It’s time for Hollywood to tell stories about real Muslims

Although the Trump administration’s Muslim ban has been temporarily halted by the courts, he has promised to replace it with something else, presumably equally repugnant and antithetical to American values. The ban has already had and will continue to have damaging effects on various American industries, and tomorrow night, it will be interesting to see how Hollywood’s most privileged and praised speak to this political moment.

We’re only five weeks into Trump’s presidency, but already we’ve seen the type of xenophobic, exclusionist, and illegal policies which have chilling implications for the possible future censorship of art and culture. What we’re experiencing now are the culture wars that will determine the future of this country — because white supremacy has risen in new, ugly mutation in the highest levels of our government, and this kind of bigotry cannot be reconciled with. It can only be defeated, with unflinching bravery and the kind of resistance shown by the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. The black children who walked through hostile white crowds in the first desegregated schools, enduring spitballs and racial slurs, weren’t there on the sufferance of those racist communities, but because they won their rights in court, and that hatred was muzzled by our legal system.

But such legal measures can only go so far, when the massive weight of white supremacy and American cultural imperialism has gained the kind of momentum it has in the last year and a half. The narratives Trump and Bannon and their supporters are pushing, of Muslims and Latinos and other people of color being somehow outside or incompatible with American values, subscribes to a narrow vision of what it means to be an American, to be “one of us,” that is embedded into our culture in ways that many may not have noticed before now, but which are older than this nation — and which Hollywood has certainly brought to life and spread throughout the world.

We had a powerful statement yesterday from all five directors of the Best Foreign Language Film nominees, denouncing “the fear generated by dividing us into genders, colors, religions and sexualities as a means to justify violence destroys the things that we depend on — not only as artists but as humans: the diversity of cultures, the chance to be enriched by something seemingly “foreign” and the belief that human encounters can change us for the better.” Whoever wins, they have dedicated the Oscar to “all the people, artists, journalists and activists who are working to foster unity and understanding, and who uphold freedom of expression and human dignity.” One of these directors, Asghar Farhadi of The Salesman, has also boycotted the ceremony due to the Muslim ban and will be sending two accomplished Iranian-Americans in his place.

These actions send a strong message against the current climate of fear and exclusion, and the speeches given by winners at the Screen Actors’ Guild Awards were inspiring and heartening for those who are fighting this toxic narrative. However, if Hollywood’s elites are serious about combating discrimination against Muslims and those of Middle Eastern descent in America, they must address their own complicity in the spread of Islamophobia. It is partly the way Muslims have been dehumanized and Orientalized in American cinema over the last century that has given rise to the image of them as violent, brainwashed terrorists who seek only to destroy this country. As a Muslim American, I have never once seen a Muslim character in movies that was a hero, or even just an ordinary, complex human being. Instead, we repeatedly get movies in the vein of American Sniper, which prompted a measurable rise in anti-Muslim threats and hate crimes.

As the industry which has the most impact on both how Americans see ourselves and how others see America, Hollywood must raise its standards for movies that include Muslim characters, the way it has with characters from other marginalized populations — and we as consumers must demand this change, the way we have continually pushed for more diversity in film in recent years. Hollywood must also allow filmmakers from these backgrounds the space to tell their own stories and be visible onscreen, so that it becomes much more difficult to stereotype, dismiss and exclude Muslims and Muslim Americans. I hope we hear some speeches tomorrow encouraging and advocating for this kind of change in Hollywood’s approach to funding and casting movies, because while we’ve had some small victories in the last two years, they’ve mostly been in television, and film has lagged far behind. We’ve also had an embarrassing, infuriating amount of whitewashing in blockbuster films and franchises — the kind of movies which have the widest reach and cultural relevance — and this trend is very much linked to the increasing othering of anyone who is not white. The exception to this trend is the Disney/Marvel behemoth, which has steadily been moving toward telling more diverse stories. Now that we have a Black Panther movie coming, I’d love to see Ms. Marvel, superhero Muslim teen Kamala Khan, get her big screen debut sometime soon.

Movies are the stories we tell each other about who we are, and American movies are an incredibly influential force that shapes the way the rest of the world sees us. If the movies we make and watch continue to tell stories from one specific point of view, portraying everyone outside that narrow stereotype as somehow less American or less human, we as a people will never progress beyond seeing each other as strangers. The only way we can overcome the severe identity crisis we are experiencing now is to reconcile with the reality that we are a nation with a unified identity, beautiful in all its diverse parts.

Originally published on

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