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How Muslims became the good guys on TV

Hit show Homeland is about to end, after many years casting Islam as the enemy. But in its place has come a wave of thrillers portraying Muslims as heroes, writes Mohammad Zaheer.

One of Hollywood’s many ugly truths is that, for all its claims to be a progressive industry, it has relied heavily on racial and ethnic stereotypes, catering to and shaping the prejudices that are prevalent amongst its audience. This is especially true when it comes to who it chooses as its villains.

Even though the Cold War ended decades ago, Russians have remained a favoured variety of bad guy, and Germans have also had a rough ride thanks to the countless number of Nazi evildoers who have appeared on screen since World War Two.

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But since the turn of the millennium, the demographic who has undoubtedly been the greatest single target for demonisation are Muslim-Arabs. Even before the events of 9/11, they found themselves portrayed variously as sleazy oil rich sex pests, exotic subservient women, misogynists and/or militant terrorists. But the tragedy of September 11 2001 and the subsequent war on terror only exacerbated their negative typecasting.

Hit thriller Homeland, which ends this year, has been accused of being one of the most bigoted shows on television for its portrayal of Muslims (Credit: Alamy)

Despite the fact that members of the far right and white supremacist movements are responsible for carrying out the overwhelming majority of extremist-related murders in the US in the last 15 years, according to Hollywood it has been Muslims who the public have had to fear the most. Thanks to a spate of post-9/11 thriller series like 24, or Sleeper Cell, it seemed like US television had made Islam – and its adherents – enemy number one.

The most Islamophobic show on TV?

However no show has encapsulated former US President George W Bush’s oppositional “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” outlook quite like the Showtime series Homeland, where Muslim characters have been either terrorists or willing collaborators with the US government. It returns later this year for an eighth and final series – and for many in the Muslim community, its end can’t come soon enough.

It’s depressing how little importance Homeland has given to getting basic details about the Islamic world right

Since it premiered in 2011, the drama has proved to be one of the most bigoted shows on television. Apart from incorporating every single negative stereotype about Muslims one could think of, it has gone out of its way to paint them as a hidden danger to Americans.

For a show that has won critical acclaim and became a pop culture phenomenon – even former President Obama was a huge fan – it’s depressing how little importance the showrunners have given to getting basic details about the Islamic world right over the years. There was an inexplicable scene involving the first series’ chief antagonist, US military Muslim convert Nicholas Brody, burying the Koran because it had been ‘desecrated’; Arab characters have been given Persian names, and the beautiful and picturesque city of Islamabad was depicted as a “grimy hellhole and war zone”. The list goes on.

Riz Ahmed (pictured in film Closed Circuit) is one of the world’s highest-profile Muslim actors and gave an inspiring speech about representation in 2017 (Credit: Alamy)

Sue Obeidi, the Director of the Hollywood Bureau for America’s Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), notes that the entertainment industry’s promotion of these negative stereotypes has a detrimental impact on Western society because it “creates a situation where someone – who is not of that faith or that community – can form opinions of that community based on information that is so stereotypical and false that it can lead to horrible consequences”.

Studies have shown a direct correlation between people’s exposure to negative portrayals of Muslims in the media and their willingness to support policies that are harmful to Muslims or curtail their rights – as well as for military action against them. On the other hand, exposure to positive footage, or direct contact or with Muslims, has been shown to have had the opposite effect.

The Hollywood star taking a stand

But, as Obeidi explains, authentic representation is important not only because it influences how other people see Muslims – but also how Muslims see themselves. In 2017, the problem was brought home by Riz Ahmed, star of Rogue One and Venom, and perhaps the most prominent Muslim actor working in Hollywood today. In a speech at Britain’s House of Commons, he warned that a lack of diverse representation on television screens was leaving Muslims vulnerable to extremist propaganda. “In the mind of the Isis recruit, he’s a version of James Bond, right? Everyone thinks they’re the good guy. Have you seen some of the Isis propaganda videos? They’re cut like action movies. Where’s the counter-narrative? Where are we telling these kids that they can be heroes in our stories?”

People are looking for the message that they belong. They want to feel represented. In that task we have failed – Riz Ahmed

Outfits like the Islamic State group frame their recruits as Muslim heroes, in a conscious effort to take advantage of that gap in representation by the West.

“People are looking for the message that they belong, that they are part of something, that they are seen and heard and that despite, or perhaps because of, their experience, they are valued,” said Ahmed. “They want to feel represented. In that task we have failed.”

NCIS: Los Angeles introduced a hijab-wearing character, Special Agent Fatima Namazi, but took care not to make religion the focal point of her role (Credit: Getty)

Might the end of Homeland also mark the end of an Islamophobic TV era? Certainly, US television networks and showrunners have begun to take note of Muslim concerns. In the last few years, a wave of US thrillers have introduced Muslim heroes into their storylines, perhaps in a self-conscious attempt to mitigate the previous negativity.

The new Muslim heroes

Since it began in 2003, the NCIS police procedural franchise has courted a lot of controversy when it comes to its portrayals of Muslims, including Muslim-Americans, with critics accusing it of reinforcing the notion that every Muslim is a potential terrorist. However, it has done some commendable course correcting on its spin-off, NCIS: Los Angeles, now in its 10th series.

One of its protagonists, Sam Hanna (a Senior NCIS Special Agent and former Navy Seal played by LL Cool J) definitively came out as Muslim in the season 9 episode The Silo, making him one of the first Muslim lead characters on a major US television series. However his faith is seen as only one aspect of a man who is wholesome, patriotic and all-American.

In NCIS: Los Angeles, Hijab wearing Agent Fatima Namazi was fleshed out as an authentic Beverly Hills girl, with expensive tastes

This year, they also introduced a hijab-wearing character, Special Agent Fatima Namazi - yet took great care not to make her religion the focal point of the role. Instead they added in dialogue that fleshed her out as an authentic Beverly Hills girl, with expensive tastes, who recommends “Madeo for Italian food, Murat's for your tailoring” and “of course, pizza from Mulberrys”. In fact, the only reference to her hijab was made by a judgemental Muslim extremist, who sneered that she wore a hijab, but was “nothing more than a spoiled American girl”.

Similarly, Blindspot, a US crime drama series which has just been renewed for its fifth and final season on NBC, also has a hijab-wearing character, Afreen, who works for the FBI. But no unnecessary attention is drawn to her headscarf, and the character is more defined by her dorky jokes. It’s a step forward – for while not as harmful as overt demonisation, the constant subtle exoticisation of Muslims – via the emphasis on items or garb such as hijabs, keffiyehs, prayer mats and prayer beads – that even well-intentioned directors or showrunners are guilty of, is equally unhelpful.

Amazon’s Tom Clancy adaptation Jack Ryan has recast Ryan’s boss, CIA director James Greer (played by Wendell Pierce, right) as an African-American convert to Islam (Credit: Alamy)

The normalisation of these hijab-wearing female characters also stands in stark contrast to how Homeland presented Fara, a Muslim CIA agent, who pointedly got lambasted by her superior, Saul – often seen as the moral compass of the show – for disrespecting her colleagues by wearing a hijab because it was a symbolic reminder of their enemies. Tellingly, as the show progressed, and she was shown to be a committed agent, she stopped wearing the hijab without much explanation.

Muslim and patriotic

Another show that has taken steps to correct old prejudices is Amazon’s reboot of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series, which launched last year and has recast the character of Ryan’s boss, CIA director James Greer (Wendell Pierce) as an African-American convert to Islam. In the first series, there was a memorable scene where he reprimanded a member of French law enforcement, who didn’t realise he was Muslim, for holding Islamophobic views.

The presence of such Muslim characters, patriotic and innately good, as heroes or in positions of leadership, feels like an important cultural step – a conscious statement of support by Hollywood for the fact that not only can Muslims align with American values, but they are putting their lives on the line to safeguard them every day. Additionally, the writing of these shows has evolved to demonstrate that people who practice Islam peacefully and positively are the norm, rather than the exception. Homeland, for example, has exploited stereotypes even when purporting to portray a ‘good’ Muslim character such as Danny Galvez: a CIA agent who was immediately brought under suspicion after he revealed his religion. He was then proved loyal to his country and fellow agents after all – as if such a development should constitute a ‘twist’.

The industry will typecast you until they ethically can't do it anymore. There needs to be a cultural change – Zeeko Zaki

Another show making waves in this area, becoming CBS’s most-watched new series last year, is FBI. It is the first major action series on US television to cast a Muslim-Arab actor to play one of its protagonists. Zeeko Zaki stars as Special Agent OA Zidan, a character who also happens to be of the same faith and ethnicity as the actor.

In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar, Zaki revealed that before his big break, he was constantly offered stereotypical roles playing terrorists or bad guys. “The industry will typecast you until they ethically can’t do it anymore. There needs to be a cultural change.”

But while this progress in Muslim representation on the small screen is very welcome, it’s mostly been confined to the thriller or geo-political genre. Stories of regular, everyday Muslims are still hard to come by.

Hulu series Ramy is a game-changing new comedy about a millennial Muslim (Credit: Alamy)

“Things will improve both on screen and off screen when Muslim writers are commissioned to tell their own stories,” say Shaf Choudry and Sadia Habib, the creators of the Riz Test – a Muslim equivalent of the Bechdel test inspired by Riz Ahmed’s speech. If there is any identifiably Muslim character in a movie, the Riz Test team evaluate whether the character talks about, is a victim, or the perpetrator of terrorism; whether the character is presented as irrationally angry, superstitious, culturally backwards, anti-modern or presented as a threat to the Western way of life; or whether the character is a misogynistic male or an oppressed female. Displaying even one of these characteristics means the film fails the test.

“In order for things to change, the industry needs to understand the scale of the problem, something that the Riz Test hopes to achieve,” they say.

Authenticity over virtue

Reza Aslan, a bestselling US author and TV producer, argues that what’s needed is not more positive characterisations of Muslims, as such, but more authentic and nuanced portrayals. “The goal that we need to be shooting for is portrayals of characters whose Muslim identity is just one factor in the multiplicity of identities that they have that give them their motivations,” says Aslan.

However he believes that such change is already happening. “There’s no question about it,” he says. “It’s improving in the sense that more Muslim storytellers, more Muslim actors, Muslim writers are being given opportunities to tell their stories. But most importantly it’s improving because we’re seeing more Muslim execs and more Muslim producers working in studios: in other words, more Muslim decision makers. And that, I think, is what is having probably the biggest and most profound difference in how Muslims are portrayed in Hollywood.”

The reality is, this journey in the industry is not a destination. No community that is marginalised is going to arrive at the perfect representation for a while – Sue Obeidi, Director of the Hollywood Bureau for America’s Muslim Public Affairs Council

Obeidi agrees. “I used to say we’re turning the corner – now I say we turned the corner,” she says. “We are seeing more Muslim characters and narratives, especially on TV. The debut of Hulu’s Ramy is a game changer.” Ramy is a new comedy about a millennial Muslim, starring Egyptian American comedian Ramy Youssef, which premiered last month to rave reviews, earning comparisons to Lena Dunham’s Girls.

Obeidi acknowledges that there is still a long way to go for Muslim experiences on screen to become mainstream or normalised. “The reality is, this journey in the industry is not a destination. No community that is marginalised is going to arrive at the perfect representation for a while. Being included is important, but being included in a fair and nuanced manner is even more important.”

So, moving beyond the idea of Muslims as good or bad guys altogether, shows depicting regular people who happen to be Muslim, like Ramy and Aziz Ansari’s Master of None – or movies like The Big Sick – are imperative in bringing about this much-needed change. “Hollywood doesn’t have good or bad motivations,” says Aslan. “Hollywood has one motivation. A single motivation. And that’s to make money. That’s all it thinks about. It’s all it cares about. It doesn’t want to do good in the world. It doesn’t want to do bad in the world. It wants to make money. And so, if you can convince Hollywood – and this is something that I've been doing for the last 10 years – that you can make money by not pedalling in stereotypes about brown people, then they'll stop doing so.”

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