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Creator and executive producer Joshua Seftel was inspired to make his award-winning digital series The Secret Life of Muslims about five years ago, but it wasn’t until a “certain particular presidential candidate started to speak about Muslims” that Seftel was able to get funding for his project.
“I came across a statistic which said that more than half of Americans have an unfavorable view of Muslims,” said Seftel at a post-screening panel at the United Talent Agency theater of the genesis of The Secret Life of Muslims. “That just immediately sent me back to my own childhood in upstate New York as a Jew growing up there and being discriminated against.”
The show consists of 15 mini-documentaries about real people — including actors, comedians and activists — in the Muslim community who are dealing with everyday discrimination and ignorance. Introducing a screening of an installment about how Muslims are portrayed in movies and TV series, mostly as terrorists and villains, Muslim Public Affairs council president Salam Al-Marayati stressed the importance of the show’s perspective.
“Islam without human dignity is not Islam,” said Al-Marayati. “The news may tell people what to think, but these stories tell people how to feel.”
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Seftel said his goal with the series is to be “able to tell stories in a way that someone who watches them might have a really hard time holding onto their prejudice.”
He added, “Someone will watch and say, ‘I can’t deny that this is a human being, and I can connect with them in some way.’”
After the presentation, which took place on the first-ever Muslim Women’s Day, a panel consisting of Muslims in the entertainment and media industry talked about their experiences and how they’re perceived.
“Nobody has to tell you you’re ‘the other.’ You just know it,” moderator Dena Takruri, a presenter for Al Jazeera Media’s digital news network, AJ+, told THR. “And it’s reinforced in every aspect of life whether it’s in the news or in Hollywood.”
At the post-screening panel, executive producer Reza Aslan, who hosts CNN’s Believer, also touched on the show’s greater relevance in the Trump era.
“All of us, I think, are looking at this sort of crisis of identity that has gripped this country [with] the pathological-lying narcissistic sociopath in the White House, and wondering what can we do about it?”
Trump, who has twice in his nascent presidency tried to ban travel from a number of Muslim-majority nations, has made people proud to identify as Muslims, attendees at the event indicated.
Series subject and World Without Hate founder Rais Bhuiyan, who was shot in the face 10 days after 9/11 by a man whose goal was to kill people he viewed as Arabs, said he sees good coming out of Trump’s travel ban.
“I see the positive side of all those negative things, and how we’re more connected now after the ban was signed by the president,” the Bangladesh immigrant said. “I’m hopeful and confident that there are good days ahead of us. We will be united and we will be connected because that’s what is happening right now.”
Aslan said he’d noticed that there’s a “renewed interest” in Hollywood “in telling more three-dimensional stories about Middle-Easterners and Muslims, and particularly those in the United States.”
In fact, things may have swung so far the other way, that actor Iqbal Theba joked about always being asked to play the “funny guy.”
“I don’t really get to read for ‘bad guy roles.’ And I want to. I want to play a terrorist,” said Theba during the panel, while the audience erupted in laughter. “Let me play a bad guy! I’m sick and tired of being funny, you know.”
Watch the digital series below.
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