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Raja Musharaff is a Pakistani Muslim exchange student coming to America this fall.
He’s not coming to join a terrorist cell, open a kabob shop or become a taxi driver. On the contrary, as one of the lead roles on “Aliens in America,” which premiers Oct. 1 on the CW Network, Raja is more than an amicable 16-year-old; he also emerges as a moral compass to his wayward host family in Wisconsin.
“We wanted to bring a character who had a sense of his own faith, and who had a strong relationship with God, into this family that really doesn’t have one,” said David Guarascio, one of the producers, describing the character Raja. “Maybe this family has lost its way a little bit and the character who has a spiritual sense of himself can help them find their way.”
To many Muslim Americans who say film and television depictions of Muslims are almost uniformly negative, the idea that a mainstream television network is introducing an empathetic follower of Islam — as well as exploring Americans’ own prejudices towards their faith — is welcome news.
“The fact that Raja’s the moral conscience of the show, that’s probably a first on American television for any sort of Muslim character,” said Edina Lekovic, a spokeswoman with the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, who was hired as a consultant for the show.
In fact, Raja isn’t actually the first Muslim character, but the number of regular — let alone heroic — Muslims in film and television is indeed small.
“Today’s image makers regularly link the Islamic faith with male supremacy, holy war, and acts of terror,” writes author Jack G. Shaheen in his 2001 book, “Reel Bad Arabs.” “When mosques are displayed on screen, the camera inevitably cuts to Arabs praying, and then gunning down civilians.”
“Aliens in America” is more about teenagers than terrorists. The Tolchucks are an average American family. Son Justin is a high school geek. Mother Franny Tolchuck recruits someone she thinks is a cool Nordic exchange student who will bolster her son’s popularity, but ends up with Raja, an even bigger outsider than her son.
“They (terrorists) pose as students, Gary,” a distressed and suspicious Mrs. Tolchuck warns her husband. “Bill O’Reilly said so.” But Raja and Justin strike a common bond over their mutual “alien” status, and the Pakistani gets to stay.
Just how long is up to the viewers.
Producers, actors and other people involved in the show acknowledge that many Americans harbor some prejudice against Muslims, but see that as an issue to be explored rather than a threat to their ratings.
“We certainly were aware that there is sometimes, for certain Americans, a suspicion of people of the Islamic faith, and a lot of that is misguided,” said Guarascio, who along with co-producer Moses Port also produced “Mad About You,” “Just Shoot Me” and other series. “We also recognized the opportunity to be funny and be a bit poignant about that in the show.”
On his first day at his new school, Raja is introduced by his teacher as “a real live Pakistani who practices Muslimism,” and asks how many students are mad at him because, as one classmate puts it, “His people flew planes into the buildings in New York.”
It’s that kind of edgy scene that drew Adhir Kalyan, the 24-year-old South African Hindu actor who plays Raja, to the script in the first place.
“It had moments where the audience would be laughing and feel uncomfortable at the same time,” Kalyan said. “It was refreshing to see a positive portrayal of a Muslim character.”
But the character is complex and viewers shouldn’t expect a saint, Kalyan said. “He is the spiritually most advanced character in the piece without question, but he is also a 16-year-old boy.”
As the show’s only Pakistani Muslim writer and one of the few in American television, Sameer Asad Gardezi views the character of Raja Musharaff as an opportunity to present a likable Muslim, and it shouldn’t be squandered on unrealistic sappiness.
“It is a welcoming change from the things we’ve seen on TV for quite some time now,” said Gardezi, who was born and raised in California’s Orange County. “But the answer isn’t making a character that’s flawless, it’s making a human being.”
To better prepare for the making of the show, producers, writers and actors researched books and the Internet about Islam and spoke with experts. Kalyan started wearing a kufi (a Muslim scull cap) daily, attentive to how those around him would react.
As a consultant to the show, Lekovic said her tasks have included reviewing scripts and teaching Kalyan Muslim prayers and prayer movements.
“Given that this was the first show of its kind, they wanted to make sure they were getting it right,” said Lekovic. The show’s producers have accepted most of her “suggestions,” which have been minor, Lekovic said.
Not all Muslim Americans who have seen trailers or heard about the show are praising it. One common criticism is that the name Raja is far more common among Hindus than Muslims. (Lekovic said changing Raja’s name was one of the suggestions the producers didn’t take.)
Miral Sattar, a Muslim New Yorker whose favorite show is HBO’s “Entourage,” complained that a “real” Pakistani exchange student would not be in traditional clothing. “People that I went to school with who were from Pakistan, nobody wore a shalwar kameez or their hat,” said Sattar, 28. “They do their best to blend in.”
But because the show depicts a likable Muslim, Sattar said, she would forgive the show’s imperfections and watch it.
That’s just what Lekovic, the show’s Muslim consultant, was hoping for.
“This show represents a really significant step forward,” she said.”I don’t expect them to get it 100 percent right, but I do think they’re moving in the right direction.”
Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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