How TV and Movies Can Stop Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban (Guest Blog)

If Muslim characters were “normalized” on television, would the travel ban have reached the Supreme Court?

Hasan Minhaj

If it is true that there is a correlation between television viewership and product consumption, could there be a correlation between authentic representations of Muslims on television and the public’s degree of outrage when hate crimes are committed against us?

Would increased familiarity of relatable characters on television help to make these crimes unacceptable to the greater public (and maybe even to the president of the United States)? Would that increase the understanding, acceptance, and assimilation of Muslims in America?

The LGBTQ and Jewish communities have come a long way in finding acceptance and inclusion in this country. And while they still suffer as the biggest victims of hate crimes, better representation on television has done wonders not only in “normalizing” those communities but also in creating demand for their stories.

A decade after its eight-season run, “Will & Grace” is returning this fall to huge excitement and anticipation. Since the airing of its last episode in 2006, marriage equality has been legalized in the United States and in over 20 countries worldwide. If Muslim characters were “normalized” on television, I wonder if the Muslim Travel Ban would have ever reached the Supreme Court.

While watching CNN after the London mosque attack, one of Chris Cuomo’s guests remarked that President Trump hadn’t commented yet because he was waiting to get more information. This was a surprising statement given that lack of information has never seemed to be an obstacle to the president commenting on matters before. But sadly, when Muslims are the victims of terror attacks or hate crimes, there is usually very little response from our  elected officials.

This got me thinking about the increase in hate crimes under the Trump administration, and the different reactions by the public depending on the community impacted. People are people, no matter who they love or their faith; a hate crime against another human being is a hate crime against humanity. So why is it that when hate crimes are committed against Muslims, there is very little outcry from the media and the public? Muslims in America are Americans, but we are viewed as foreigners in our own country. Islam itself is viewed as an “Eastern” religion despite the fact that Christianity and Judaism originated in the same part of the world.

Most of the American public gets its information about Muslims from the entertainment industry and the news media, both of which have taken very few steps to “humanize” Muslims. Let me pause here and say that I use the word “humanize” and “normalize” reluctantly. Imagine being part of a group of fellow Americans who need to be characterized as such, and how that would affect your sense of belonging, self-worth, and identity as an American. American Muslims have an enormous public relations problem, but thankfully there are new avenues available in the entertainment industry to help change our popular perception.

I attended an eye-opening industry event in June where one of the panels discussed the openness of new media platforms like Amazon, Hulu and Netflix to original content that falls outside the mainstream of broadcast television. This is where talented Muslim content creators need to be pitching their unique stories, in addition to traditional cable and network television. Aziz Ansari’s critically acclaimed “Master of None” and Hasan Minhaj’s “Homecoming King” feature Muslims as principal characters, but they are reaching audiences well beyond those who would have traditionally watched a “Muslim centered” show.

What these shows prove is both the universality of the American Muslim experience as well as the viewing audience’s hunger for content from diverse perspectives. Bottom line? We can tell more interesting stories and still sell ads.

We’ve heard a lot in the last year or so from Hollywood about “resisting.” And while those sentiments are good, action is better. If the industry really wants to resist the ignorant “Muslim=terrorist” narrative that this Administration has promulgated — a narrative that has helped to separate American Muslims from the wider public — they need to help create a new narrative.

Tell the stories of ordinary Americans who happen to be Muslim, and little by little, what was once viewed as foreign will become familiar. That familiarity will breed empathy, which will create an environment where hate crimes against Muslims will no longer be tolerated or tacitly condoned.

And it will still make great television.