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There has never been a more important time for positive, nuanced and authentic portrays of Muslims on television and in film and digital media. That was the message, at least, on Monday evening at a panel discussion with Muslim writers and creators Negin Farsad (The Muslims Are Coming!), Farhan Arshad (CBS’ Man With a Plan), Amber Fares (America Inside Out With Katie Couric) and Maysoon Zayid, a disability advocate and founder of the annual New York Arab-American Comedy Festival.
Hosted by the Writers Guild of America East in Lower Manhattan in collaboration with the Hollywood bureau at the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), the 90-minute panel shed light on current bright spots of Muslim representation in media, emphasized the need for improvement and offered insight for the audience of aspiring writers and industry peers on the next steps necessary to accomplish those goals.
“There’s some wonderful representation that’s happening in the industry, but the little that we are seeing is not nearly enough,” director of MPAC’s Hollywood bureau Sue Obeidi told The Hollywood Reporter prior to the panel, citing series that MPAC has consulted on like Grey’s Anatomy, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, The Affair and The Looming Tower. “We are excited about the momentum that’s happening in the industry, and we don’t want this to be a fleeting moment but a movement towards not only inclusion but respect and appreciation of the Muslim community.”
Right out the gate at the panel, there was mention of the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand earlier this month and such instances’ correlation to problematic, stereotypical portrayals of Muslims as terrorists and violent extremists. Arshad, citing Americans’ shifting opinions on same-sex marriage in the wake of programs like Will & Grace and Modern Family, said that he believes continued and expanded positive portrayals of his community will similarly lead to changed sentiment.
“Any time I’ve had a preconceived notion about someone, it’s always gone away once I’ve gotten to know that person,” he said. “TV is the way you get to know people if you don’t know them in your own life.”
Each panelist offered several ways in which that goal can be realized. One of the first is to know your audience. Fares explained, for instance, how when working with Katie Couric, she had to acknowledge that not all viewers are as well versed in the cultural issues she wanted to tackle. An education was in order.
“I wanted to be talking about issues that felt a lot more relevant to me, but they weren’t relevant to other people because they weren’t at that level,” Fares said. “They didn’t understand that nuance yet, and we still had to sort of bring them up.”
Another is to build narratives involving Muslim characters without the story being exclusively about their Muslim experience. “I think the other thing that we can do as writers and performers is not put a pressure on ourselves to write stories where the point of the story is that we’re Muslim and the point of the story is that we’re Middle Eastern,” Farsad said. “That’s the other thing that I would love to see, where we’re not fetishizing the fact that we are Muslim.”
Zayid expressed concern for what she’s seen as a pattern of “lack of knowledge, lack of curiosity” in the writers room from non-Muslim creatives and how she’s often needed to stand up against that lack of curiosity. Arshad agreed that as a minority voice — even the room’s token minority voice — it is in part Muslim writers’ job to fight for non-stereotypical portrayals of all minorities.
“I fight every single fight whether it’s for Muslims or Pakistanis or African-Americans,” he said. “And it’s such a hard burden to carry when you have to be those things because then you become that person — the person who becomes offended.”
In the end, fighting that fight is worthwhile if it means greater representation across the board.
“I say this about disabled people, and it applies to Muslims, too: Nothing about us without us,” Zayid said. “We’re having our stories told by people who don’t know it, so we need people behind the cameras to tell the story.”
The stand-up comedian and writer went on to echo the larger real-world impact such representations can have for the better, underscoring the urgent necessity for such portrayals while, true to her comedic form, making the room laugh.
“We have to take seriously the fact that the Muslim community is physically and violently under siege in this country,” she said. “One of the things that’s going to protect our safety is having positive, accessible images of Muslims on TV that instead of otherizing us, make us the person you wanna bang.”
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