Suhad (Sue) Obeidi, Director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Hollywood Bureau (MPAC), addresses the next steps for the film and television industries to take after many industry figures denounced the Executive Order targeting predominantly Muslim countries. Obeidi has worked with industry executives to reduce stereotyped depictions of Islam and of Muslims and present more accurate and humanizing portrayals. She also organizes the annual MPAC Media Awards, which salute works from film and TV as well as individuals.
Ever since President Trump signed the Muslim Ban Executive Order, I have seen many representatives of the entertainment industry come together to support a community that the very same industry has vilified for decades.
Having said that, as an American-Muslim woman and the Director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Hollywood Bureau, I have been overwhelmed by the support of the industry in standing up for the universal values of freedom, human dignity and justice for all citizens of the world, including, and this time, especially for Muslims. Of course, celebrities have a long history of political activism. That is no surprise. The big surprise is that now more celebrities are speaking up to defend my community. From public statements by celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, to those who attended protests at airports like Ellen Page, Tim Robbins and Amy Schumer, to the Guilds denouncing the anti-immigration policy in their statements. I must say, the exponentially increased support feels good and it is very much appreciated.
So why does it feel so good right now for the industry to defend and regard Muslims with such terms of inclusion? The answer for me and my organization is simple. Like other vulnerable communities — African-American, Hispanic and LGBTQ, for example, in general, we have not been authentically and accurately portrayed in film and television. When we were “humanized” in stories, it was under the pretense of “tolerance.” The “other” was being “tolerated” and that was supposed to be enough. Human beings should never have to tolerate one another. We are not a pain to be tolerated. And that is when I understood why it felt so good. The Executive Order created a sense of acceptance, respect and inclusion of Muslims. It was finally cool to be Muslim in America. And that is a new feeling to me.
It took a humanitarian crisis and an impulsive and erratic man in the White House to get us here, so now what do we do to keep moving forward? Well, as a member of the industry, I believe we should start “normalizing” Muslim characters just like we did when the industry “normalized” a member of the gay community. “Modern Family” and “The Real O’Neals” didn’t just appear on television without a long struggle with the industry to “normalize” the LGBTQ community. Those shows follow the groundbreaking work of ABC’s “Soap” in the 1970s and Fox’s “Party of Five” in the 1990s.
This is what I want for Muslims. I want to see a Muslim character who doesn’t have negative baggage or a cloud of suspicion over his/her head. The good news is that this is slowly beginning to happen. We now have Hasan Minhaj (“The Daily Show”), Aziz Ansari (“Master of None”), Riz Ahmed (“The Night Of”), and Yasmine Al Massri (“Quantico”). But we need to speed up this “normalization,” as it is the way we will become off limits to rogue Executive Orders like the one we saw recently. It is going to take a lot of collaborative work between the Muslim and entertainment communities. But because Muslims are standing on the shoulders of giants in other marginalized communities, and because the door has already been cracked open for us, I think the process of amplifying our voices will be faster. But it is not going to come easy. Here is what needs to happen:
— We need to work together to have a collective impact on the narrative because portraying better, authentic and accurate stories is not “doing us a favor” — it is simply good business for the industry to represent what the real world looks like. But this responsibility should not be taken lightly. We all know the painful consequences of vilifying a faith and a community.
— If you are a producer, director, or a screenwriter, please reach out to us when your project involves Muslim characters or storylines. MPAC’s Hollywood Bureau has consulted on many high-profile projects and we will be happy to consult on many others. We do not act as watchdogs, but give creatives the opportunity to tell better stories by providing them with accurate information about Islam and Muslims.
— Muslim screenwriters should be included as staff writers when there is a storyline that involves Muslims or Islam. There is plenty of Muslim talent in the industry, so reach out to them. If you need help, reach out to us. One writer is not enough. There should be no fewer than three writers creating Muslim characters in order to accurately represent the community, otherwise, there will be too much lost in translation.
— If you are a Dean of a Theater, Film, and Television Department at a major university, encourage your students to do their due diligence and educate themselves on the subjects they are writing about. Audiences are intelligent and can see through thin facades.
I have so much hope in the power of storytelling and its impact on shaping opinions, values and actions. I have so much hope that our work together will impact the narrative in a positive manner and save lives in the process. Despite what is happening in Washington, D.C., I have so much hope that we will come out of this as a stronger nation. I have so much hope in the American spirit and the pluralism of America.
But we must work together to create stories that reflect what America really looks like, to understand each other and to save the soul of America, together.
(pictured: “Master of None,” starring Aziz Ansari)