Panel analyzes Muslims in entertainment

Nov. 4, 2011, 2:45 a.m.

While Hollywood has backed away from some of the more negative depictions of Islam in recent years, the industry has not replaced these stereotypical Muslim characters with more accurate portrayals, according to Camille Alick, program director of Muslims on Screen and Television (MOST).

“So the flat terrorist that you would’ve seen 10 years ago, they’ve stepped back,” Alick said. “In fact, there was a research study done recently that said most of [the terrorists] being depicted now are white, home-grown terrorists, but we still need more authentic and diverse depictions [of Muslims].”

This comment was made Thursday at a panel discussion about how Islam is represented in wide range of media platforms, including film, television and print journalism. The event was the first in a series called “We the People: Islam and U.S. Politics” which the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies is hosting throughout the 2011-2012 academic year. The American Studies Project also co-sponsored the night’s talk.

Vincent Barletta, the event’s moderator and a professor of Iberian and Latin American cultures, said the series was especially important given that 2012 will be an election year. He said he hoped the series would give the audience information and a chance for reflection before they voted next November.

Michael Wolfe, co-founder of Unity Productions Foundations, said that the “misleading and sometimes inflammatory stories” about Islam are primarily being generated by a “small number of anti-Muslim muckrakers financed by large entities behind the scenes.”

He said Internet bloggers and AM radio broadcasters will often create negative Muslim stories that are then picked up by major cable news stations. He cited the recent Koran burning in Florida and the debate over a mosque near Ground Zero as two stories started by bloggers that did not merit attention by the national press.

“I think it’s about defeating [President] Barack Obama by implicating him in something that is ‘un-American,’” Wolfe said, referring to the fact that many online bloggers have claimed Obama is a Muslim despite the fact Obama has publicly stated he is a member of the United Church of Christ. “And if you can link Islam to something that is un-American, then you got your argument right there.”

Wolfe said that he did see hope for more accurate Muslim depictions, especially in television.

“There was no Daily Show in the 1950s,” he said. “There was no Colbert Report. There was no PBS either.”

As a result of these shows, he said Americans have developed “pretty good crap detectors.” Alick agreed, showing clips from CBS’s The Good Wife, one of the shows she said had been making advancements in representing Muslims. According to Alick, television had a great capacity to change people’s perception of the world.

“Everyone knows this is fiction. This is not reality,” she said. “But these shows get 20 million viewers a week, and they watch television and believe what they see, even if it’s a fictional story.”

She said a lot of work is currently focused on getting positive depictions of Muslims in video games, noting that it is a $40 billion a year industry. According to Alick, there’s very little diversity of any kind in video games because they are primarily both consumed and designed by “35-year-old white males.”

Wolfe said he is currently collaborating with Umair Khan–who previously developed a game for Facebook called SecretBuilders–on a medieval adventure game that takes place during a Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.

He said Facebook and other mobile platforms are helping to level the playing field.

Joel Brinkley, professor in communication who has reported extensively abroad, spoke about the portrayals of Muslims in print journalism. He said journalists are told never to impose their own values on other cultures when they are reporting, but that this can often become complicated.

“There’s an aphorism we use to describe what we do as journalists: We don’t write about the planes that don’t crash,” he said. “We write about the things that are unusual.”

“As much as we try not to judge other countries based on our own values, what’s news to me is always going to be different between what is news to the people in the country I cover,” Brinkley said.

Wolfe, however, commented that this often means that only negative stories are told about Muslims in the news.

“What you are describing is a neurological fact: Neurologists reckon that it takes 14 positive impressions to wipe out one negative impression,” Wolf said. “If, as Brinkley says, we are involved, in print journalism and journalism in general, in not writing about the planes that fly but only writing about the one that went down…then from my point of view, entertainment can be a kind of counterbalance to that.”

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