It has never been easy to put a Muslim character on US screens.
Even in this TV renaissance, most characters are on shows that rely on terrorism — or at least, terrorist-adjacent — storylines. Other kinds of Muslim characters are woefully absent across the dial. Could that change now, after a divisive presidential campaign that included vows by Donald Trump to stop immigration of Muslims? Or will it be more difficult than ever?
Less than two weeks after Election Day, five showrunners gathered in New York to discuss the representation of Muslims on TV.
Howard Gordon, a creator of 24 and Homeland, has faced these issues the longest; after 24 emerged as a lightning rod for its stereotyped depictions, he engaged with Islamic community groups to broaden his understanding. Gordon is an executive producer of the rebooted 24: Legacy, debuting in February.
Joshua Safran is the creator of Quantico, an ABC series about FBI operatives.
Aasif Mandvi, an actor and former correspondent for The Daily Show, is adapting his comedy Halal in the Family for an animated series.
Zarqa Nawaz is the creator of the Canadian series Little Mosque on the Prairie.
Cherien Dabis, a filmmaker known for her 2009 indie Amreeka, about a Palestinian single mother who immigrates to the United States, was a writer on Quantico and now works on Empire. She took part via FaceTime from Los Angeles.
The conversation was thoughtful, anxious and determined. All seemed well aware of the stakes.
“It’s really popular culture that impacts how people feel about one other,” said Sue Obeidi, director of the Hollywood bureau of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which works with networks and studios to promote Muslim voices.
These are edited excerpts.
Melena Ryzik: Let’s start by talking about your role as artists. Beyond telling a good story, what is your responsibility — especially with an incoming Trump administration? Do you feel that your job is to reflect society or to move ideas forward?
Joshua Safran: Both. We had this long talk the day after the election, in the writers’ room, about how the show is about terrorism. We were there for hours. We were crying, and it was really tough. How do you go in there and talk about what terrorists are going to do today? You just don’t want to do that. I don’t want to watch a show about terrorism now. I called the network and I said, ‘Can we change the show?’ They said yes. We’re changing the show so that it can represent, in a dark time, more hope.
Aasif Mandvi: I think it becomes a difficult conversation, especially for somebody who is from a Muslim background. As an artist, you want to stay true to the narrative, and sometimes that goes against your activist agenda, which is to promote this positive image of Muslims. At the same time, to balance that with a truth that exists, in terms of my own experience with Islam, which may not always be necessarily positive.
Zarqa Nawaz: That is exactly what I was worried about when I made Little Mosque on the Prairie. I said, I’m going to talk about a mosque where the imam is going to be pro-woman, pro-young people, against this misogyny.
There was a lot of worry in the Muslim community — well, if you start to wash our dirty laundry in public, then everyone will say, ‘Oh, we always knew.’ But the opposite started happening, because the show was about a whole Muslim community, the good and the bad. And so they started seeing them as full human beings. What they started saying to me was, “This reminds me of my community, my synagogue, my church, my temple. We have the same exact debate you guys have.”
Howard Gordon: The specificity of your story allowed you to tell that story and make that specific story universal. When you’re doing a show about terrorism — in the case of 24, there was an accidental resonance. We were well into [creating] the first season when 9/11 happened, so the meaning of it changed so radically.
It was brought to my attention pretty quickly from some Muslim Americans: ‘Hey, I like your show, but you have to understand that you’re contributing to this xenophobia by trafficking in this worst fear, the sort of basest fears.’
If nothing else, that started a dialogue — the dawning sense that there’s a responsibility not to just traffic in these not-helpful stereotypes. At the same time, you have the conundrum [that] the show is about counterterrorism.
Cherien Dabis: I think we need real depictions. I was developing a show [in 2013-14] about a Muslim family in Dearborn, [Michigan,] which is the largest community of Arabs outside of the Middle East. I wanted to create this authentic family drama. When I took it into the marketplace, every suggestion was that I needed to have some kind of terrorist component. Ultimately I ended up incorporating it in a way that looked at false accusations of terrorism. But I lost interest in the show because I was like, we can’t keep showing Muslims as terrorists, even if it’s just a false accusation.
Nawaz: Do you remember that show All-American Muslim?
Mandvi: We covered All-American Muslim [a 2011 TLC series] when I was on The Daily Show, because that was a reality show of real Muslim families. Basically everyone was like, ‘This is propaganda trying to promote Muslims as nice, friendly, next-door neighbour people, and we shouldn’t trust these people at all.’ The show ultimately got taken off the air because it lost advertising money.
Nawaz: One guy, David Caton, he created an organisation — the only employee, himself — the Family Florida Association. He sent a letter to all the advertisers saying, ‘This show is propaganda.’
Safran: One guy took that show down?
Mandvi: Specifically, Lowe’s pulled their advertising. And other places as well. We focused on Lowe’s, when we did the story on The Daily Show, because Muslims can buy a lot of terrorist material at Lowe’s.
Mandvi: When I did my one-man show, many years ago, I wanted to write a story about Muslim characters that were not what Hollywood was putting out there. I got that same reaction, ‘Oh, this is my family. I recognise [it].’
And then 9/11 happened, and we made this movie based on the show. And then the show became political because it wasn’t about terrorism. All people wanted to talk about after 9/11 was terrorism ...
Safran: It’s political because it’s not political.
Nawaz: But I have great hope for the future. I pitched a show to one of the networks about a Muslim family, and I was told by the executive, ‘There is no way an American network is going to have a Muslim woman with a hijab on television. Get her out. We will not do it.’ And then I watch Quantico [which has a main character in a hijab]. I’m like, ‘Oh my god. I’ve been vindicated.’
Safran: But it wasn’t about her.
Nawaz: It wasn’t about her, but she just changes the whole show for me, to see a Muslim woman in hijab, being her own person.
Mandvi: My goal is to write a sexy Muslim woman, in hijab.
Ryzik: Are there shows, besides your own, that you thought did a good job in depicting well-rounded Muslim characters?
Nawaz: There was Abed on Community. There was Sayid on Lost. There’s not a lot of them. There’s a book called Reel Bad Arabs, by Jack Shaheen — between the years 1896 to 2000, they analysed a thousand films with Arabs and Muslims, and 12 of them were positive.
Mandvi: When I was working on The Brink, on HBO, I felt like we took great pains to create the character that I played, who is Pakistani, to make his family and him positive. It’s that dilemma: When non-Muslims are writing for some characters, it either becomes they’re terrorists or they’re so PC that they end up writing sanctified characters, who are so good and so well-meaning. We ultimately found that balance, and I think it was good that they had me in the writers’ room because --.
Gordon: You gave them license to actually make him a person.
Ryzik: So, for those of you who are non-Muslim, do you have Muslim writers or producers on your shows?
Gordon: Writers, producers or consultants.
Safran: Season 1 we did. In this season, we don’t have a Muslim writer, actually. I did not want that to happen.
Gordon: I don’t know the statistics, but I think there’s surprisingly a small number of Muslim Writers Guild members.
Nawaz: Historically Muslims have gone into nonartist jobs — for example, medicine.
Mandvi: It’s a cultural thing.
Safran: Yasmine [Al Massri], who plays [the twins] Nimah and Reina [on Quantico,] comes from Lebanon. She grew up in a Muslim household. We bring her to the writers’ room constantly.
I have a question for you guys. For me, one of the biggest stumbling blocks wasn’t how the community approached [that portrayal], it was how the industry talks to us about that — which was very difficult.
Gordon: Really? Without throwing people under the bus?
Safran: Like you were saying, one voice can take down a show. Well, one voice, at some point, tried to get us to change things, and that was very surprising to me, because this was a show that has many points of view. It was eye-opening.
Mandvi: Once there’s that voice that raises that question, ‘Should we do this? Is this going to be good?,’ people who are trying to create something that is more nuanced suddenly feel the pressure.
Safran: That’s exactly what happened. That one person made all of these other people step forward: ‘Is this show not balanced? Is the show tipped in one direction?’ I believe that that would never have been a conversation if the show was tipped in the other direction.
Nawaz: Well, Islamophobes hated Little Mosque on the Prairie — hated it. They were, like: ‘This is terrible. Why is a Canadian network allowing this on television?’ What was interesting for me was the executives. At first, they were like, ‘Make it about white people, because no white people are going to want a show about brown people.’
But then they realised the white people actually wanted the show. They were like, ‘Make it more Muslim, Muslim, Muslim.’
I’m like, I’m running out of ideas! Because we don’t really do that many weird, wacky things. After a certain point, we act like you guys. We’re kind of all the same.
Ryzik: Who must stand up to get a comedy about Muslims on a broadcast network?
Mandvi: I’ve got a couple of shows in development right now, but they’re not on network, they’re on cable.
Safran: Network, forget it. I think that’s never going to happen because the executives are all business people now. They no longer come from a creative place, so their brains can’t even go, ‘I can be at the forefront of something, or I can change something.’ They’re just going, ‘Does this make financial sense?’
Mandvi: On network, you have to create a show about family and not make it about being Muslim, but then sneak it in every now and then — they happen to go to the mosque. You’re allowed one every now and then.
Safran: The very special episodes.
Ryzik: The FBI has said that attacks against Muslims were up 67 per cent last year. Do you have any anxiety about your shows being fodder for that?
Gordon: The short answer is, absolutely, yes.
Ryzik: What can you do to handle that?
Gordon: On Homeland, it’s an ongoing and very important conversation.
For instance, this year, the beginning of it involves the sort of big business of prosecuting entrapment. It actually tests the edges of free speech. How can someone express their discontent with US policy — even a reckless kid who might express his views that may be sympathetic to enemies of America, but still is not, himself, a terrorist, but is being set up to be one by the big business of government?
For me to answer, personally, that question, it’s a difficult one. 24 having been the launching point for me to engage in these conversations, which I have been having for 10 years, and being very conscious about not wanting to be a midwife to these base ideas. We’re all affected, unwittingly, by who we are and how we see the world. It requires creating an environment where people can speak freely about these things. It requires this vigilant empathy.
Safran: For me, it was important to not ever put a Muslim terrorist on our show. There hasn’t been one. This year we have the appearance of one — which is a spoiler. But it’s not true.
Ryzik: Cherien, can you talk about your experience pitching shows?
Dabis: Often it’s, ‘Oh, well, that’s not dramatic enough.’ What they’re saying is that it’s just not sensationalised enough. They want it to be ripped out of the headlines, especially when it comes to Middle Eastern content.
Ryzik: Do you have a stance, when it comes to casting, on whether the actor’s background should match the character’s background?
Gordon: I did a show called Tyrant, one I was not running, but kind of wound up running. The lead was sort of the Arab Godfather, except the family business happened to be the military dictatorship of this country. So, right away, the tone of the show is up for grabs. It was at some level ambitious but ill-conceived, and we wound up casting, in the end, a Brit, who had not a drop of ...
Mandvi: A white guy.
Gordon: A white guy.
Safran: A white guy, right, to play a half-Arab.
Gordon: Why we didn’t find someone [else], I don’t know why. I will call it my inattention, and somehow this happened, and I knew, at some visceral level, this is going to be, among the many challenges, perhaps the greatest challenge.
Mandvi: That is the sort of laziness of Hollywood. I auditioned for that show, and I followed that story. It was that tone deafness. One thing is, white people can play anything.
Safran: Hopefully not anymore.
Mandvi: But it’s been tradition. You’ve got Jake Gyllenhaal playing the Prince of Persia. I can’t play white people, but white people can play me.
Gordon: Can you play a Hispanic person?
Mandvi: Not really. No.
Nawaz: As long as it was a terrorist, yes.
Safran: And I don’t want to pile on Howard, because it’s not his fault, but the thing with Tyrant is that ...
Gordon: I accept.
Safran: What bothered me about Tyrant was that the financing of the show was not contingent on the star — which, by the way, is no excuse, but you sometimes get that as the excuse. I didn’t know who that actor was, so why did that actor have to be white?
Mandvi: When we were doing The Brink, I would push the production to look for South Asian actors in India. There are huge movie stars in India, very good actors.
Most network executives, most showrunners, don’t know these people. So even on The Brink, we ended up casting a Persian actor to play a Pakistani general, who was supposed to speak Urdu and then spoke Urdu really badly. They were like: ‘That’s fine. It’s good.’
Dabis: One of the challenges of casting Middle Easterners these days is that Middle Eastern actors are not considered diverse. So for networks checking off diversity initiatives, Middle Eastern actors are considered white because Middle Eastern people are considered white on the US census. I think it’s one of the reasons networks don’t make it a huge priority to put Middle Easterners in the writers’ room or in front of the camera.
Safran: Here’s the thing: It goes both ways. I think it’s great that we’re being held accountable more now, but at the same time, as a white Jewish writer, I want to be able to write about a wealth of experience. If I am forced to only write from my experience, I’m going to stop writing. Because there’s enough written from my experience. So, should I give up? I don’t want to.
Gordon: I’m feeling that as well.
Nawaz: If you bring in writers with different experiences, you get different stories. For example, I’m going to start growing a henna plant because I’m tired of all these henna powders. To a friend, I said, ‘But you have to dry the leaves and put them in a baggie. Do you think I’ll get caught for weed possession?’
She’s like, ‘Oh my God, you have to put that in a show, because that is hilarious.’ Unless you put someone like me in a show, you’re never going to get that storyline.
Dabis: Obviously, Empire is not my experience, but I’m in a writers’ room that’s so diverse, and I think that’s part of what makes the show work.
Ryzik: Howard, people thought the original 24 had a conservative viewpoint.
Gordon: You know, it was not the intention. We had a writers’ room that did have people who were to the right but also the left. We weren’t taking talking points from Karl Rove, though, you know, Jack Bauer did stuff that was in a long tradition of Clint Eastwood. Suddenly he became the guy who was the poster child for Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. And I had to explain that. Even Homeland — which really tries to talk about the folly of government, of US policy, of misunderstanding, misapprehension, and has been called apologist for normalising that — at the same time it’s also been thought of as racist.
Nawaz: Do you remember the spray, the graffiti [on a Homeland set]?
Gordon: Berlin street artists were dressing the set — what was [meant to be] a refugee camp in Syria — and they said Homeland is a watermelon, which I guess is
an Arabic curse word. Homeland is racist, and Homeland is a watermelon.
Dabis: Well, watermelon in Arabic just kind of means nonsense.
Gordon: Nonsense, OK. I just sat down with the guys, and it was eye-opening. Part of it was just mischief, but part of it started a productive conversation that I think led to this year’s story. I think Alex [Gansa, the showrunner] was so stunned, because this was the last thing in the world he wanted to be a purveyor of. I mean imagine, someone who thinks he is as thoughtful as he possibly can be is being called a watermelon.
Mandvi: Right. But this is the blind spot, right, we all have it.
Ryzik: Howard, you were talking about 24. Given this historical context, and what you know now, do you regret some things?
Gordon: This was the story that we were telling, and so absent taking the show off the air, it’s a hard thing to say.
The short answer is no. I don’t think that we could have done anything differently. I could have left the show. Was my conscience sufficiently bothered that I decided to leave the show? No — I mean I didn’t.
I tried to continue with a new level of understanding. The writing reflected, as best as possible, that new dawning and obviously still primitive awareness.
Ryzik: Let’s talk about our new paradigm. Has the Trump presidency changed the urgency? Are the stakes higher than ever to put a new Muslim show on TV?
Mandvi: It’s imperative.
Gordon: I’m hopeful, but I’m also pretty upset. We want to make sure that we’re not just talking to ourselves here.
Nawaz: I can’t go anywhere, anymore, without people looking at me, going, ‘Why are you just sitting there? Why aren’t you making a show?’
Safran: As if it’s up to you.
Dabis: Now is the time to push forward.