Tuesday, December 15, 2009

7356: The War On Terrorist Stereotypes.


‘Sinister Muslim’ stereotype fades
In film and on TV, Hollywood eases away from its terrorist standard

By Souheila Al-Jadda

Muslim voices are finally being heard by and from Hollywood, and it’s in Tinseltown’s best interest to listen.

Negative stereotypes of Muslim characters date to at least the black-and-white era, but by the 1990s and the end of the Cold War, one-dimensional Muslim terrorist characters were the generic “bad guy” in countless movies and television shows, including True Lies (‘94) and Executive Decision (‘96). Even the cartoon Aladdin (‘92) portrayed villains with Middle Eastern accents while the hero and heroine had standard American voices.

Such repeated portrayals have colored public perceptions of Muslims and Middle Easterners. The events of 9/11 crystallized and, for some, affirmed the stereotype. But nearly a decade later, Hollywood seems to be changing its tune toward Muslims and Arabs.

It’s about time.

Recently, especially on television shows, Muslim characters are being treated differently. On 24, federal agent Jack Bauer protects the U.S. against terrorist attacks, but those attacks aren’t all coming from stereotypical Muslim characters anymore.

Howard Gordon, executive producer of 24, recently appeared on a Link TV show I co-produced, Who Speaks for Islam? Muslims on Screen. Asked why most terrorists on the show were Arab or Muslim he said, “When we tried to make … the terrorists Swedish terrorists, it was somewhat less convincing.”

That was in the beginning. As public perceptions began to change in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal and other events, 24 had to evolve. Gordon said, “We began to realize that by portraying Muslims strictly as terrorists on the show, we were … unwittingly exploiting some of the fears of our audience members.”

Gordon acknowledged the responsibility he feels to represent America to the rest of the world. “I think that the impact of our content or creative content is one of our greatest exports,” he said. “It becomes a very powerful instrument for understanding each other in this terrible … divide we find ourselves in with the Muslim world.”

So 24 started creating more textured Muslim characters and showed its hero interacting with Muslims in new ways. A female Arab agent became the acting head of the counterterrorism unit. Agent Jack Bauer befriended an imam, whom he had originally accused of being a terrorist.

Other Hollywood shows and movies are making changes, too. Law & Order and CSI have begun including Muslim characters that don’t fit the terrorist stereotypes, and the CW’s Aliens in America followed the story of a Muslim exchange student from Pakistan living with an American Christian host family in Wisconsin. Several recent movies have also offered deeper and more nuanced views of Muslims, even while exploring the complex subjects of war and terrorism.

Perhaps pressure from Muslim Americans and Muslims who work in the movie industry has helped encourage Hollywood to make changes.

Kamran Pasha wrote for the Showtime program Sleeper Cell, in which an African-American Muslim FBI agent infiltrates a cell of terrorists. On Who Speaks for Islam?, Pasha said he criticized the show during his job interview. He critiqued a scene in which two Muslim terrorists are talking to each other at a urinal.

“This is something that most people who are not Muslim don’t know,” Pasha said. “Most religious and conservative Muslim men don’t like to pee standing up. They consider it as unclean.” The creators of Sleeper Cell were apparently looking for this kind of advice. Pasha said of his critique, “I think that was the moment I got the job.”

Some Muslim and Arab actors are turning down roles that reinforce negative stereotypes. Ahmed Ahmed, an actor and comedian, began refusing terrorist roles after going on the Hajj pilgrimage. Instead, he looks for ways “to enlighten people through humor.”

The same is true for Maz Jobrani. He plays Dr. Bhamba on the ABC sitcom Better Off Ted. He also played Mohammed, a good-guy federal agent in the 2005 thriller The Interpreter. Jobrani said when it comes to “Middle Easterners and Muslims, you tend to see only the negative. And so that’s where I’ve made the stance and why I’ve said, ‘No more.’ I don’t audition anymore for terrorist roles.”

Muslim advocacy groups are also helping to transform Hollywood. Two such organizations — the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Council on American-Islamic Relations — first approached Gordon about the portrayals of Muslims on 24 and persuaded him to make adjustments. Muslims On Screen and Television (MOST), a non-profit resource center, provides research and information about Muslims to Hollywood insiders.

But change in a huge, complex, multibillion dollar industry remains random and slow. Some Hollywood productions still rely on or even exploit stereotypes. In 2008, Witless Protection included a scene in which “Larry the Cable Guy” calls a Middle Eastern hotel clerk a “pamper head.” But this kind of slur seems to be less common today.

Maybe Hollywood is finally listening to Muslim voices because they have to. The Pew Research Center issued a recent report showing that Muslims now make up nearly a quarter of the world’s population.

And we buy movie tickets, too.

Souheila Al-Jadda is co-producer of the Who Speaks for Islam series on Link TV and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.

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