Cynthia P. Schneider is former Ambassador to the Netherlands and currently teaches, publishes, and organizes initiatives in the field of cultural diplomacy, with a focus on relations with the Muslim world. She is also Co-Director here at MOST. In this piece for Huffington Post, she writes about the recent engagement from President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, and their call on the entertainment industry to help combat Islamophobia and ISIS recruitment.
In her op-ed, Ms. Schneider talks about the not-so-secret weapon in Obama and Kerry’s arsenal — the power of narrative. “We know from neurological research that our emotions influence political decision-making more than rational thought; that is why narratives are so effective. They move us to feel empathy with the characters portrayed…. Of course, the reverse is also true. When Muslims are seen again and again as terrorists, whether in news reports, TV or film, the repetition only reinforces prejudices, despite the fact that the vast majority of Muslims abhor terrorism and are its principle target.”
Ms. Schneider says that President Obama was spot on when he gave his landmark speech earlier this month on religious intolerance. “Negative portrayals of Muslims in media not only fan the flames of Islamophobia, but they also reinforce feelings of alienation and humiliation in Muslims — exactly the sentiments that motivate people to join ISIS and other extremist groups.”
As Co-Director at MOST, Ms. Schneider says that in shaping narratives, it is not only important to work closely with television and film writers and producers, but to do so on their own terms. “I have learned that entertainment creators don’t naturally respond to policy prescriptions. They want to create a great story, not answer a societal need. At the same time, television responds to the zeitgeist, and issues involving Muslims and Islam are very much part of our time. Writers want to get it right. When shaping Muslim plots and characters, they often welcome the chance to speak to experts, as well as information from resources such as MOST’s Story Bank, which compiles thousands of news and human interest stories involving Muslims and Islam.”