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Artists and advocates working toward a more human portrayal of Muslims in popular media
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Film director Lena Khan on the set on her film "The Tiger Hunter."Khan is part of a small but determined group of filmmakers, actors, writers and advocates working in and with Hollywood to encourage a more multidimensional portrayal of Muslims to counter the single-dimension villains and terrorists that dominate popular media. - photo by Shelina Jaffer
Lena Khans first feature film, "The Tiger Hunter," focuses on a Muslim character.

But the movie is not about his faith, which is in the background and the 29-year-old filmmaker who wrote and directed the comedy-drama set to be released this year wants to keep it that way.

I wanted to have a movie that wasnt about (the character) being Muslim, but where you knew that he was Muslim, she says, noting that Jerry Seinfelds Jewish roots were always clear to the audience, but that it was not always a part of the narrative.

She believes that showing Muslims as everyday people is a much more natural way to depict them.

Khan is part of a small but determined group of filmmakers, actors, writers and advocates working in and with Hollywood to encourage a more multi-dimensional portrayal of Muslims to counter the single-dimension villains and terrorists that dominate popular media.

Sitting at the table

Perceptions are important, says author Jack Shaheen, who has been surveying negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood since 1975 and who wrote "Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People."

Images teach people whom to love and whom to hate. They impact ones personal life, they impact public opinion and they impact foreign policy, he said.

Shaheen has analyzed more than 1,200 films and of those, he says that 95 percent depict Arabs and Muslims in a negative light. The only new change is that, instead of the vilification of Arab Muslims alone, Muslims from other parts of the world Russia, Iran, Ukraine and even American converts to Islam are included.

Suhad Obeidi seeks to counter this trend through direct engagement with Hollywood. As director of operations for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, Obeidi does not function as a watchdog nor demand that things get taken off the air.

Instead, she networks with executives and decision-makers in Hollywood to ensure that they have accurate information about Muslims and Islam. She also connects emerging talent from Muslim communities to the Hollywood community.

Obeidi explained that Muslims have a different paradigm, thus they come to the table with something different to offer, especially as it relates to stories about their own communities.

Being at the table is better than being outside the door, she said. If you want the narrative to change, you must be part of the creative process. You can't change things from the outside looking in.

Andrew Wallenstein, co-editor in chief of the entertainment publication Variety, says that, (t)here isn't a religion, ethnicity or any other kind of categorization of humanity that hasn't lobbied Hollywood on behalf of their constituents. While their efforts matter, nothing furthers their goals more than success.

Wallenstein points to the successes of shows like "Empire" and "Blackish," and what they are doing for depictions of African-American life. It is similar to what "Orange is the New Black" and "Transparent" are doing for transgender people.

What would be even more impactful was if some network or studio finally introduced a Muslim character who turned out to be a great success. That would pave the way in a way mere advocacy can't do alone, he says.

Good and bad

One of those making a difference on the inside is Faran Tahir. The American-born actor who grew up in Pakistan, England and the United States, took on the role of the villain in "Iron Man." He did not find the character to be fleshed out, so he approached the producers, writers and director who added layers to the character while simultaneously taking out allusions to the faith (Islam) to which the character belonged. What Tahir realized was that the references to Islam were not being made with ill-intent, but from ignorance.

Tahir must confront the challenge that other actors face of taking on roles that perpetuate stereotypes. He says that if stereotyping were being done for nefarious reasons just to paint a group in a negative light he would say no to the role.

He may take the role of a bad Muslim if there is a counterbalance in the story of a good Muslim character. The idea is not to glorify or demonize someone, or a faith or people, I think it is to show a more human picture of who we are, he said.

As an actor, Tahir seeks to balance the good and bad characters that he plays in his repertoire of work. I cannot be an actor with a political, or religious or social agenda. Sometimes you take on roles because they are just delicious, he said. And they could be good guys and they could be bad guys and in that particular instance, you just do it for the fun of it.

Shaheen empathizes with the need for actors, like Tahir, to make a living, knowing that anyone who resembles an Arab could take on a villainous role. But he also emphasizes the need for balance. Why are there no Arab-American protagonists in comedy shows, or detective shows or lawyer shows? Why are we invisible, you know, except as terrorists? He adds that they are the sins of omission and commission.

Hollywoods influence

Obeidi understands the importance of Hollywoods ability to affect people. I think Hollywood changes the hearts and minds faster than policy, she says.

Shaheen says Washington and Hollywood spring from the same DNA and he believes there is a more direct connection between cinema and policy than policymakers would care to admit.

One of the most anti-Arab Muslim shows on television is Homeland, and the president of the United States loves it he thinks its a great series, Shaheen said.

Khan said she learned as a student at UCLA the powerful influence Hollywood can have on public perception. She recalls working on a program to bring more attention to the plight of the people in Darfur, Sudan, and few people showed up. But when actor Don Cheadle appeared at an event, following the release of a film in which he starred, Hotel Rwanda, it seemed the entire university showed up.

It was a program about Sudan and the only authority he had on the subject was that he had done Hotel Rwanda, which is two countries away from Sudan, Khan recalled. So really, it was just because he was an actor and that is the sort of power you have such is the power of film.
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