American Muslims advising Hollywood on portrayal of Muslim characters
July 25 2010
LOS ANGELES // When agent Jack Bauer hunts terrorists in the American TV drama 24, not all the Muslims he encounters are positive role models – but at least their characters are accurate.
The credit for that goes to the Hollywood bureau of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), a non-profit group that works to shape public opinion about American Muslims.
“Before we met the showrunner [who is responsible for the day-to-day operation of a TV series], the show was not necessarily anti-Muslim, but it was not as accurate as it could be,” said Suhad Obeidi, who runs MPAC’s Hollywood bureau in Los Angeles. “By the end of the series’ run, and after we had spoken with them, it had a recurring Muslim character.”
Omar Hassan, played by the Bollywood actor Anil Kapoor, was president of the fictional Islamic Republic of Kamistan in 13 episodes of the show’s eighth and final series, which has just been broadcast in the UAE.
“What we want is accuracy, not necessarily a positive portrayal, although we would love it if all Muslim characters were positive,” Ms Obeidi said.
She said Hollywood has become better when it comes to avoiding stereotypes, although producers still made mistakes.
A common one, she said, is to depict Muslim characters who might be positive in some aspects but otherwise are “sell-out” playboys who drink alcohol.
“Audiences then think there’s a divide between being a good guy and a good Muslim,” Ms Obeidi said. “This is not a normal situation for most Muslims.”
The Hollywood bureau has been consulted on a number of films and television series, from the 1999 movie The Three Kings, starring George Clooney, to the recent Prince of Persia: Sands of Time with Jake Gyllenhaal.
It does not try to interfere in the artistic process, but it will advise, for example, on how Muslims pray, or how different traditions exist in Muslim countries in the Middle East, South Asia or North Africa.
Ms Obeidi, 46, was born in Jerusalem and lived in Amman before moving to the United States as a child with her parents. “America is my home, I was educated here, I was brought up here, I make my livelihood here,” she said.
The Hollywood Bureau is just one of MPAC’s many projects, all of which have the same goal: to ensure that American Muslims are fully integrated into US life both culturally and politically, Salam al Marayati, the organisation’s president, said.
Since he helped to found MPAC 24 years ago, staff from the organisation have become a regular fixture as commentators and analysts on US television news and in newspapers. It has built inter-faith partnerships, engaged with policymakers from its Washington office and helped to develop future leaders through such activities as its internship programme.
Mr al Marayati rejected accusations that he was promoting an “Americanised” form of Islam. The onus was on American Muslims to participate fully in civic life or risk remaining marginalised at best, or viewed as a threat by a growing number of non-Muslim Americans, he said.
“Talk of halal meat is trivia. American Muslims spend more on mosques and cemeteries than on institutions designed to secure policies for our future,” he said.
MPAC’s annual budget is only around $1.3 million (Dh4.8m) compared with the multimillion-dollar resources commanded by groups such as the Christian Coalition or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he pointed out.
“If we look to communities who are influential in this country, they do allocate resources to secure their rights,” he said. “We are now part of this great American civilisation and how we contribute to it is a major question for Muslims today.”
Mr al Marayati, 49, moved from Iraq with his family when he was three. He originally trained as an engineer before realising he did not want to work in that profession, preferring instead to work in civil society.
A devout Muslim, he quotes extensively from the Quran in his conversation and he described his mosque, which serves both Sunni and Shiite Muslims as “sushi”. “To us, the Sunni/Shia divide happened after the death of the Prophet and came from a historical and political context that’s irrelevant to our aspirations and challenges as Muslims today.”
Soon after the Fort Hood shooting in November, in which a Muslim is accused of killing 13 people, Mr al Marayati wrote an opinion piece for TheWall Street Journal saying the US army major should repent his actions and needed “religious consultation that could help him see the enormity of his situation when he meets his Creator”.
Mr al Marayati’s denunciation of terrorism and his call to fight extremism in mosques, community centres and youth associations across the United States was subsequently praised in evidence given to the Senate homeland security committee.
Mr al Marayati said he was driven by the Islamic obligation to contribute to civilisation and to oppose anything harmful to society.
“I would like to see the point in America when Jewish and Christian extremists are seen the same as Muslim extremists,” he said. “To do good, that’s the message of Islam in essence.”