Recently President Obama and Secretary Kerry each called on US commercial entertainment, specifically film and television, to help in two major challenges: Islamophobia and ISIS recruitment.
In his landmark speech embracing Muslims as part of the American fabric past and present, President Obama called for more normal, authentic Muslim characters - "unrelated to national security" on television. With the scourge of Islamophobia terrorizing (yes, I use the term advisedly) Muslims of all ages in this country; with ISIS and other extremists massacring innocents and monopolizing the air waves, the President turns to...TV?
Yes, TV. The President knew exactly what he was talking about. Narratives seen on television have a proven ability to reduce bigotry and prejudice by humanizing and normalizing people otherwise seen as threatening and alien.
Think of what TV shows have accomplished in the past to shift popular perceptions. For example, Vice President Biden credits Will & Grace with making him comfortable with same sex unions, noting "I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done so far."
We know from neurological research that our emotions influence political decision-making more than rational thought; that is why narratives are so effective. They move us to feel empathy with the characters portrayed. So, the likable Will and Jack, or (yes, this once was true) Bill Cosby and his family, gave nuance and humanity to people previously defined by negative stereotypes.
Of course, the reverse is also true. When Muslims are seen again and again as terrorists, whether in news reports, TV or film, the repetition only reinforces prejudices, despite the fact that the vast majority of Muslims abhor terrorism and are its principle target.
We also know that these negative portrayals reverberate within Muslim majority communities. The infamous Homeland graffiti incident shows how much Muslims resent these insulting stereotypes. When the show attempted to give an authentic flavor to the set by hiring Arab graffiti artists, this positive gesture backfired when the artists inscribed the walls with epithets such as "Homeland is racist," proving that they had not only watched the show, but took its portrayals of Muslims to heart. Heba Amin, one of the artists who painted the graffiti, commented, "...these images (of Muslims in the series) are incredibly dangerous and have a real world impact."
A key finding of the most extensive opinion survey of Muslims around the world is that Muslims' views of the "West" or non-Muslim societies are shaped largely by what they (Muslims) think non-Muslims think of them. And how did they asses the "West's" opinion of them? Largely through representations in media.
So, President Obama was onto something. Negative portrayals of Muslims in media not only fan the flames of Islamophobia, but they also reinforce feelings of alienation and humiliation in Muslims -- exactly the sentiments that motivate people to join ISIS and other extremist groups.
But President Obama does not run a TV network or film studio, so how to go about achieving this goal?
One approach is to start at the top, and appeal to media executives, as Secretary of State John Kerry did in his recent strategy session with Hollywood studio heads about battling ISIS. Elsewhere I have argued that this outdated approach neglects the most effective weapon for countering ISIS - authentic Muslim voices that appeal to ISIS's target audience.
Another strategy is to work with television writers and researchers on their own terms. This is the approach of MOST Resource, a non-profit organization that provides television and film writers information and access to experts to facilitate more accurate and nuanced Muslim characters and plots.
As a MOST co-Director, I have learned that entertainment creators don't naturally respond to policy prescriptions. They want to create a great story, not answer a societal need. At the same time, television responds to the zeitgeist, and issues involving Muslims and Islam are very much part of our time. Writers want to get it right. When shaping Muslim plots and characters, they often welcome the chance to speak to experts, as well as information from resources such as MOST's Story Bank, which compiles thousands of news and human interest stories involving Muslims and Islam.
To be fair, nuanced Muslim characters and plots have begun appearing in high profile shows, including Army Wives, Grey's Anatomy, Bones, and The Good Wife.
Grey's Anatomy unforgettably brought to life the dire conditions of medical care in conflict-ridden Syria, when Syrian doctors visiting Grace Hospital removed ¾ of the instruments and turned out the lights to simulate the conditions they work under during the war. With Iranian-born Arastoo Vaziri, Bones has deftly integrated a Muslim character into its regular plot now for years. Issues involving his background arise occasionally and organically, giving him, for example, the opportunity to say that the 9/11 attackers did not represent Muslims or Islam.
The first American television show set in the Middle East, Tyrant unfolds a Shakespearean plot of power, family, violence, and love against a backdrop of tyranny, revolution, and extremism. With pithy comments such as this from a female Bedouin character being abducted by ISIS-like extremists -- "No real Muslim would take a mother away from her child" -- the show has the potential to communicate some basic truths within the context of a riveting plot.
Interestingly, comic books have blazed the trail of authentic, relatable Muslim characters with superheroes such as Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old Pakistani American created by G. Willow Wilson, a convert to Islam working with Marvel editor Sana Amanat. Note: A Muslim/Pakistani/American editor hires a Muslim writer to create a sympathetic "everyman" Muslim teenage female superhero. Chances are there would be more Muslim characters and plots on television, if there were more writers with Muslim backgrounds.
Dr. Naif Al Mutawa, the pioneer in Muslim comic superheroes, created The 99, a series translated and distributed from Indonesia, to Saudi Arabia, to the US, with male and female superheroes who embody the 99 characteristics of Allah.
For his efforts to provide positive heroes for young Muslim children (including his own six boys), Dr. al Mutawa has weathered death threats, and condemnation by hardliners in the US and in his native Kuwait. Dr. Al Mutawa's example shows both the potential of positive Muslim narratives and the perils in this divisive time of creating them.
If television and film narratives have the potential to shift perceptions on a large scale, the impact can be even stronger in the intimacy of a live theater performance, something I experienced at Georgetown with Myriad Voices: A Cross Cultural Performance Festival, two years of programming designed to increase understanding of Muslims, Islam, and Muslim majority regions.
Organized by the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics (which I co-direct), Myriad Voices humanized people and issues often viewed/skewed through a security lens. For Georgetown students, many of whom will go on to leadership positions in international affairs, to see a Pakistani satire of US-Pakistan relations, or to hear directly from Syrian refugees - via skype because they were denied visas--was transformative.
The revelations began with learning that Pakistanis have a hilarious sense of humor, and satirized with equal relish their own culture, extremism, and the US. Listening to Syrian women talk about their harrowing escapes from war, and their uplifting experience with Syria: the Trojan Women, a contemporary adaptation of Euripides's classic anti-war play, recast in individual, human terms the refugee issue, so often analyzed in the abstract. Equally importantly, Myriad Voices engaged policymakers, involving them in pre-performance planning and post-performance discussions.
Myriad Voices and similar programs on other campuses were supported by "Building Bridges" grants from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, one of the very few foundations to support cultural engagement as a strategy to increase understanding with Muslim majority communities. Given the proven capacity of narratives to change perceptions and the urgency of the problem of Islamophobia, other funders should join them.
President Obama and Secretary Kerry are right: narratives can change hearts and minds and turn them away from Islamophobia or ISIS. With our diverse population, with over three million Muslims, and a renaissance in quality television, the time is ripe for more and more nuanced characters and storylines involving Muslims in mainstream TV.