January 25, 2007
Muslims on Television
— Amir Hussain
Last November, over 10,000 scholars of religion from across North America and around the world gathered in Washington, D.C., for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. A keynote speaker was to have been European Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, but his visa was denied by the U.S. government, as it had been in 2004, when he was appointed as a professor at the University of Notre Dame. The important study of Muslim communities, however, was featured in the Religion and Media workshop, where global representations of Islam were considered for the entire day preceding the meeting. As one of the scholars involved in that workshop, I discussed differences between European and American media coverage of Muslim lives -- as related to the Rushdie affair of fifteen years ago, terrorist attacks in the U.S. and Europe, the Danish cartoon controversy, and media representations of Muslims more generally.
Teaching courses on Islam for more than a decade at universities across North America has allowed me to make some observations concerning the ways in which television shapes perceptions of Muslims. My students typically come to class knowing little about Islam -- and while they have had more information since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, much of it is incorrect. And since their understandings of Islam and Muslim lives derive mostly from television, I begin classes by assigning a book that describes how the news media constructs reality, and invite friends from local network news stations to talk to my classes about their industry. We go on to discuss the presence and portrayal of Muslim figures more broadly in the media.
For example, in the 1960s, Muhammad Ali was perhaps the most famous Muslim in the United States, noted as much for his conversion to Islam and his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War as for his boxing skills. These days, while Ali remains among the most famous people in the world, his being a Muslim is downplayed in the media. Another African American Muslim, the entertainer Dave Chappelle, made headlines in 2005 after publicly coming out as a Muslim. Meanwhile, in the world of rap and hip hop, there are numerous Muslim artists, ranging from Everlast and Mos Def to Iron Crescent and Native Deen.
On television, however, it is a different matter. None of the major characters on Chappelle's Show, for example, is portrayed as Muslim. And when asked to think of a Muslim character on television, most of my students name Apu from The Simpsons -- but of course he is Hindu, not Muslim. Some come up with the character of Sayid on Lost. Others mention Imam Kareem Said, the leader of the Black Muslims in the prison drama Oz. Still others mention personalities from professional wrestling, which has a long history of Muslim characters -- for example, Abdullah the Butcher ("the madman from Sudan"), the Iron Sheikh, Sabu (billed as "homicidal, suicidal, and genocidal"), and Muhammad Hassan. These characters are, of course, violent men, with one being a former member of the Iraqi Republican Guard, another a convict, and the others villainous "heels." Meanwhile, this year there is controversy over the portrayal of Muslims in the new season of 24.
Into this mix has come another cast of characters, from Showtime's Sleeper Cell. When, in 2005, I first saw the ads for this show with the tagline "friends, neighbors, husbands, terrorists," I was naturally concerned that this would be yet another stereotypical portrayal of Muslims as violent fanatics. However, the hero of the series, Darwyn Al-Sayeed, is one of the good guys, an undercover American Muslim FBI agent who has infiltrated a terrorist cell. It is with Sleeper Cell, renewed for another season, where one finally finds positive portrayals of American Muslims.
Such portrayals are crucial, for they offer a corrective to stereotypical representations. North American Muslims are better integrated into their societies than are their European counterparts, and these groups need to be presented on American television for what they are -- part of the fabric of American life. They need not be in leading roles -- but how about a shot of someone going to the mosque at lunchtime to pray, or a Muslim woman in a background scene, simply ordering a cup of coffee?
A step in this direction has been taken with Canadian Muslim filmmaker Zarqa Nawaz's television series Little Mosque on the Prairie, for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Portraying Muslims with humor in everyday situations, this show from a Muslim creator marks an important development -- for Muslims need to be more involved in representing themselves in the various media, lest their stories be left for others to tell.
Muslims should share the poetry of their everyday lives with those around them -- and North American media can take the lead in presenting this poetry on television.
For further reading:
The New York Times article "'Little Mosque' Defuses Hate with Humor" (January 16, 2007) by Christopher Mason can be accessed at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/16/world/americas/16canada.html.
A January 19, 2007, AP article on protests over the portrayal of Muslims on the television show 24 can be read at: http://www.cnn.com/2007/SHOWBIZ/TV/01/19/24.muslims.ap/index.html.
Dr. Amir Hussain is Associate Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and co-chair of the Religion, Film and Visual Culture Group of the American Academy of Religion. His most recent book, Oil and Water: Two Faiths, One God, is an introduction to Islam for a North American audience.
The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "From Artaxerxes to Abu Ghraib: On Religion and the Pornography of Imperial Violence" by Bruce Lincoln. To read this article, please visit: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/.
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