TV Muslims Get a Much-Needed Makeover

TV Muslims Get a Much-Needed Makeover

by Mrinalini Reddy

The following slideshow includes reactions to Muslim portrayals in some recent feature films.

Image: Storymaker slideshow - Muslims in Film

Critics include Kamran Pasha, a Muslim American screenwriter; Earl Tiford, a professor of U.S. military history at Grove City College and Amir Hussain, a professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University. The piece also includes excerpts of written reviews by film critic Roger Ebert and comments from media critic Jack Shaheen in the documentary "Reel Bad Arabs."

Scenes from Canadian sitcom "Little Mosque on the Prairie"

New Imam Amaar (Zaib Shaikh), Rayyan (Sitara Hewitt), Yasir (Carlo Rota), Baber (Manoj Sood) and Fatima (Arlene Duncan) discuss the beginning of Ramadan, the month of fasting.

In other episodes, Imam Baber (Manoj Sood) is often at odds with no-nonsense Fatima (Arlene Duncan) and forward-thinking, outspoken Rayyan (Sitara Hewitt).

Fatima (Arlene Duncan) serves Fred Tupper (Neil Crone), Mercy's own Rush Limbaugh who uses any opportunity to fuel suspicions about the growing Muslim community. Fatima (who Fred has a crush on) finds him extremely resistable.

There’s no joy in feeling like an outcast in your high school, and Justin Tolchuck of tiny Medora, Wis., knows exactly what that means.

Girls snicker at him in the halls and the boys show him no mercy. Friends are in short—or no—supply.

So his mother hatches a plan: Invite an exchange student into the home, preferably a strapping, blond, blue-eyed Euro-teen idol. It would give Justin at least one person to hang with and perhaps, the attention that flows from having even one cool friend.

But the plan hits a big snag: When Justin’s family shows up at the airport to pick up their prize exchange student, in walks Raja Musharaff.

Tall and gangly with gentle brown eyes, Raja has come to Medora after leaving his village in Pakistan. He is a devout Muslim.

The Tolchucks are horror-struck.

The relationship that develops between Raja and Justin is at the center of The CW Television Network’s new sitcom, “Aliens in America.”

Audiences will get a glimpse into their cultural and religious exchanges as the show attempts, with much humor, to deconstruct—and perhaps wipe away—some stereotypes of a faith and culture often eyed with suspicion in America.

The show also underscores the high school angst and insecurities that trouble Justin until Raja’s arrival.

“Aliens” has won initial approval from some industry reviewers for its refreshing approach to understanding Islam, even as extremist groups continue to grab headlines. It also arrives at a time in television and film history, they say, when Muslims are often portrayed as terrorists and villains on the small and big screens.

“If I was Muslim, I would be extremely upset that television and film images of my people are so negative,” said Diane Winston, a professor of religion and media at the University of Southern California. “I think Hollywood needs a villain and recent events have made it easy to cast Muslims in the role of a violent people.”

For this reason, “Aliens” could thwart some of these images. The light-hearted approach, new to American screens, has worked well with Canadian audiences this year.

Little Mosque on the Prairie,” a Canadian sitcom featuring a multi-ethnic Muslim congregation bickering over the issues of their local mosque, is returning for a second season. Its success has given some in America’s Muslim community a reason to laugh and feel hopeful.

"Stories need heroes and villains"

Raja’s character flips the stereotype on its head. He is, by all accounts, just a goofy kid, non-threatening and not a shadow of the old, recurring themes of hard-edged Arab villains–the oil-hungry and ruthless sheiks or calculating terrorists.

“There are very little images of Muslims on American television and the ones that are there, are mostly negative,” said Amir Hussain, a professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “If you live somewhere…where you may not know a Muslim and the only images you get are on television, that’s problematic.”

On a collection of widely viewed television shows, Muslim characters have featured regularly as terrorists, such as Habib Marwan or Abu Fayed on “24,” and others on “JAG,” and “NCIS.”

Hussain believes the portrayals only deepen a concern among Muslim Americans about how they are perceived in this country—especially after the events of Sept. 11, the ongoing Iraq war, and other Middle East violence.

Much the same goes for the big screen, which has been slow to put Muslims or Arab characters in anything but a sad, violent light or in roles that offer comic relief.

Jack Shaheen, a media critic and author of “Reel Bad Arabs,” and featured in Sut Jhally’s documentary of the same name, traces Arab characters in film from the earliest days of silent film. He has demonstrated that little has changed with Arab portrayals, from lecherous Bedouin bandits, submissive maidens or the wild-eyed terrorists.

These images are not entirely unwarranted, said Hussain, given the violence caused by extremist groups in the name of Islam. But having only such stock characters does not represent the majority of Muslims and Muslim Americans. And it is this that most frustrates him.

“Part of it is that Hollywood is about stories and stories need heroes and villains,” he said. And if you go back 20 years, it was the Soviet Union or communists, for example, who were the evil counterpart to America’s goodness—or at least the goodness that America perceived in itself during much of the Cold War.

"You never know where there just might be a sleeper cell"

Even so, it seems Hollywood cannot get it right even when it attempts to accurately portray a terrorist situation where it may make sense to use an Arab character. Himself an Arab Christian, Shaheen contends that 99 percent of Muslims in film are Arab, giving way to the assumption that all Arabs are Muslims, when in fact a sizable Arab Christian population exists.

Just as important, he says, is that Arabs do not make up the largest share of the world’s Muslims, a people and faith scattered across the world and existing in cultures as varied as Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.

Some films, such as Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” that begins its story in 1184 AD about the holy wars between the Christians and Muslims over control of Jerusalem, have not gone unnoticed for its strong portrayal of the Muslim leader Saladin and trying to show these populations, though often at war, could co-exist peacefully.

“These are still historical personages that are already well known,” said Kamran Pasha, a Los Angeles-based Muslim American film and television writer and producer. “I haven’t really seen completely fictionalized positive Muslim characters in film yet.”

Showtime’s acclaimed “Sleeper Cell,” a drama that aired on the premium cable channel for two seasons beginning in 2005, featured a fictionalized Muslim character as the protagonist. An African American, Darwyn Al-Sayeed worked as an undercover FBI agent, assigned to infiltrate a terrorist sleeper cell led by a Muslim extremist.

The show received credit for having the first Muslim character as a hero. Absolutely a positive step, said Hussain, but it still doesn’t stray too far from the terrorist mentality so often attached to Muslims.

With promotional taglines such as "Friends. Neighbors. Husbands. Terrorists" and “Cities. Suburbs. Airports. Targets," viewers are still caught up in the paranoia to be suspicious of groups of Muslims, remarked Hussain, “because you never know where there just might be a sleeper cell.”

“Tells the story with a level of fluency”

While Sleeper Cell might perpetuate the idea that any Muslim could be a terrorist, it developed more accurate Muslim characters. They were multi-ethnic and there were many instances of sensitive portrayals, with frequent references to authentic Islamic belief and practices, according to Hussain. This is important because the Muslim population is nuanced in so many aspects of culture and tradition.

People in America may not understand that American Muslims and Muslims elsewhere in the world experience a different history, not one that will create what might be called a universal Muslim, said Pasha.

This was one reason “Little Mosque on the Prairie” was recognized in June by the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council. The show was able to do exactly what many hope for – normalize Muslims and show them as they exist in a North American context.

Created by Canadian Zarka Nawaz, it takes a brassy look at the congregation of a rural mosque and their attempt to live in harmony with the often skeptical, even suspicious, residents of their prairie town.

“This is a unique show, one reason being that it’s created by a Muslim woman,” said Edina Lekovic, spokeswoman for MPAC. “She grew up Muslim and tells the story with a level of fluency that’s hard to match.”

More importantly, it demonstrates the sometimes confusing nuances of Muslim life in North America.

How do communities grapple with generational issues of young people who are questioning their parents’ interpretation of religion? Is a “burkini” the way to go at a women-only swimming class with a male gay instructor? Can there be a Halal-o-ween version of Halloween? How will the imam sort out tensions between conservative congregants and more progressive ones?

All this in Mercy, Canada, a tiny town where a feisty Nigerian coffee-shop owner, a conservative Pakistani father, a scheming Lebanese businessman and a young Canadian doctor quarrel constantly over the affairs at their local mosque.

“It’s not making fun, but using humor to talk about some of the things that are important in Muslim lives,” said Hussain. And it’s a show that has fictionalized characters that are not terrorists, but rather ones that reflect Muslim participation in the fabric of Canadian life.

Conceived in 2005, “Aliens,” a show that plays down the tougher realities—or perceptions—of Muslims, allows the chief character to just be a kid, a teenager trying to navigate life.

“A lot of Americans are beginning to realize their next door neighbor happens to be a Muslim or their co-worker happens to be one,” said Pasha.

“That’s allowing the gradual acceptance that most Muslims have nothing to do with this image in the media that’s of violence and terror.”

Where does the responsibility lie?

While creators carry some responsibility to move beyond the images of Muslims most familiar to Americans, the ultimate responsibility lies within the Muslim community, experts say.

The American television show with the most careful portrayals of Muslims was “Sleeper Cell,” acknowledged Hussain, which may not be surprising, with Pasha involved as a writer and co-producer.

The nature of immigrant cultures is to gravitate toward professions that offer a degree of economic stability, explained Hussain. As a result, there are just a few Muslims working in Hollywood, as actors, writers, producers.

A recent Pew study found American Muslims were well-integrated and economically successful. There is the expectation that successive generations coming out of this group will have more opportunities to work in media, a business that requires patience and perseverance to succeed.

It is something Hussain encourages in addressing Muslim-American audiences.

“TV has a strong message of socialization, almost unconsciously,” said USC’s Winston. “You get used to a character when you see them repeatedly on TV – that’s why it’s even more important to get diversity on television. Otherwise Americans will continue to have a visceral reaction that Muslims are a threat.”

She points to Shonda Rhimes, creator of the wildly successful medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” as an example of why it’s important for more Muslims to move into media.

An African American, Rhimes’ experiences made it perfectly normal for her to have African American doctors and chiefs-of-staff feature prominently, explained Winston.

Sameer Gardezi, 24, recently hired to join the “Aliens” writing team couldn’t agree more. A Pakistani American, Gardezi recognized the need to have Muslims as high-level producers and directors.

He has seen other young artists like himself move into the entertainment business and anticipates more will come. The only downside is when they bring a political agenda with them.

“At the end of the day, the reason you become an artist isn’t to try to solve something,” Gardezi said. “It’s really something that comes from within--you can be very smart about how you are dealing with identity and representation, but there has to be a love for doing this.”

There is much work to be done as producers still find that it would be difficult and controversial to have a Muslim lawyer or doctor, Winston said, because audiences—despite a show’s best intentions—still expect these characters to have a sinister motive.

Yet, these are the roles that the community will benefit from. They don’t need to be central to a storyline. An Indian doctor in a medical drama is no more unusual than an Indian cab driver in New York; they are realities of American life.

For this reason, Hussain appreciated HBO’s 1997 prison drama “Oz”, the first to have a regular recurring Muslim character in Imam Kareem Said, the leader of the Black Muslims in the fictitious, often violent world of maximum security prisons. Islam is very much a part of the American prison system and even if there is the hint of yet another negative portrayal, it reflects the reality of what the show was trying to achieve.

“That was my frustration with “Friends,” said Hussain of NBC’s iconic sitcom of 10 years set in New York, perhaps the world’s most culturally diverse city. “Anyone that watches the show will have no idea there are African Americans, Asians or Puerto Ricans living in New York City.”

Another part of the solution, according to both Shaheen and Winston, is to develop lobbies like the Council of American Islamic Relations and MPAC to become a louder voice within this powerful medium of mass communication.

The portrayal of a Muslim family operating as a terrorist sleeper cell on the Fox Broadcasting Company’s show “24” drew ire from Muslim advocacy groups that felt such an image could easily cast a suspicion over average Muslim Americans and increase stereotyping.

This kind of effort needs to be present and is the reason that studios cannot simply make the average black character a bad guy. There will be outcry. There will be backlash.

The same momentum, Winston said, needs to drive the introduction—or reintroduction—of Muslims into both the small and big screen in Hollywood.