In Depth

Diverse Voices: Taking the Initiative to Better Muslim Characters

When you write a TV show about a hero who saves the United States from terrorist threats, you’ve got to have bad guys for the hero to fight. For many television and film writers, the terrorists du jour are Muslim and Islamic extremists.

Howard Gordon, executive producer of the hit Fox series “24,” never thought much about how TV portrayals affect people’s perceptions of others until one season’s storyline featured an Arab American family accused of being a terrorist cell. That caused Islamic fans of the show as well as advocacy groups to loudly criticize the network and the show.

“We were accused of fear mongering and xenophobia,” said Gordon, who met with critics and began to understand their point of view. “We’re doing a show that deals with terrorism, and learned that portrayals can have a damaging effect on the viewing public. So we addressed the issue directly in a PSA that Kiefer [Sutherland] read on-air. We also broadened the story by showing innocent Muslims who were victimized by redneck xenophobes.”

All too often, the public hears “Arab American,” “Muslim” or “Islamic” and thinks of a homogenous group of extremists. Actually, Arab Americans are U.S. citizens whose ancestry stems from one or more of 22 countries in the Arab world, ranging from Morocco in North Africa to Iraq in southwest Asia. A Muslim is defined by faith in the religion of Islam, and is not necessarily of Arab ancestry.

Today, Gordon is speaking out on behalf of the Hollywood Engagement Initiative, co-founded by the Arts & Culture Initiative of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution; Unity Productions Foundation; One Nation for All Foundation; and the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. The initiative will help provide writers and other industry professionals with accurate information for storylines about Muslims and Islam.

Gordon recently attended the fifth U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar, which brought together various political and cultural leaders to discuss how the arts can affect world diplomacy. The gathering, which brought together the likes of a Palestinian rapper, an Iranian filmmaker and an Egyptian broadcast executive, solidified Gordon’s commitment to responsible portrayal of Arab Americans in the media.

Cynthia P. Schneider, director of the Arts & Culture Initiative at Brookings and former U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands during the Clinton administration, said the divide between the United States and the Muslim world is growing because of a lack of understanding that is fueled by popular culture.

“Our popular culture is so popular, and reaches so many people in the world, we think the entertainment industry should take it more seriously,” Schneider said. “We want stories to include characters that humanize Arab Americans. In writing screenplays, can writers find a way to include Arab Americans, even in incidental roles, that are more positive in nature?”

Dalia Mogahed, author of “Who Speaks for Islam?” as well as senior analyst and executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, said research shows people around the world feel that they know Americans through our television programs, just as American beliefs often are shaped by what they see on TV.

“In some ways, Hollywood reflects public sentiment, and in some ways, it shapes it,” Mogahed said. “If people know a Muslim, or a member of any group, it correlates to a more positive impression of that group. In the absence of that, what fills the vacuum is stereotypes.”

Gordon said “24” will not have a Muslim terrorist this season. Through the years, he noted, the show has cast a wide net with its villains, portraying everyone from Russians and Germans to Chinese and disgruntled American vets as the bad guys.

“We’ve made progress with diversity, but have a way to go,” Gordon said. “You tend to default to the familiar, and the people you know. Most showrunners would tell you they’re proponents of a pluralistic society. I think it’s just laziness. With a little gentle reminder, you can go a long way toward ameliorating this problem.”

Gordon admitted his writing staff, which has been together for six years, is not diverse. “It’s all men, all over 40,” he said. “A couple of Cubans, if you consider that diverse. You have to draw the line between affirmative action and social responsibility, and getting the job done. Sometimes the urgency of the production process doesn’t allow you to pursue the most fair-minded hiring policies.”

When it comes to walking the talk, it’s easy to see why showrunners are reluctant to be on the front lines of diversity advocacy. It’s hard to make the decision to not hire a friend in order to add diversity to your staff when you have a limited budget.

But such decisions are part of what being a leader entails. Otherwise, those who ignore gentle reminders may find themselves cast as the bad guys on the firing line.

Dinah Eng is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who writes a syndicated column for Gannett News Service.