Changing the stereotypical media Muslim narrative
By Julia Sarcinelli
Every seat was filled in the McCarthy Center Forum when Jawaad Abdul Rahman gave a lecture titled “Stories over Stereotypes – Changing the Narrative of Muslims through Film & TV” on Wednesday, Feb.1.
His talk was the first Presidential Series Lecture of the semester.
Abdul Rahman, producer and development director for Unity Productions Foundation (UPF), said the Muslim community is diverse, but that diversity isn’t shown on TV or in film.
He began his lecture by telling the story of the famous baseball player Lou Gehrig, who was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral clerosis (ALS), which was later popularly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Abdul Rahman said many people know the story of Lou Gehrig, but they don’t know about Teepu Siddique, a Muslim neurologist who immigrated to America from Pakistan, and made the breakthrough discovery by finding the cause of ALS.
He said, “Where is Dr. Siddique on TV? Not Dr. Siddique himself, but where is the essence of what he represents on all the various medical dramas that are out there? Why isn’t his story known?”
He added Siddique “is exceptional, no doubt. But he’s not exceptional in many ways in that there have been Muslims who have been contributing to this country in diverse ways, and just being human beings, just being a part of this country, and their stories are largely unknown.”
Abdul Rahman said a reason these stories aren’t told is “there is clearly an extremist tendency” when it comes to portraying Muslims.
“There are incidents around the world that we hear about, but how much of that represents the totality, the reality of who Muslims are?” he asked.
UPF, the non-profit Abdul Rahman works for, is a company that creates mostly historical
documentaries, but also works with TV writers, from shows such as “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.”
Abdul Rahman showed clips from TV shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Bones,” “The Simpsons,” and more that featured Muslim characters.
He said UPF worked with writers from the scripted drama “Army Wives” to help create the dialogue for an Iraqi Muslim girl who was being sponsored by an American family so she could get the surgery she needed in America.
Abdul Rahman said one of the writers suggested the Iraqi girl could be amazed by the television set in the American family’s home. However, UPF said since Iraq has had TV for 50 years that wouldn’t make much sense.
Instead, they created a connection between the Iraqi girl and the American girl by having the American show which direction was East, and setting up a prayer mat for the Iraqi girl. He said instead of being silly, it becomes a touching moment between the two girls.
“The point is that the next time someone sees a Muslim woman who’s wearing a headscarf or a hijab in the mall or campus or whatever, instead of feeling a sense of pity she might feel like, ‘She could be my friend,’” he said.
He added, “It’s not about a single show. It’s about having more and more and more characters.”
Abdul Rahman also spoke about how American Muslims are made up of a diverse group of people, including African Americans and nationalities. He also spoke about the history of Islam and the Nation of Islam in America, and the presentation of Muslims in the media.
Freshman Xavier Santos asked Abdul Rahman what his thoughts were on the portrayal of Muslims in the books “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Abundant Suns.”
Abdul Rahman said those books are “both really interesting” but it becomes problematic “when that’s the only representation.”
Another audience member asked how UPF is trying to help the world understand Muslims.
He responded, “Our goal is not to help the rest of the world understand our religion, per say. Our goal is to work with and develop stories and characters that are part of the understanding of what we have of each other as human beings.
“If America is a class portrait, the faces that are missing from the class portrait are the Muslim faces. What we’re trying to do is show a diverse character, so over time people get a better understanding and kind of familiarize and humanize who Muslims are,” he said.
Sandra Rahman, marketing professor, said the timing of this lecture “could not have been better planned. Since September 11, 2001, Muslims of the United States have been targeted as terrorists. ... This stereotype has led to, in part, the election of a candidate who ran on the theme of creating a Muslim registry and banning other Muslims from entering the United States.”
She added, “Stereotypes lead to actions, and our actions shape our national identity and values. TV and film has always influenced the way America has seen itself.”
FSU President F. Javier Cevallos applauded Abdul Rahman at the end of the lecture.
He said, “Our main goal at Framingham State University continues to be to support everyone, regardless of national origin, religious identity, faith, whatever. We respect every single person. It has always been my motto and continues to be my motto.”