Commend Hollywood for having the good sense to use the soapbox provided by the Golden Globes this past Sunday to speak out in myriad ways about the importance of tolerance in our post-Charlie Hebdo world.
But there’s more this industry could do.
That’s because in the wake of the tragedy in Paris, the world is asking itself some tough questions about Islam. While the warped ideology that inspired the men who murdered 12 Charlie Hebdo staffers and four hostages in France last week has little if anything to do with the Muslim mainstream, that distinction isn’t so clear to some given these extremists’ professed reverence for the prophet Muhammad. As one recent headline read in the New York Times, “Is Islam to Blame for the Shooting at Charlie Hebdo in Paris?“: It’s necessary for columnists like Nicholas Kristof to even argue against the premise.
But it’s not hard to see why those who would disagree with Kristof would reach that conclusion. Given the volume of terrorists who have committed hideous acts of violence in the name of Allah over the years, there will be those who will be convinced there is something intrinsically problematic about Islam if it is linked to so much hatred and bloodshed.
But that’s a leap in logic steeped in ignorance. And that ignorance is rooted partly in an unfamiliarity with Muslims.
Could Hollywood help remedy that? In the wake of a tragedy borne from a dastardly desire to silence freedom of speech, there’s a crying need for an artistic expression of a very different kind than Charlie Hebdo’s brand of satire.
What is needed now is more depictions of average Muslims in popular culture. Not the kind ripped from the headlines that paints them as violent zealots but the kind that shows them to be the normal friends, neighbors, business associates, etc., that millions of them are all over this nation.
Would there even be a question of whether the evil radicals who took the lives of innocents were any kind of reflection on Muslims in general if more people, particularly non-Muslims in the U.S., had any sense of what average Muslims are actually like?
Lacking any normative alternative, it’s almost understandable that people lapse into lazy, dangerous stereotypes. Too many associate Islam with the actions of a radical fringe because of the absence of cultural signposts that modern Muslims exist, breathe, love and eat just like the rest of us.
Muslim movie or TV characters who aren’t extremists in political dramas have always been in painfully short supply, which truly screams an opportunity for Hollywood. How fresh and interesting would it be to see, say, a family sitcom not unlike ABC’s upcoming series “Fresh Off the Boat,” only with Muslims instead of Taiwanese individuals.
It’s easy to mock an oversimplification of this sentiment: Give Muslims a sitcom and prejudice will vanish, right? But in some small way…yes, that’s exactly the point.
Way back in 2007, there was a short-lived attempt to try this with the CW’s “Aliens in America”; Canada had a little more success with a similar concept around that time, CBC’s “Little Mosque on the Prairie.” More recently, TLC attempted a reality series, “All-American Muslim,” that garnered considerable controversy but was ultimately canceled in 2012.
Maybe it’s not wise to look to Hollywood for more such programming given the scant diversity among its creatives. It’s not even entirely just a matter of ethnicity anyway; religions of all kinds are given short shrift in terms of meaningful depictions, though the Christian majority has carved out an entertainment subculture so big it’s almost ridiculous not to call it mainstream.
There’s understandable fear in Hollywood right now about portraying anything that could remotely offend the wrong people. But beyond the short term, surely some studio can summon the courage to go there, and try the kind of material that is far from the inflammatory content of a Charlie Hebdo cartoon.