Why exceedingly positive Muslim portrayal is not a straightforward path to a better onscreen representation of Muslim communities
In a scene from TV series Transplant, we see Bashir Hamed, the Muslim protagonist, perform his prayer without any connection to a context of terrorism or violence. A rarity. Actually, the entire show portrays a heroic Muslim character.
However, it would be easy (and risky) to fall into the trap of perfection: to counter a negative image of Muslims by creating almost-perfect characters that the audience would hardly relate to. In the US, the character of Ramy - imperfect, complex, and in the midst of a spiritual crisis - is a good example of a Muslim anti-hero.
Already, industry professionals pitching shows are being told that there’s already a Ramy, a Hala or a Hassan Minhaj. Yet according to Sue Obeidi, Director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Hollywood Bureau, while this is “unfortunate”, “it’s not always going to be this way” because what matters is good storytelling and profitability. “If you have a good story to tell, and it’s going to make the industry money, trust me: no one's gonna care that Ramy was done”, Obeidi says.
THANK YOU, TRUMP?
CBS’s FBI has a Muslim co-lead. The Red Line on NBC had a Gay Muslim Indian-American character. Other US shows such as Grey’s Anatomy, DC's Legends of Tomorrow, and 9-1-1: Lone Star have added Muslim characters in the last couple years.
The list is growing, including two coming-of-age movies portraying young Muslim females: Hala from writer-director Minhal Baig, and Jinn by writer-director Nijla Mu’min.
And of course, there’s Ramy.
“It’s unprecedented, confirms resercher Evelyn Alsultany, the number of shows that have Muslim characters who are not terrorists or proving their patriotism.”
This point on patriotism is important as Alsultany explains in her book, Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11: “While there were more terrorists’ portrayals after 9/11, there was also patriotic characters, usually in the context of terrorism.”
“So you’d have a terrorist storyline, you’d think the terrorist is Arab or Muslim, and at the very end, you’d find out it’s a white man who’d be the terrorist, explains Alsutlany. It became pretty standard”, she adds.
“Then, for a few years, perhaps during the Obama years, there was some expansion and it seemed to favor secular Muslims (...): if Islam doesn’t mean anything to you, we can include you in our notion of multicultural America”, explains Alsultany, citing Aziz Ansari’s Master of None and Kumail Nanjiani‘s The Big Sick as examples.
The next phase is when Trump, before becoming president, announced a Muslim ban: “Writers and producers saw that as a crisis, and it led to another shift. So I don’t know if Transplant would have been possible ten or five years ago”, adds Alsultany.
While Trump’s election “created a system of resistance” in Hollywood, none of this would have been possible without the work of a few Muslims writers and producers, working quietly for decades, according to Sue Obeidi. “Those people who’ve been doing the work now suddenly found a platform”, she explains.
Inspired by the Riz test, the Obeidi-Alsultany Test was created to raise the bar further, “given the promising current expansion in portrayals and the vast pool of talented Muslim screenwriters in the industry”, the authors explained in an op-ed published in July 2020.
Another important aspect according to Sue Obeidi: it’s called show business for a reason. “Basically, the industry also saw it as lucrative for them because they can make money telling these wonderful stories”.
When he started pitching Transplant in 2017, Joseph Kay was faced with an openness to this new kind of characters: “I think that, because Bashir is a Muslim character and a refugee, because he has a backstory that is not what they normally see, it was actually easier.”
While Transplant passes the Obeidi-Alsultany Test, Alsultany points out the fact that “in the first episode, we’re led to believe that Bashir might be behind a terrorist attack, and then it’s discovered that he has nothing to do with. Is that even necessary?”
“My concern is: if Muslim ban was a crisis that led to a response. If there’s no more crisis, will the response continue?”, she adds.
“NOT THAT STRAIGHTFORWARD AND EASY”
Tired of the anti-hero, Joseph Kay, creator of Transplant and the showrunner of its first season, decided early on that Bashir’s character would be a hero. “Yes, he does some brave and heroic things as a doctor, but I really strive for him to be a well-rounded, relatable human being (...) And I think that’s an ongoing challenge”, he says.
Bashir is a complex, multidimensional character whose faith is only one aspect of his identity. However, in the pilot, he’s saving the life of customers after a truck crashes into the restaurant where he works. Among them is Doctor Jed Bishop, the head of the hospital where Bashir had applied earlier. Thanks to his heroic act, Bashir’s skills are finally recognized and he is offered a residency by the same person who rejected his application before.
While it may not affect only Muslims, this kind of portrayal could harm the representation of asylum seekers, reinforcing the idea that there is such a thing as a “good” or “bad” refugee.
When asked about this, Joseph Kay points out to one of Bashir’s closest friends on the show, Khaled, who is undocumented: “It’s more of a grey area, he’s not a bad person, he’s a good person too. People might look at him and think he might be breaking some kind of rule. I was interested in wanting people to pull for him too”, Kay says.
According to Evelyn Alsultany, “for many writers and producers, the solution to negative stereotypes is positive representation and perhaps the answer is not that straightforward and easy (...) The one show that came to mind that’s more complicated is Ramy and it’s probably because it’s written by an Arab-Muslim, she adds. Ramy is not a likeable character. I thought he was likeable in Season 1 but in Season 2 I don’t like Ramy, and he’s obviously written that way for a reason.”
For Sue Obeidi, the shift towards a positive portrayal is an organic step towards reaching a balance, eventually. “It’s going to be organic, and it’s happening”, she says.
Ramy is very controversial as it shows an imperfect Muslim who’s struggling with committing to his faith. On Transplant, Bashir is asked about his religious practice by his colleague and he says : “Sometimes I pray five times a day, sometimes I don’t pray at all”, a line written by lead actor Hamza Haq.
“When I made Little Mosque on the Prairie, people were very upset: why wasn’t every Muslim character so good?, says Zarqa Nawaz. It took Muslims a long time just to acknowledge that we need to have imperfect characters.”
Her next project, Zarqa, is a comedy webseries that portrays a “vindicative and shallow” Muslim woman who’s making up a story about having a white, brain surgeon fiancé, after her ex announces on social media that he is marrying a white woman.
Nawaz got the idea of this character while reading articles about The Big Sick: “A lot of Muslim women were upset because they felt that they were mocked in the (film), and that the white woman was the trophy (...) I thought it would be so funny to make fun of that (...) and to play with these stereotypes.”
Zarqa’s funding was secured last year and is produced by CBC Gem. The series will debut in May 2022.
Overseas, the British comedy show We Are Lady Parts, written and directed by Nida Manzoor, portrays all-female Muslim punk band with diverse backgrounds and complex storylines.
SHIFT FROM STORIES ABOUT MUSLIMS, TO STORIES BY MUSLIMS
Muslim actors are also impacted. Maissa Houri, a Canadian-Lebanese-Syrian actor, suffered from the lack of roles she could audition for. “ I have to be a hijabi or have an accent. Why can’t I just be the girl next door? Even in the last year, most of my Arab auditions were for refugees. There used to be terrorists, now it’s refugees”, she says.
While Houri does more corporate and commercial videos, she never got a role in film, so she started creating her own shows and her own roles. Her first project, Dirty Love, was self-funded and made with the help of volunteers and emerging talent. She plays the lead role: an unemployed Muslim woman who resorts to selling sex toys to survive. She drinks, curses, and has a gay male roommate. Everything Houri couldn’t audition for as a Muslim actor.
Maissa’s father, who plays his own role in the show, proudly told all his friends about Dirty Love, but “only the white people”, she adds.
When asked if creating her own role helped her career, she answers: “A little bit. It helped me in a way where people see that I’m trying, I’m doing the work.” Maissa Houri is currently working with a producer to develop a TV show for broadcast about a Muslim family “but it has nothing to do with religion”.
FULL AUTHORSHIP AND DIVERSE PORTRAYAL
A recent study by USC Anneberg, backed by Oscar-nominated actor Riz Ahmed, found that out of 8,965 speaking characters across 200 top-grossing films released between 2017 and 2019 from the U.S., U.K., Australia, and New Zealand, only 1.6% were Muslim. And only 4.4% of them filled primary roles. The study also found that Muslim characters are “rooted in times and places that promote the idea of Muslims as ‘foreign’ or ‘other’”, with more than half of Muslim primary and secondary characters shown as immigrants, migrants, or refugees, and with nearlyhalf of the primary and secondary characters evaluated speaking with an accent that was reflective of a non-native English speaker (regardless of U.S., British, or Australian accent).
While this study does not include Canadian media, there are one million Muslims in Canada, “representing 3.2% of the nation's total population”, according to the 2011 National Household Survey. They’re coming from different cultures and countries (ranging from Morocco to Pakistan and beyond), speaking different languages, and living their faith in various ways.
There can’t be one way of representing Muslims then. “The ultimate goal in representation is for there to be diverse portrayals. So, while I might have been critical of Aziz Ansari, Kamil Nanjiani and the secular Muslim, this is part of who Muslims are. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be represented but it seemed to fill a particular role at that time”, explains Alsultany.
“I don’t have a problem with Arabs and Muslims being portrayed as terrorists. The problem is that we, historically, rarely see them in other contexts, and it’s the repetition of the same image that’s so dangerous and it has been very damaging in terms of Americans supporting war in Muslim countries, there is an impact”, she adds, citing a research project by Muniba Saleem.
For activist Sue Obeidi, the end goal is “a 100% authorship: as the saying goes, 'nothing is written about us without us,' but until then, if we can tip the scale in that direction by helping to create a critical mass of Muslim storytellers, that’s great too!”
As the portrayal of Muslims evolves, Sue Obeidi and Evelyn Alsultany are open to adapting the test to raise the bar for even better representation.