A Palatable Muslim
In recent years the topic of Muslim representation in Hollywood has become one of relevance and interest to many.
From Homeland all the way to Zero Dark Thirty, a plethora of projects including or surrounding the subject of Muslim people have been cropping up in the last decade. Though after 9/11 there was a spike in Muslim-related content, a lull soon followed.
The higher frequency of Muslim presence on screen does not necessarily translate to an accurate representation. In fact, much like the aforementioned TV series and film, Hollywood rarely gets it right when portraying authentic Muslim stories.
I have yet to actually watch anything produced in the entertainment industry that consults Muslim people before including them in their narrative.
Too often I catch a glimpse of a headscarf clad woman on a prime-time American show and my interest is immediately piqued. I am engaged with what is unfolding on the screen before me. The producers, writers and show-runners have successfully reeled me in as a Muslim viewer. So, I sit, I watch, and I pray to the angels of entertainment that what I am about to see will not intensify the white-hot rage that comes with being consistently misrepresented.
And the angels of entertainment, it would seem, are not on my side. That hijabi woman clearly does not wear the headscarf in real-life: she does not know how to wear one and evidently neither do the show’s stylists. She opens her mouth to say something in Arabic and what comes out is so far removed from my native language it is unrecognisable to me, a viewer that this character is supposed to be relatable to. And to top it all off, here come multiple law enforcement officers to cart her away to some cell or detention centre. They question her about her terrorist, enemy of the state, national security threat, husband. What makes it worse is that this scenario has occurred multiple times on Homeland-adjacent shows, such as Quantico, Containment, Criminal Minds, etc.
When it comes to depicting modern Muslims, Hollywood is guilty of two things: perpetuating the reduction of Muslims to a blunt, two-dimensional pseudo-socio-political stereotype and a complete lack of willingness to prioritise authenticity.
With regards to the former, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the nature of the American cultural landscape is rife with an islamophobic sentiment, and the machine of Hollywood is its greatest propagator. And with the risk of sounding like a conspiracist, it would not be unreasonable to claim that Hollywood is the cultural tool through which governmental anti-Islamic agendas are furthered.
This is demonstrated by the associations that exist between military institutions like the Pentagon and the development of major American Sniper-like blockbusters. In fact, an article published by Al Jazeera in 2017 titled 'Covert operations: How the CIA works with Hollywood' exposes the depths of the CIA’s involvement in Zero Dark Thirty. It reveals that 'edits to storylines that may harm the country’s reputation are a first-class misdemeanour,' which essentially explains why we rarely see the American state as culpable for the part it played in today’s rampant misrepresentation of the Muslim populace, even if just fictionally so.
The latter of Hollywood’s repeated offences, is the total failure to or, at the very least, an attempt toward telling some semblance of an authentic Muslim story. There is, evidently, little to no effort made to consult actual Muslim people and their culture when writing a script that involves them. This markedly clear by observing how, in almost every instance, Muslim characters are seen to subvert Islamic doctrine by engaging in activities that are prohibited, such as smoking, drinking and having pre-marital sex.
[It should be emphatically stated that by no means should this be interpreted as a judgmental dictation of how Muslims should live their lives. Muslims come from all walks of life and choose their own lifestyles; much like any other community of people, no one individual Muslim is like another.]
The problem, therein, lies with the fact that Hollywood chooses only to depict one kind of Muslim; the kind I like to call the ‘palatable Muslim.’ This is the Muslim that is digestible to a mainstream American audience, the Muslim that is agreeable to them. One that is Westernised enough to accord with their beliefs and cultural practices, but brown enough to fulfil the studio’s diversity quota- still without being too foreign and Taliban-y. This Muslim is light-skinned and usually male – sans any facial hair, of course. If the Muslim is female, she will have just enough skin peeking through her ‘modest’ clothing that she can still be sexualised- why should she be exempt from the great Hollywood tradition of writing female characters to appease the male gaze?
To provide a physical example of a Hollywood-approved Muslim, take Riz Ahmed’s character in The Night Of, Nasir Khan. Khan, in the very first episode, is written to have a sex scene, which means that Ahmed as an actor would have to consent to do one. This puts him in a position of privilege as a Muslim actor, he is able to accept roles that other Muslims may not. Ahmed fits the description of a palatable Muslim; one that engages in activities that Westerners and Americans can immediately recognise as familiar, suggesting that Americanisation remains above an accurate representation of Islamic culture. Furthermore, the idea that Muslims are only acceptable in the American cultural sphere when they accord with Western lifestyles only furthers Samuel Huntington’s narrative that the two cultures are diametrically opposed, which by virtue of Muslims coexisting in their millions in the West is clearly false, and insulting.
While I do not think that it is necessarily Hollywood’s responsibility to be true to each and every persona on the Muslim spectrum, it cannot depict only what is deemed agreeable and non-threatening and call it cohesive representation.
It cannot corner Muslims into grossly pejorative stereotypes that produce adverse repercussions for them in their daily interactions, especially with non-Muslims.
And so, I once again invoke the angels of entertainment and hope for a place for Muslims in Hollywood’s recent wave of progressive content. I hope for complex, nuanced and accurately depicted Muslim stories. Ones that are a-political and authentic. And, dare I say it, maybe even ones that feature a headscarf-wearing character played by an actual headscarf-wearing woman.