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Exploiting fear of Muslims? The far right has nothing on liberal Hollywood


NewsHubLong before Donald Trump campaigned on the promise of banning Muslims from entering the U. S. or creating a registry for those who already live here, there was a master fear monger who made the president-elect’s divisive rhetoric seem like child’s play.
It capitalized upon the terror of 9/11 by portraying most Muslims (even those who are American) as terrorists, cast a suspicious eye toward anyone who looked remotely like Sallah from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and pretty much ensured that Westerners would know Islam through only the prism of suicide bombings, religious extremism and oppressed women in burkas.
When it comes to exploiting fear of the other for personal gain, the far right has nothing on liberal Hollywood.
Television producers, writers, actors and network execs – many of whom have openly criticized ultra-conservative politicians for their intolerant views – have done more to popularize Islamophobia over the last 15 years than all of Trump’s campaign proclamations.
“There has never been liberal Hollywood when it comes to the portrayal of Muslims on TV,” says professor and author Jack Shaheen , who’s been researching the subject since the mid-1970s and served as a cultural consultant on films such as “Three Kings” and “Syriana.” “They’ve reinforced the idea that many Americans now have – that all Muslims are terrorists. They knew they could get away with it because no one was going to protest. They’ve been playing to the balcony, and in doing so, they’ve been getting the ratings.”
That dynamic grew exponentially after the 9/11 attacks: While President George W. Bush delivered dozens of speeches about how ours was not a war against Islam but “a campaign against evil,” network television was busy putting the finishing touches on the series that came to embody TV’s narrative about our war against evil Islam.
Eight weeks after the attacks, Fox released “24,” a series steeped in scheming, swarthy Muslims and the heroic efforts of a very nonswarthy Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). The series outlasted both of Bush’s terms and spawned an army of like-minded shows.
The next phase in television terrorism drama included Showtime’s “Sleeper Cell,” which arrived with the tagline “Friends. Neighbors. Husbands. Terrorists,” and “Homeland,” where the mere act of a man praying toward Mecca signaled foreboding events. And with a title like “Tyrant,” it was clear that FX’s drama about an American Arab family was no “Cosby Show.”
Even network TV’s good Muslims, like Sayid on “Lost” or Alex of “Quantico,” were defined by their connection to Saddam’s Republican Guard or terror groups who kill in the name of Islam.
“It’s like the LGBT community 30 years ago,” says Sue Obeidi, director of the civil rights advocacy group the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Hollywood bureau. “Every time there was a gay character on TV or in film, the story line would be about AIDS. Almost all Muslim story lines up to now are connected to terror. Even if they end up being a good person, it’s often discovered under a cloud of suspicion.”
There is no doubt that homegrown terror attacks in the U. S. – from San Bernardino to Orlando – have helped bolster arguments that art is only reflecting reality.
But as University of North Carolina professor Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer, Duke University professor and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, wrote in a 2015 research paper , “Law enforcement agencies in the United States consider anti-government violent extremists, not radicalized Muslims, to be the most severe threat of political violence that they face.”
Television of late has been trying to adjust to a changing world by developing more diverse narratives and investing in more projects by creators and writers of color, including Shonda Rhimes (“Scandal”), Kenya Barris (“blackish”) and Nahnatchka Khan (“Fresh Off the Boat”). But despite the number of shows that have Islamic terror elements in their plots – from “Madam Secretary” to “CSI” – Muslims behind the camera are rare.
That lack of representation was glaringly evident in the fifth season of “Homeland,” when graffiti that read “ ‘Homeland’ is racist” in Arabic made it into a scene. Artists hired to decorate the wall of the fictional Syrian refugee camp slipped the words in, and there was no one else on set with enough knowledge of the Arab world to catch their subversive message.
“Hollywood is not necessarily biased toward a particular political view, but it is biased toward what does and doesn’t make money,” says author Reza Aslan, who recently co-created an ABC pilot for a comedy about an American Muslim family in the age of Trump. “Since 9/11, the market wanted these almost comic book characterizations of Muslims as the bad guy. But that market has dried up. It’s not interesting anymore. They want different narratives about Muslims and Middle Easterners, and networks are looking for ways to do that.”
Characters who arrived during the seemingly endless presidential campaign of the last year and a half have definitely signaled a shift.
In HBO’s critically lauded “The Night Of,” we met Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed), an average college student accused of a crime that had nothing to do with terrorism; his journey through the legal system highlighted an institutional prejudice.
Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series, “Master of None,” depicts him as a struggling actor who finds himself in all sorts of painfully normal situations – bad dates, flubbed job interviews, disappointing his immigrant parents – situations far too commonplace for TV’s Muslims before him. “If we don’t do it, who else is going to do it?” Ansari said, explaining why he created the show.
Yet in an unforeseen twist, Trump’s election has potentially accelerated the interest in more nuanced story lines involving actors like Ansari.
“Right after the election – I’m talking the day or two days after – we had people in the industry reach out to us: the USA Network, Amazon, Hulu, a major network,” says civil rights advocate Obeidi. “They have directives from their networks to watch for Islamophobic tones. Not that the studios were giving directives for Islamophobic story lines before, but now they’re saying, ‘We need consultants because our studio wants to be careful of certain red lines.

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