When Jennifer Zobair sat down to write her first novel, she already had a muse in mind for the heroine, a glamorous, foul-mouthed Muslim woman whose high-profile job in Boston politics is on the line after a terrorist attack.
The character, Zainab, was inspired in part by Muslim political operative Huma Abedin, a longtime aide to Hillary Clinton and vice chairwoman of Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Zainab and her fictional friends struggle to balance their high-pressure jobs with family expectations, like many real-life Muslim girlfriends of the author, an Iowa-born convert to Islam. And although terrorists are central to the plot, Zobair said, she was determined not to let them overshadow the romance at the heart of the story.
“I was thinking of people with anti-Muslim views and thought, ‘Can I change that? What would it take?’ ” Zobair recalled in an interview at her home in Virginia. “Well, it’s got to be love.”
Unfortunately for Zobair, her book, “Painted Hands,” was released in spring 2013, coinciding with the Boston marathon bombing, in which two radicalized Muslim brothers killed three people and wounded more than 250. Reviewers wouldn’t touch a Muslim love story set in Boston, Zobair said. And so she watched as the novel she’d hoped would introduce book clubs to the unseen lives of ordinary Muslim families instead got lost in the nonstop coverage of homegrown terrorists.
“It was sad because the publicist kept saying, ‘This is a time where people need to read your book, because it’s showing what Muslim American lives are like in a way that people don’t see,’ ” Zobair said. “But we just could not get any traction. It was just really unfortunate timing.”
This unhappy ending is familiar to Muslims across the arts who are struggling to diversify depictions of Islam only to confront hardened stereotypes and a lack of executive-level support across the creative fields. In more than a dozen interviews, Muslims working in mass media named three common archetypes representing a faith with more than a billion followers: the terrorist “bad Muslim,” the hyper-patriotic “good Muslim,” and the oppressed woman yearning for liberation.
The past couple of years have yielded a handful of breakout moments, but representation of Islam remains overwhelmingly narrow and negative – a problem that’s not only unjust on its own, but one that also stokes anti-Muslim prejudices at home and gives ammunition to jihadist recruiters abroad, according to media critics and counter-extremism specialists.
“Let’s use our heads here and think about the enemy in this case,” said Jack Shaheen, a media scholar who has tracked depictions of Arabs and Muslims for 40 years and is widely considered the nation’s foremost expert on the subject. “Every time an American leader or TV show vilifies American Muslims or Arabs, that’s a propaganda tool to say, ‘See what America thinks of you? See how Americans talk about you? We’re ISIS, we’re ISIL, we love you, come to us.’
“It’s dangerous,” Shaheen continued. “Why is there this reluctance to attack this bigotry at the highest levels?”
During his landmark visit to a Baltimore mosque in February, President Barack Obama drew applause when he noted the “hugely distorted impression” left by programs that show Muslims only in the context of terrorism.
“Our television shows should have some Muslim characters that are unrelated to national security,” he said.
Not two weeks after Obama’s remarks, however, ‘The X-Files’ became the latest TV show to cast Muslims as extremists, in this case militants who blow up an art gallery in Texas. Muslim sci-fi fans vented on social media about what they called gratuitous, nonsensical religious references in the storyline, as if the script writers had gone out of their way to make American Muslims seem foreign and dangerous.
“We are doing all these normal things that you don’t pay attention to,” Zobair said of the absence of mainstream Muslim roles. “We’re a part of you. When you keep this narrative up, you’re keeping us all from knowing each other.”
Zobair, who grew up Catholic, said her embrace of Islam came from the heart – first through the close friendship of a Kuwaiti woman at Smith College and, later, through her marriage to a Pakistani American from a conservative Muslim family. In suburban Virginia, the couple has built a modern Muslim family that doesn’t fit the Hollywood tropes: South Asian attorney dad, unveiled blonde novelist mom, their two biological children and an African-American son they adopted.
Their multicultural household isn’t an anomaly – because of the diversity of Muslims in the United States, intermarriage is common among Arabs, South Asians, Central Asians and African Americans. However, Zobair said, you wouldn’t know that from the limited depictions on TV or in the movies.
Perhaps that’s why, gradually, despite the unfortunate timing and lack of promotion, Zobair’s novel drew notice in the burgeoning world of Muslim-focused women’s fiction, or “Muslim chick lit.” Fellow Muslims weren’t necessarily Zobair’s target readers, but they’re the ones who began emailing.
“Muslim women started writing to me, saying, ‘This is the first time I identified with a character in a book,’ ” Zobair said. “And then people started writing to say thank you for making Muslims look normal. And that was really sad. ‘To look normal.’ Like, for the first time, we’re not terrorists.”
With the exception of “Quantico,” media critics said, TV shows about federal agents are the worst for pigeonholing Muslims as terrorists. Think “Sleeper Cell,” “24,” “Sue Thomas: F.B. Eye,” “The Agency,” “The Unit,” and, more recently, Showtime’s Emmy-winning “Homeland.”
“It’s not just one or two. It’s hundreds of representations,” said Evelyn Alsultany, director of Arab and Muslim American Studies at the University of Michigan and author of the book, “The Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11.” “We as viewers have been seeing Arabs and Muslims as strange, exotic and threatening for over a century.”
An attempt to recast the roles, building a show around a sympathetic Muslim law enforcement agent, is no easy task, as the acclaimed writer Dave Eggers learned in an ill-fated pitch for an HBO show about a Yemeni-American cop in San Francisco. Eggers and his partner on the project, the Muslim commentator and playwright Wajahat Ali, envisioned “an unusual creation for unusual times that deliberately upended formulaic conventions.”
Long story short, competing concepts for the show never meshed and HBO ended up returning the rights to Eggers and Ali at their request. Ali concluded in an essay in The Atlantic that their pilot didn’t work in large part because it defied popular genres in which “the vast majority of American Muslims and the wealth of their diverse experiences have been reduced to stock characters in predictable narratives.”
Until Obama’s comments in February, there had been little national discussion of the issue, save for a flurry of interest in October 2015, when two artists seized the chance to protest Homeland’s depictions of the Middle East and Muslims. Hired to add Arabic graffiti to a Homeland set depicting a refugee camp on the Lebanon-Syria border, the artists instead wrote slogans in Arabic such as “Homeland is racist.”
No one spotted the prank, so the graffiti made it into a broadcast that reached millions of homes. The story quickly circulated on social media, forcing “Homeland” creators to confront Muslims’ frustrations with the show. “Homeland” producer Alex Gansa told the entertainment magazine Deadline that he’d wished producers had been more alert, but also expressed grudging admiration for “this act of artistic sabotage.” “Homeland” executives did not respond to requests for comment.
One of the artists involved, Heba Amin, said she doubts that the incident led to any real soul-searching on behalf of the “Homeland” team – and that wasn’t the point.
“The point was to start a discussion that is, in fact, happening, and to shine the light on a show that is totally absurd but obscenely popular,” Amin said. “In this case, I think we did our job.”
‘The Cosby Show moment’
Rather than wait for the studios and publishing houses and screenwriters to come around, Muslims like Zobair are taking it upon themselves to flesh out Hollywood’s slim portraits, creating an unprecedented wave of Muslim-produced literary, TV, online and film work.
At Columbia University, The Muslim Protagonist symposium just celebrated its fourth year as a rare space in the United States where Muslims speak openly about the shared, hard-to-articulate feeling of being at once painfully absent from and conspicuously present in mass media.
Literary-minded Muslim students launched the conference in 2012 after their college experience was upended by revelations that they were among the targets of a New York Police Department surveillance operation. The original founders have since graduated but remain involved; one of them, Haris Durrani, last month won the prestigious McSweeney’s Student Short Story Contest.
“The NYPD narrative at the time made us so vilified, so the Muslim Protagonist was a way, in my mind, to reclaim our narrative. And the only way to do that is by telling our own stories,” said co-founder Mirzya Syed, who’s working on a memoir. “There’s so much that our community has experienced and it’s a shame that it’s not there in pop culture – and yet there’s going to be a third remake of Spider-Man.”
Some Muslim artists put Islam at the center of their projects, while others, such as superstar Zayn Malik – the former One Direction singer that TV host Bill Maher compared to the Boston Marathon bombers – prefer to keep their faith in the background.
In a direct challenge to stereotypes about “subservient” Muslim women, many of the projects are anchored by strong-willed, independent women, such as Zobair’s rebel Zainab.
In the comics world, Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teenager with shapeshifting abilities, is the first Muslim heroine to assume the Ms. Marvel title and the first Muslim superhero to headline a major comic-book series.
In gaming, where favorites such as “Call of Duty” are notorious for vilifying Islam, an entertainment company bankrolled by a Saudi prince is developing “Saudi Girls Revolution,” a mobile game and digital series about seven Saudi warrior women, including a lesbian, who race through a post-apocalyptic landscape on souped-up motorcycles.
And two Muslim women who wear headscarves, or hijab, made ripples in reality television: Amanda Saab on Masterchef and Aidah (her last name wasn’t publicized) on Home Free. On social media, Muslim viewers rejoiced that the shows focused on their abilities as contestants. Islam, for once, was incidental.
“There are bright spots,” said Elsultany, of the University of Michigan. “But I do feel like the efforts that have been made brought no real impact, as we see now with the hateful rhetoric. It’s just stunning.”
Muslim writers and artists agreed that they haven’t yet reached what some regard as their “Cosby Show moment,” a breakthrough hit that transforms mainstream thinking about Islam the way “The Cosby Show” challenged images of African Americans.
The comedian Aasif Mandvi, a regular on The Daily Show, made a tongue-in-cheek reference to that goal with his web series “Halal in the Family,” described as “a sitcom parody about an all-American Muslim family.” The last name of the fictional family is, “Qu’osby.”
Mandvi said there are now enough American Muslims in media and entertainment to be able to push through some better roles. Rather than dwell on the projects that never got off the ground, he said, they should keep trying for that hit that will propel them into the mainstream.
“You have to keep on creating stuff. It’s about a zeitgeist moment,” Mandvi said in a phone interview. “We’re in a period of time right now where Hollywood, maybe for the first time in a long time, is looking at diversity in another way, with the #OscarsSoWhite movement. This conversation is happening.”
The slow evolution in roles can be seen in the USA network’s “Mr. Robot,” in which an Egyptian-American actor plays a computer programmer who struggles with the moral questions of his secret life as a vigilante hacker. The one obviously Muslim character is Trenton, an Iranian-American woman whose role is written to focus on her hacking skills, not her headscarf.
The show’s Egyptian-American creator, Sam Esmail, thanked his family in Arabic when “Mr. Robot” won this year’s Golden Globe award for best TV drama. Muslim fans of the show delighted in hearing the language of the Quran broadcast on national television from one of Hollywood’s biggest events.
“Just wait till I win my Golden Globe and I yell, ‘Allahu Akbar!’ ” said Mandvi, with a chuckle. “I’m so ready!”