For decades, Arab actors have been successful in Hollywood. Among the most successful are Omar Sharif, Tony Shalhoub, and F. Murray Abraham; the latter won an Academy Award for his role in Mozart.
However Muslims, openly proclaiming their religion, are a minority in the U.S. population and an even smaller minority in the U.S. entertainment industry. Those who are breaking in are trying to use their talent to discredit negative stereotypes. Several showcased their work at a recent gathering of predominantly American Muslims in Los Angeles.
Dean Obeidallah is not just an American comedian.
“My ethnicity and my faith make me a little different than many other comedians,” said Obeidallah.
He is a Muslim with Palestinian roots, and says his identity has not created barriers for him. However, he also says that stereotypes of what he represents do exist in the U.S.
Obeidallah uses comedy to talk about misconceptions and about what it means to be Muslim. He has co-directed a comedy documentary on this theme called, The Muslims Are Coming!
Obeidallah said he has received positive reviews from both Muslims and non-Muslims, but sometimes non-Muslims don’t know how to respond to his jokes.
“It can make audiences a little bit uncomfortable because they’re not sure what’s politically correct to laugh at and what’s politically incorrect to laugh at,” explained Obeidallah.
American Muslim poet Amir Sulaiman points out that some Muslims feel uncomfortable listening to him perform.
“Some people they feel nervous. Some things I say are not politically correct. They’re not fashioned and perfected in a political kind of way. Some people will say we don’t want you to say this; we don’t want you to say that as a Muslim person. When you are an artist or a public figure, many times you automatically become a spokesperson for millions of people. All these people have different points of view and different way that they want to be portrayed, but every artist can’t be responsible for everyone,” said Sulaiman.
Sulaiman also said that being a minority artist presents unique challenges.
“So I’m sure there are some walls, hurdles because I’m Muslim, black or because the types of things I talk about. But the most important thing is for me to be sincere and heartfelt and from that, it always works,” said Sulaiman.
Singing from her heart has worked well for Yuna, the first artist from Malaysia to break into the U.S. market. Abeer Khan is a fan, but she says not every Muslim will be able to accept a Muslim woman as a performer.
“I think it’s something so new it’s going to take time for people to fully understand it, maybe come to grasp with there are very talented Muslim women out there. She’s a trailblazer and that’s what we need,” said Khan.
Whether it’s through music, poetry or comedy, Dean Obeidallah feels it is important for Muslim artists and entertainers to appear in the U.S. media.
“I think after 9/11 we became aware as a community that we need to get involved in the media. We need to tell our story. I don’t want other people answering questions. In the United States, only one to two percent of the country is Muslim. We can’t reach the other 98% unless we go in mainstream media,” explained Obeidallah.
He also pointed out that with more visibility, Muslim artists and entertainers can showcase their identity and talents to the public to change anti-Islamic beliefs and stereotypes.