle over the decision to perform as a member of Team Taliban.

A read through some of Alam’s journal entries on his official MySpace page, provide a more detailed look at his thoughts on the subject. In a March 3, 2009 entry on the film he writes:

It’s very hard for me to sit and preach to my fellow Muslims that we need to all carry ourselves in a dignified and respectable manner so that everyone else can see that Islam is religion of peace and tolerance all the while on the weekends I am bashing someone’s head in with a chair while yelling Jihad. It’s hard, it’s being a hypocrite…and the film shows that.

In an interview with bleacher report published in January, Alam says that he was not completely satisfied with the film:

The overall product painted an image I didn’t totally agree with. I felt like the true struggle of my story wasn’t captured but Ben felt it was and that it was presented well on film. I came off looking like I didn’t care that I was potentially misrepresenting my people. He explained to me that he was getting some great reviews and some viewers really understood my situation and I wasn’t coming off as an evil person in the movie. I trusted his judgment.

In the same interview, when asked what it’s like to portray a “terrorist character” in the ring, Alam responds:

I don’t portray a terrorist. The American fans label me a terrorist. It doesn’t matter what I claim to be, in their eyes I am whatever they say I am despite the fact that I’m not committing any ‘acts of terror.’ I ask you, how am I portraying a terrorist? Because I look like a Muslim? Because I am extremely vocal about the U.S. foreign policies and I use whatever name recognition I have to bring attention to the ill practices of the U.S. government?

Toward the end of the film, Alam addresses what some see as a contradiction in his decision to portray a character whose reputation rests almost entirely on popular prejudices against Muslims, Arabs, and other “Middle Easterners” while being a practicing Muslim. He says that he never uses the name of God (Allah) or “the religion of Islam” in his act, but then notes that they don’t “have to be dropped” into his portrayal as the connection between his character and Islam is already assumed by the audience, aided by his acting and clothing. Alam also recounts his thoughts upon seeing a young fan jumping up during a show with fists raised: “Man, this kid is like 7 or 8, and I’m pretty sure I just cemented in his head to hate Muslims.”

christopheranzalone@fakeemail.com'

Christopher Anzalone is a Ph.D. student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University where he studies Shi'ism, contemporary jihadi movements, political Islam, and Islamist visual culture. He has written articles for Oxford University Press’ Encyclopedia of the Islamic World and Princeton’s Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought. He blogs about his research interests at Views from the Occident.