Is Serial Having Trouble Telling a Muslim American and Immigrant Story?

By Jamilah King Nov 14, 2014

Along with hundreds of thousands of other people, I’ve become obsessed with Serial, the new podcast from the same team that’s behind "This American Life." In it, radio producer Sarah Koenig unravels the state of Maryland’s murder case against Adnan Syed, a man who was convicted of killing his former high school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, back in 1999. 

The podcast has become a sensation, but it’s also drummed up plenty of questions about the ethics of making a grisly murder and its heartbreaking aftermath mere entertainment for radio enthusiasts. Michelle Dean wrote in the Guardian about some of these moral quandies, including the fact that Redditors have now gotten involved. But most interesting for our purposes it he question posed by Jay Caspian Kang at The Awl: "What happens when a white journalist stomps around in a cold case involving people from two distinctly separate immigrant communities? Does she get it right?" Kang writes:

Koenig does ultimately address Syed’s Muslim faith in Serial, but only to debunk the state’s claim that Syed’s murderous rage came out of cultural factors. The discussion feels remarkably perfunctory–Koenig quickly dispenses with Syed’s race and religion. She seems to want Syed and Lee, by way of her diary, to be, in the words of Ira Glass, "relatable," which, sadly, in this case, reads "white." As a result, [Rabia Chaudry, an attorney who’s featured prominently in the begining of the season] believes Koenig has left out an essential part of Syed’s story–that his arrest, his indictment and his conviction were all influenced by his faith and the color of his skin. "You have an urban jury in Baltimore city, mostly African American, maybe people who identify with Jay [an African-American friend of Syed’s who is the state’s seemingly unreliable star witness] more than Adnan, who is represented by a community in headscarves and men in beards," Chaudry said. "The visuals of the courtroom itself leaves an impression and there’s no escaping the racial implications there."

"I don’t know to what extent someone who hasn’t grown up in a culture can really understand that culture," Chaudry added. "I think Sarah tried to get it, but I don’t know if she ever really did. I explained to her that anti-Muslim sentiment was involved in framing the motive in this case, and that Muslims can pick up on it, whereas someone like her, who hasn’t experienced this kind of bigotry doesn’t quite get it. Until you’ve experienced it, you don’t really know it or pick up on it."

Do you agree with Kang’s take? Disagree? Read more at The Awl.