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Pushing for Positive Arab Characters

  • Alex Cohen

Every drama needs a bad guy. Hollywood usually chooses its villains to reflect the political climate - Nazi soldiers in World War Two … Russian spies during the Cold War. Recently, the Muslim terrorist has become the universal bad guy. That's troubling to some Arab- and Muslim-Americans who fear their image in the media is affecting how they're perceived in the real world.

Growing up in southern California, Ahmed Ahmed always wanted to be an actor. He got his first big break in the mid-90's. He was offered a non-speaking part as a terrorist in the Hollywood blockbuster, Executive Decision. "The whole movie was about a group of Muslim fundamentalists who hijack an airplane, imagine that!" he laughs ironically. While he was thrilled to make good money and work with famous actors, Ahmed - a practicing Muslim born in Egypt - wasn't thrilled about playing an Islamic terrorist. But that part was just one of many roles he was offered that featured him as a bad guy. "I called my agent and I said, 'Could I go out for roles that are other than these roles that I'm being cast in?'" he recalls, "and my agent at the time said 'You are only going to go out for these Arab roles as long as your name is Ahmed Ahmed.'"

Ahmed says his dilemma is one faced by many Muslim and Arab actors - there aren't a lot roles available for them and those that do exist tend to be villains. For example, the most recent season of the popular Fox TV drama 24 featured a Muslim family. The husband, wife and teenage son were all part of a sleeper cell plotting to detonate nuclear bombs throughout the United States.

Edina Lekovic is with the Muslim Public Affairs Council. She says when people see these sorts of fictional characters, there can be very real consequences. "What you're seeing out there is pretty scary, and I don't blame your average American citizen for being afraid of Muslims based on what they're seeing on TV."

The Muslim Public Affairs Council demanded that the Fox network counterbalance the portrayal of Muslims as terrorists on 24. In response, the show's star Keifer Sutherland appeared in a public service announcement, saying "It is important to recognize that the American Muslim community stands firmly beside their fellow Americans in denouncing and resisting all forms of terrorism…"

Muslim and Arab Americans aren't the first minorities to complain about how they're portrayed in the media… For years, African American, Latino and Asian actors have struggled to find work playing positive roles. The situation is gradually changing for those groups, but Alex Ben Block, editor of Television Week magazine, isn't optimistic about the prospects for Middle Eastern heroes. He says given that acts of terrorism are regularly making headlines, it's unlikely that audiences will be seeing an obviously Arab or Muslim family at the center of a warm-hearted comedy anytime soon. "These are, for the most part, commercial networks," he points out, "that are going to put on what they believe will draw an audience. And they're also reflective of the society around them, and in our society right now the Arab, for instance, is not having a great image."

It may be impossible to rid Hollywood of plot lines involving terrorists. But, the least writers could do is provide more context to such characters, says Tony Shalhoub. The veteran Lebanese American actor is the star of the TV show Monk. He says he refuses to portray terrorists. "They (the writers) don't sort of give you the back story, they don't see what was the inhumanity or the extreme injustice that was done to this person that might have, you know, made him snap."

But a new TV show is trying to do just that. The Showtime network is currently producing a program called Sleeper Cell about a group of Al Qaeda sympathizers based in Los Angeles. Writer Kamran Pasha is one of several practicing Muslims working on the series. He says Sleeper Cell focuses on how each of the characters wound up becoming a terrorist. "We have to understand this phenomenon, have to understand what are its origins, what kind of people are being drawn into it, how it differs from the vast majority of people associated with this faith and how we can work with people within this community to stop it." And, unlike other shows, the hero is also a Muslim character - an undercover FBI agent who infiltrates the sleeper cell.

While actors and activists may feel slightly relieved to see at least one Muslim hero, many would like to see characters that have nothing to do with terrorism whatsoever. But if that's going to happen, says actor Tony Shalhoub, Arab and Muslim performers will have to take charge. "It's time now to take it into our own hands and begin to initiate projects that we want to get out there."

And that's what he's done. This year, Shalhoub started a competition for Arab American filmmakers to create stories that show Arab and Muslim characters in a more realistic and positive light. More than 60 filmmakers submitted screenplays. The winning script is being produced this summer.