In this interview for the New York Times, showrunners and writers talk about the representation of Muslim characters in television – from casting, cultural issues, and the fight for diversity and against stereotypes.
As New York Times cultural reporter Melena Ryzik pens: “It has never been easy to put a Muslim character on American screens. Even in this TV renaissance, most characters are on shows that rely on terrorism — or at least, terrorist-adjacent — story lines. Other kinds of Muslim characters are woefully absent across the dial. Could that change now, after a divisive presidential campaign that included vows by Donald J. Trump to stop Islamic immigration? Or will it be more difficult than ever?”
Here are some snippets from the interview:
AASIF MANDVI (actor and former correspondent for “The Daily Show”): As an artist, you want to stay true to the narrative, and sometimes that goes against your activist agenda, which is to promote this positive image of Muslims. At the same time, to balance that with a truth that exists, in terms of my own experience with Islam, which may not always be necessarily positive.
CHERIEN DABIS (writer/director of the feature film “Amreeka” which is about a Palestinian single mother who emigrates to the United States. Also a writer on “Quantico” and currently “Empire”): I think we need real depictions [of Muslim life]. I was developing a show [in 2013-14] about a Muslim family in Dearborn, [Mich.,] which is the largest community of Arabs outside of the Middle East. I wanted to create this authentic family drama. When I took it into the marketplace, every suggestion was that I needed to have some kind of terrorist component. Ultimately I ended up incorporating it in a way that looked at false accusations of terrorism. But I lost interest in the show because I was like, we can’t keep showing Muslims as terrorists, even if it’s just a false accusation.
HOWARD GORDON (creator of “24” and “Homeland”): It was brought to my attention pretty quickly from some Muslim Americans: ‘Hey, I like your show , but you have to understand that you’re contributing to this xenophobia by trafficking in this worst fear, the sort of basest fears.’ If nothing else, that started a dialogue — the dawning sense that there’s a responsibility not to just traffic in these not-helpful stereotypes. At the same time, you have the conundrum [that] the show is about counterterrorism.
CHERIEN. DABIS: One of the challenges of casting Middle Easterners these days is that Middle Eastern actors are not considered diverse. So for networks checking off diversity initiatives, Middle Eastern actors are considered white because Middle Eastern people are considered white on the U.S. census. I think it’s one of the reasons networks don’t make it a huge priority to put Middle Easterners in the writers’ room or in front of the camera.
ZARQA NAWAZ (creator of the Canadian series “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” available on Hulu): But I have great hope for the future. I pitched a show to one of the networks about a Muslim family, and I was told by the executive, “There is no way an American network is going to have a Muslim woman with a hijab on television. Get her out. We will not do it.” And then I watch “Quantico” [which has a main character in a hijab]. I’m like, ‘Oh my god. I’ve been vindicated.’