We've Got Hollywood Covered

How Hollywood Can Help Overcome Negative Perceptions of Muslims (Guest Column)

”Inclusion and authentic representation of marginalized communities will create a power shift in public discourse,“ writes the director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Hollywood Bureau

A year ago, I wrote about the influence TV and film have on American public opinion and by extension, on public policy. I argued that If Muslim characters were “normalized” on television, President Donald Trump’s travel ban on people from predominantly Muslim countries would not have reached the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, last week we saw a regression in our values and morals as a nation in the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the ban and reinforce it as the law of the land.

Despite it all, I still stand by my argument that pop culture impacts our values and perceptions. It doesn’t feel like it right now, but more inclusion and authentic representation of marginalized communities will create a power shift in public discourse, which in turn will ultimately impact public policy.

I do see a day when last Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling will be overturned, and when families who are crossing our borders as they flee for their lives from countries riddled with poverty and violence will be embraced with open arms.

I was not born in this country, but arrived in Los Angeles when I was 5 years old. Looking different and feeling different, all I wanted was to to assimilate. My sister and I were the only Muslims/Arabs in our elementary, middle and high schools.

Back then, Muslims and our culture were little-known. I grew up asking for permission and forgiveness often, as if enormous favors were being granted to me when I got a yes from my non-Muslim friends to my simple requests. People called me a “camel jockey,” “A-rab”and other names not appropriate to mention here.

One year when I was in elementary school, I had to keep a food diary, writing down what I had for breakfast for an entire week. Like other Arab families, we ate hummus, falafel, fava beans, olive oil and za’atar for breakfast. There was no way I was going to write that down, but I also didn’t want to lie.

So just for that week, I asked my beloved late mother to buy food like the kids on the “Brady Bunch” ate for breakfast — cereal with whole milk, white toast with a pat of butter, and orange juice, just so I could report back with honesty. I believed that was what all of my friends who were not Muslim or Middle Eastern were eating.

At the time, my mom acknowledged my plight to fit in, but also made sure I understood that our culture was just as good as the dominant culture. But nonetheless, she complied. And so for five days in a row, I had a breakfast that was full of sugar, fat, carbs and empty calories so I could fit in. Ironically, today people are paying $15 for trendy falafel and hummus wraps.

That experience comes to mind often in my work as the Director of MPAC’s Hollywood Bureau. I work in the entertainment industry to counter the dominant narrative of Islam and Muslims on TV and in film.

If America’s view of Muslims is changed for the better, and we are seen as fully-fleshed human beings rather than a national security threat, decisions such as the one made last week will be as foreign as hummus was back when I was in elementary school. Muslims have been here since this country’s founding, and we always will be. And America is better for that very reason.

Muslims are woven into the fabric of American society. However, the perception most of our fellow Americans have of us needs stitching. Through improved representation in media and pop culture, such broken seams can be mended.

As director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council's Hollywood Bureau, Sue Obeidi works with studio executives, producers, directors, and writers to create authentic, accurate and fair portrayals of Islam and of Muslims in film, television, and on digital platforms. Her goal, and that of the Hollywood Bureau, is to help the entertainment industry tell better stories about Islam and Muslims, a need that is now more pressing than ever. The Hollywood Bureau's consulting credits include film and TV projects with Participant Media, CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, Showtime, FX, Hulu, Super Deluxe Television, and Nat Geo.