The Emmys and the Future of Muslim Portrayals on Television

Sue Obeidi, director of the Hollywood Bureau of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, hopes Emmy contenders “Ramy” and Netflix’s “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj” will inspire many more nuanced portrayals

Maysa (Hiam Abbass), Ramy (Ramy Youssef), and Farouk (Amr Waked), in "Ramy."
A scene from Hulu's "Ramy." (Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu)

The 71st annual Emmy Awards nominations will be announced this week and we can almost be certain that Hulu’s “Ramy” and Netflix’s “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj” will be among the shows nominated. Anything to the contrary would be a noticeable slight.

Both shows bring a unique viewpoint to American audiences: that American Muslims are multidimensional, deep, funny, and complex all at the same time. Despite their different formats, the shows share a common treatment of the American Muslim experience. Their Muslim identity is a part, but not all of who they are, which makes them both so relatable to wider audiences.

In Hulu’s “Ramy,” Ramy Youssef plays an American millennial with immigrant parents, with much of the show derived from the comic’s own experiences. In Netflix’s “Patriot Act,” Hasan Minhaj uses a deep-dive format similar to that of “Last Week Tonight,” but his choice of topics and reaction to them are informed by his American, South Asian, and Muslim background.

We have never seen either type of series helmed by American Muslims before in mainstream Hollywood. Yet audiences are tuning in, because well-written, relatable stories grounded in life experiences have universal appeal.

These two shows illustrate what happens when American Muslims writers tell their own stories. They create content that allows non-Muslims to see us as we are everyday. And while it may take many more “Ramys” and “Patriot Acts” for us to move past the negative Muslim stereotypes, these shows could be the beginning of a “Will & Grace”moment for my community.

I have often said that without “Will & Grace” and the influence of pop-culture on public opinion, marriage equality could not have been achieved in 2015. If there were more shows with authentic, relatable Muslim characters on television three years ago, would the Muslim Ban have gone through? Would we have had to show up at airports across the country to fight for our rights?

In addition to increased understanding, the success of “Ramy” and “Patriot Act”prove that diversity on screen and in writers’ rooms is lucrative because these shows have universal appeal.  Inclusion is not only overdue and essential in 2019, it is a sound business strategy.

Wth the inclusion of Muslims in the entertainment industry as formidable content creators becoming more of a reality, it is my hope that the success of these shows will open doors for more Muslim talent, that we will see more projects by and about Muslims, and that one day these narratives and portrayals will be the norm. And I do hope this will all result in the influence and respect of my community being taken for granted.

I hope that those with greenlighting authority are falling over themselves right now to find the next Ramy Youssef or Hasan Minhaj, not to mention the plethora of female Muslim talent. Also, keep your eye on “Ramy” co-star Mohammed Amer, whose Netflix special, “Vagabond,” is resonating with audiences. But as an underserved community making its way in the entertainment industry, I fear that we may fall victim to the tokenism that tends to plague decision-makers, where we are lost in the space between indifference and success.

If either of these series were not successful, it would be easy for decision makers to say, ‘Well, we tried that and it didn’t work.” This is not a problem that white, straight, male creatives — or storylines — face. Conversely, if the industry is satisfied with “checking the inclusion box” with a couple of successes, American Muslim talent may find themselves struggling to get their projects developed. Unfortunately, this industry tends to follow these two tracks when it comes to underserved communities.

We are eager to see success breed success. The door of inclusion is cracked open, but how do we swing it wide for the incredible talent out there? Here are a few ideas:

  • American Muslim creatives should be seen as endless sources for rich, funny, highly entertaining, and authentic narratives.Take chances on them to tell both relatable and profitable stories.
  • American Muslim talent should study the career paths of Ramy and Hasan to see how they honed their craft to reach this level of success. Both of these men have put in a tremendous amount of work — and there are no shortcuts to that.
  • Showrunners should create recurring Muslim characters whenever possible. When audiences see us as the wonderfully nuanced, relatable people we are, then the way we are perceived will be transformed.

The future for any underserved community in entertainment is riddled with challenges and hard work. American Muslims are also under the weight of vilifying stereotypes that we’ve seen on screen for decades. However, with the success and recognition of “Ramy” and “Patriot Act,” the future of American Muslim portrayals on screen feels brighter today than it ever has before.