By KAMRAN PASHA
Excerpted from- WISE Up- Knowledge ends Extremism 2017
“Don’t take the deal,” my friend said in a hushed voice over the phone. I was confused. The deal that he was referring to was my first major break in Hollywood, my chance to go from unknown, struggling screenwriter to respected professional. And what made it stranger was that he was calling from the very production company that had just made the offer to my agents. It was the summer of 2002 and I had just finished a screenplay on the Crusades, one that had been inspired by the horror of September 11, just a few months before.
There have been many movies on the Crusades in Hollywood, but my story promised to be unique, for I told the familiar story from the Muslim point of view. The protagonist of the tale was the great Muslim leader Saladin, who conquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders and then, instead of taking revenge on his enemies, went on to build a multi-cultural society where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived together in peace. My movie was born of particular circumstances: it was written to show that there was more to Islam than what the world had been shown by a handful of madmen on 9/11.
The script had received a great deal of attention, and now I had an offer from one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood to buy the project. I was elated—and then stunned when my friend who worked for this producer called and told me to reject the offer. “I will lose my job if they found out I was telling you this,” he said over the phone, “but the boss has no intention of making your movie. He plans to buy the script in order to bury it and make sure no one else will ever be able to tell this story.” At this exact moment, I learned a terrible truth about how Hollywood works.
The famous producer who tried to suppress my Saladin script was just the first of many. I remember taking notes from a respected TV executive who told me directly, “Don’t make the villain of the episode Chinese. Make him Arab. Everybody hates them.” I’ve sat in a writers’ room on a television series and listened to a producer say: “The best way to solve the problem of terrorism is to kill Muslim children so they know we mean business.” I remember trying to pitch a lighthearted action show while a buyer kept going off on non sequiturs about how “Muslims are trying to kill us all.” Or the film executive who boasted proudly that he had removed a Cat Stevens song from a hit movie because Stevens (a Muslim convert) “supported terrorists” due to his charity work in Palestine.
I find it hard to ignore the narrow stereotype Hollywood has followed when depicting Muslims, or any minority group, for that matter, on film or television. If you think about it, only recently did Hollywood start to stray away from portraying African Americans as “gangsters” and “thugs” and start portraying black men, especially, in a more positive, “professional” light. The same can be said for women, who are now depicted as strong and powerful—succeeding in a “man’s world.” Hollywood has evolved to match the changing times in society in this way, but has yet to follow these trends with Muslims onscreen.
For instance, according to the late Jack Shaheen, author of the book Reel Bad Arabs, there have been roughly 1,200 depictions of Arabs and Muslims in American cinema, 97 percent of which have been unfavorable portrayals.1 Muslim characters are overwhelmingly depicted as the “bad guys” or terrorists who are eventually defeated by the “good guys” (i.e., White and/or American). And these portrayals are not a new, post-9/11 phenomenon. Take, for example, the 1994 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie True Lies, which explicitly portrayed a group of Palestinians as “terrorists” who are eventually stopped by the “hero” Schwarzenegger. More recently, shows such as Tyrant, Homeland, and most egregiously, the movie American Sniper, have exacerbated Islamophobic rhetoric and fueled the spread of fearmongering and paranoia of Muslims.
When Hollywood executives choose to portray Muslims in film or television in a negative light, they are playing right into the hands of extremist groups like Daesh who propagate these overtly negative images of Muslims as proof that “America hates Muslims” and that America is engaged in a “war against Islam.” The power of film and television to positively influence popular attitudes about Muslims and push back against these extremist narratives, is so great that the Obama administration had implored Hollywood film executives to expand past portrayals of Muslims in national security situations and simply show them as normal human beings in dramas and comedy. In February 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Los Angeles to meet with executives from NBCUniversal, Warner Bros., DreamWorks Animation, 20th Century Fox, Sony Picture Entertainment, and the Walt Disney Company, to brainstorm ways in which Hollywood can help dispel these extremist narratives.
I’ve found that many in Hollywood view Islam with fear and others see it as a stubbornly sexist and homophobic religion, unworthy of their liberal defense. The latter are blind to how inaccurate that stereotype is—I have often made Hollywood executives uncomfortable when I mention, for example, the high number of female doctors in the Muslim world or the work of Muslim feminists to combat sexism in their communities. They are always stunned when I point out that in Iran, sex change operations are paid for by the Islamic government. That last one usually leaves them speechless.
While Islamophobia is still rippling through Hollywood and our communities, I find that things are starting to change. For example, my show Sleeper Cell featured the first American Muslim hero, an FBI agent who fights terrorism. The show garnered multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. We even have the ABC series Quantico, which featured twin Muslim sisters in its first two seasons (played by my good friend Yasmine Al Massri), one in hijab and one without, excelling as FBI cadets, with both characters representing the incredible diversity within our community.
Fourteen years after my Saladin script was rejected, I have been blessed to have a successful career as one of the few practicing Muslims in Hollywood. I have sold other scripts to movie studios, such as my epic tale of the Taj Mahal to Warner Brothers, worked as a writer and producer on TV shows such as Sleeper Cell and the CW’s Nikita, and have published two novels through Simon & Schuster. In fact, one of my novels is based on that Crusades script (Shadow of the Swords) and I have received wonderful feedback from readers on how the story opened them to a positive, beautiful side of Islam they had never known. In the past fourteen years, I discovered that there are indeed many people in Hollywood who value my perspective and talent, despite not sharing my religious beliefs or cultural background.
For better or worse, Hollywood has the undeniable ability to shape the American psyche, particularly with regard to how it portrays a people or culture about which many Americans may not be knowledgeable. It serves not only as a mirror of our culture, reflectingits unseen, ignored, or uglier aspects, but it actively shapes it, encouraging us to take a closer look at our values and the ways we view others. Hollywood not only sees aspects of our culture that we often cannot see, but it is also seen, and the global Muslim community are huge consumers of this vision. As Muslims continue to become a “normal” part of American society, Hollywood will have to confront its stereotypes and prejudices. The demographics of our country are changing quickly, and whether we like it or not, the process is irreversible. In my opinion, only after Muslims become a normal and welcome part of American television and film will Hollywood begin to fulfill its self-proclaimed ideal of being the conscience of the nation. Until then, I am going to write yet another script with a Muslim hero (I have a dozen) and fight to get it produced. It would have been easier to give up back in 2002 and avoid Muslim topics in my work. It would have been a more pleasant journey, free of awkward exchanges with powerful people, and perhaps certain colleagues would have considered me a friend rather than an enemy. But my conscience would have never left me alone.
Salaam from Hollywood.