Redefining Muslim Roles on Film

A scene from “The Taqwacores,” a recent film about Muslims in America.

Hassan Mahdi is not a member of a jihadi sleeper cell. He is not plotting to blow up a financial center or take passengers hostage aboard a 747. Instead, he’s distraught by his divorce, saddened by his son’s departure for college, and fearful that his daughter will abandon her family’s religious beliefs. The protagonist in Mooz-lum, a semi-autobiographical film by Qasim Basir that explores the life of a contemporary Muslim American family, Mahdi (Roger Guenveur Smith) resembles a lot of other parents in America.

The movie, also starring Danny Glover and Nia Long, is part of a new wave of films and TV shows that offer complex portraits of Muslims in America. For years, critics have accused Hollywood of being too narrow in its depiction of Muslim characters. Yet as the U.S. continues to grapple with the role of Muslims in American life, that’s beginning to change. “It’s almost comical how stereotypical Muslims have become in American culture,” says Basir. “Hopefully, the discussion can go from fear and ignorance to enlightenment.” A growing number of writers, critics, and artists have begun to push for a more realistic portrayal of Muslims. And slowly, they are succeeding.

That discussion started before 9/11 but intensified afterward, says Jack Shaheen, author of Reel Bad Arabs, a 2001 book analyzing the appearance of Arabs in films. Americans became curious about Islam; many bookstores reported a sharp increase in Quran sales after 9/11. Initially, that curiosity gave rise to a greater number of stereotypical Muslim roles, as terrorists on programs such as Fox’s 24, for instance. Says Shaheen: “9/11 very successfully vilified Muslims. Decent American Muslims became a threat to their own country.”

These portrayals have not disappeared. But they have become less prevalent; the flat Muslims who serve as either terrorists or belly dancers are no longer convincing to audiences anymore, says Suhad Obeidi of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), which works with actors, directors, writers, and producers to portray accurate Muslim characters.

After the first few controversial seasons of 24, MPAC set up a meeting with producer Howard Gordon in 2005. “We’re not demanding perfect Muslims on the show,” Obeidi recalls telling him. “We just want accuracy.” The conversation, Obeidi says, led to new characters—including a peace-seeking Middle Eastern leader played by the popular Bollywood actor Anil Kapoor. Faran Tahir, who played the villain Raza in Iron Man and has appeared in various TV series, including Grey’s Anatomy, says the nature of the roles he’s offered has shifted. “In the last five or six years, I have approached people during a production to say that there is no real reason for my ‘bad guy’ character to be Muslim. And they’ve listened to me, which is progress.”

Much of the progress is due to American Muslims who have focused on aspects of their lives that make them human rather than Muslim. In the 2009 documentary New Muslim Cool, producer Jennifer Maytorena Taylor de-picts Hamza Perez’s struggles as a drug dealer and the message he tries to convey via hip-hop. “When we screened the film in Italy, one woman told me that she didn’t know Muslims were allowed to make jokes,” recalls Taylor. “Which just reinforced for me that films like these are necessary.” Others have seized the baton; Eyad Zahra’s film The Taqwacores, about a Muslim American punk group, showed at Sundance this year. And judging from Mooz-lum, Basir has a long career ahead of him.

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