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Hollywood stereotyping of Muslims under attack


Source: Iran Times


There is a move underway in Hollywood to attack American film stereotypes of Muslims-and the effort is not being mounted by Muslims. The campaign has been launched by the Writers Guild in Hollywood, in conjunction with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank, and television producer and political fund-raiser Haim Saban, who happens to be Jewish.


They recently hosted a panel of writers, producers and filmmakers to discuss ways of breaking the media cycle of negatively stereotyping Muslims.


The forum, which was called, "Rewriting the Divide: Hollywood and the Muslim World," addressed ways in which Hollywood could break its cycle of stereotyping.  As described recently in The National, the brand new English language daily published in Abu Dhabi, the consensus at the forum was clear: Hollywood has been promoting stereotypes for too long, just as previous generations of filmmakers stereotyped Italians as gangsters and blacks as criminals.  Many in the entertainment industry believe it is their responsibility to rip apart these negative labels.


Howard Gordon, the creator and executive producer of the television terrorist drama "24," recently changed his mind on the issue after meeting with representatives from the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR).  Gordon, a recent convert on the issue, now speaks up against media typecasting of Muslims. "Fear sells. It does," he acknowledged. "We need to be mindful of it."



Shohreh Aghdashloo

Gordon became aware of the problem during the second season of "24," in 2002. The plot line focused on a suburban and Americanized Middle Eastern family, all of whom just happened to be terrorists-including the mom played by Iranian-American Shohreh Aghdashloo.


Fox's marketing department arranged for a giant billboard to be erected above Los Angeles's San Diego Freeway with an image of the family accompanied by the slogan: "They could be next door."


CAIR was so shocked it sought an immediate meeting with Gordon and the other producers.  When Gordon listened to CAIR's concerns that the billboard-and the show-could incite violence and racial hatred, he realized he agreed with the group. "We were acting as handmaids to fear.  The billboard came down that afternoon," Gordon said.


Maz Jobrani

That same season, Maz Jobrani-of the "Axis of Exil" comedy group-was hired to play a character called Marko, the last terrorist part he has played. Marko was part of a crew delivering a truck bomb, only to have a change of heart when they see children playing at the site where they intend to detonate their load. "They decide they don't want to do it, which is kind of cool," Jobrani said.


Gordon's change of heart was partially due to the fact that Arab-American actors began turning down roles in his and other shows; he realized the pool of Middle Eastern actors was not so large in Los Angeles that he could afford to ignore the ones who didn't want to play the role of the typical terrorist who at some point would be required to say the too familiar line: "In the name of Allah, I will kill you all."


Gordon said he began listening to the Middle Eastern actors he had hired and began incorporating some of their suggestions to make their characters less stereotypical. Gordon said he also realized it was important to cast Middle Eastern Americans in parts where their ethnicity was not the main factor of their role-as doctors or telephone operators or teachers.


The executive director, along with the politically conscious film production company Participant Media, which made "Syriana" and "The Kite Runner," have now joined together in an effort to persuade writers, directors and other producers in Hollywood to stop feeding stereotypes about Middle Easterners and Muslims.


The idea of the forum was to promote a series of dialogues with writers at which experts on various aspects of Middle Eastern culture could explain Islam and how day-to-day life evolves in Egypt or Syria.  Several participants, however, took issue with the fact that the problem was identified as being about Islam rather than a broader East-West divide.  Nicole Pano, a Palestinian-American actress, pointed out that many Arabs like her are Christian. Others, on the other hand, commented that many light-skinned Americans-including one of the panelists-are Muslims and don't necessarily suffer from the stereotyping.


Everyone at the forum agreed, however, that the ignorance of American audiences about Middle Eastern culture was both disturbing. Dalia Mogahed, a researcher with the Gallup polling organization who wrote the book entitled, "Who Speaks for Islam?" said that when she asked Muslims around the world what they most admired about the United States, they generally pointed to the country's political freedoms and its technological savvy-two things they would like more of for themselves.  But when she asked Americans what they most admired about the Muslim world, their two most common answers were "nothing" and "I don't know."


Many analysts say the stereotyping is not the fault of Hollywood and instead point to the American news media for propagating stereotypes. But others say the average American film or television viewer is exposed to relentless labeling and negative images of Middle Eastern or Muslim people.


The plot of the 2006 film "American Dreamz," for example, which recently aired on HBO, centers on a television talent show and on two members of the same Arab family who end up competing to participate. One of them "naturally" turns out to be a terrorist who only wants to get on the show so he can kill a fictional U.S. president who has decided the best way to increase his declining popularity ratings is to appear as a guest judge.


According to Jack Shaheen, a Lebanese-American university professor who has made a career of cataloging Middle Eastern stereotypes in books like "Reel Bad Arabs" and his latest, "Guilty," told The National that "American Dreamz" was actually pretty tame compared with some of other films.


A striking point about the casting of "American Dreamz" was that only one member of the Arab family at the heart of the plot was played by an actual Arab, the Lebanese-American Tony Yalda. The other Arabs were mostly played by Iranians.


Shaheen saw several possible reasons for this sort of casting; either Arab-Americans didn't want to play these roles, the producers weren't interested in casting Arabs-someone with brown skin was good enough-or, said Shaheen, "Producers and directors may want to avoid Arab-American actors to avoid alerting the community that the film contains damaging stereotypes."


Those stereotypes have now become so pronounced that some Arab-American performers are now being told they don't look Arab enough. "They want ugly.  They want us to play terrorists, and terrorists are ugly," said Pano, the Palestinian-American actress.


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