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Abdul-Jabaar writes: "Muslims have had a great run being portrayed as rabid, merciless terrorists. That's what Americans saw in movies and television shows from True Lies to 24 to Homeland."

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (photo: Austin Hargrave/August)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (photo: Austin Hargrave/August)

'The Big Sick' and Hollywood's Muslim-American Renaissance

By Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, The Hollywood Reporter

11 January 18

The NBA Hall of Famer and THR columnist, a practitioner of Islam since college, is hopeful that the Kumail Nanjiani starrer and Aziz Ansari's 'Master of None' are bringing an end to portrayals of the devoted as "rabid, merciless terrorists" onscreen.

omething there is that doesn't love a wall," an apple farmer observes in the opening to Robert Frost's Mending Wall. That line, indeed that poem, is the spiritual essence of America: a country founded on a sacred mission to tear down walls that needlessly separate neighbors. There are all kinds of walls, from the $70 billion physical wall that Trump wants to build to walls that one-percenters build to keep their money in (they don't call it Wall Street for nothing). But the most formidable wall of all is the Perception Wall of false images and ideas that nurtures fears and prejudices about other groups based on religion, ethnicity, national origin or gender identity.

Muslims have had a great run being portrayed as rabid, merciless terrorists. That's what Americans saw in movies and television shows from True Lies to 24 to Homeland. That is the image of Muslims many Americans still cling to. Even with the many recent positive portrayals of Muslim-Americans in the arts, it takes time for images to dilute the poison that's been mixed in for so long. Every time the news reports that a Muslim has been involved in a terrorist attack, the prejudice stored in our body sweats through the pores and reheats our fear. And yet, as of Nov. 6, there were 307 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2017, the majority by white Christian men. When a generic white man fires 1,100 bullets into a Las Vegas crowd, killing 58 and injuring 546, we have nowhere to go with our anger or fear. We can't be on the lookout for every disaffected white Christian male. We can't profile them. But we think we know what Muslims look like (though vigilantes have often mistakenly targeted non-Muslims), so our mistrust more easily takes a human form. We prefer our villains with a physical Cain-like identifier — dark skin, large nose, prayer hat, veil, foreign accent — to clarify that they're not one of Us. The irony is most Americans are descended from a persecuted group.

But looking at current portrayals in pop culture, I feel pretty hopeful about the future. Quantico featured twin Muslim women, one who wore a hijab. Aziz Ansari's Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning Netflix comedy Master of None is a bold and necessary show because it is not only exceptionally funny and heartwarming in its portrayal of the title character from a Muslim family, it's relentless in showing the protagonist's immaturity and foibles. His daily conflicts are just like everyone else's. While Jerry Seinfeld's fictional parents were Jewish noodges, Ansari's are Muslim noodges.

The Big Sick, one of the best films of 2017, was co-written by and stars Pakistan-born, Muslim-raised Kumail Nanjiani. The movie, an autobiographical fictional adaptation of Nanjiani meeting his future wife that scored a SAG Award nomination for its cast is funny and touching. It portrays a Muslim family in a comic and endearing way. HBO's Emmy-winning The Night Of presented a nuanced, complex view of Muslim-American life. The comic book Ms. Marvel offers a Muslim-American girl from New Jersey who practices her faith while using her superpowers to help people. The Green Lantern Corps has Simon Baz, the first Muslim Green Lantern. Monica Chang, a Black Widow and ex-wife of SHIELD leader Nick Fury, is the head of SHIELD's A.I. division — and a Muslim.

These representations of Muslim-Americans are not meant to indoctrinate, as some politicians have fearfully warned. Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan administration official who has ties to the Trump administration, has stated that the Muslim Brotherhood controls Muslim-Americans and wants to replace the Constitution with Sharia law. Does anyone watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and decide to become Jewish? Does anyone watch Breaking Amish and suddenly shut off their electricity? Many shows that feature specific faith communities are more about lovingly poking fun at their heritage than exploring the theology.

At the end of Mending Wall, the apple farmer describes the unwillingness of the closed-minded neighbor to see anything beyond tradition: "He moves in darkness as it seems to me/Not of woods only and the shade of trees." It is that darkness of perception that we must overcome. And that light has to be shed from the television and movie screens as they continue to illuminate how Muslim-Americans are just like all other Americans yearning to breathe free. your social media marketing partner


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+13 # Caliban 2018-01-11 13:55
Kareem Abdul-Jabaar for President -- 2020.

Let's have literacy, understanding, and humanity in the Oval office.
+3 # randrjwr 2018-01-12 13:05
Quoting Caliban:
Kareem Abdul-Jabaar for President -- 2020.

Let's have literacy, understanding, and humanity in the Oval office.

Here, here!! (Or is it Hear, Hear?)

I just saw Kareem interviewed by Trevor Noah and I have followed him closely on RSN. He is truly a great American and would make a far better President than the current one with a s---hole in his s---head.

How about Oprah as his VP?
+5 # Working Class 2018-01-11 18:51
Once again Kareem, thank you for your thoughtful and heartfelt contribution to our much needed national conversation about the future of our society. You force us to ask important questions. Whether you are a muslim, a christian, an agnostic or atheist we all need to look inside our hearts and ask what prejudices have been instilled in me. How would I like to be treated? The answer we collectively come up with will determine whether our future is filled with hope or fear. Thanks again friend. ps: As a diehard COUG I watched you and your teammates dominate at Bohler Gym - I forgive you.
0 # Working Class 2018-01-11 19:02
Worth a watch and refection:
+5 # economagic 2018-01-11 21:20
Amen, Kareem. As usual, your commentary is among the most g\thoughtful and well informed in the public sphere today.
+5 # elkingo 2018-01-11 23:38
Bravo again Kareem! A beautiful restatement of the nostrum against prejudice. And it needs to be restated endlessly.
+4 # they said what? 2018-01-12 10:08
Thank you, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar.

But I have a few bones to pick with your arguments.

(1) The assumption that we all, or most of us, profile Muslims as terrorists. (Of course, if we did not treat Muslim countries as entitlements, there might not be any Muslim terrorism.)

I am coming to realize that a lot of people never bought into profiling Muslims. And as time goes on, and non-Muslims meet and interact with more Muslims, most people recognize their common humanity.

(2) "We can't be on the lookout for every disaffected white Christian male. We can't profile them."

Actually, since they are the biggest threat in this country, I think FBI and other profiling efforts should center on further narrowing down characteristics so law enforcement can identify those White Christian Males who might be a threat. (Unfortunately, many white male Christian law enforcement officers are part of the problem.)

I am tired of the focus on Muslims, Black Lives Matters and social and environmental justice activists as "terrorists", when the greatest threat comes from a certain type of White Christian Male. Even when WCMs are not a terrorist threat, oppression by WCMs has had and is having a huge negative impact on many other people's rights and lives.
+1 # randrjwr 2018-01-12 16:49
You have nailed the root cause of all "our troubles" in the Middle East with your sentence in (1):

"(Of course, if we did not treat Muslim countries as entitlements, there might not be any Muslim terrorism.)"

It goes back at least to the Versailles Treaty of 1919 and was exacerbated by all the oil discoveries and the bowing down to the Balfour Doctrine.

I also agree completely with your second point. There are many, many "very fine people" that need to be carefully watched.
+3 # Wise woman 2018-01-12 21:35
I beg to differ about no organized religion preaching war. The Catholic church did for years and by innuendo, protestants have done the same. Onward Christian Soldiers was a hymn we sang regularly when I was a child. It has been removed from the hymnal. An undercurrent of Christian religiosity invades every branch of the military beginning with the Star Spangled Banner. Bombs bursting in mid air does not connote peace. The entire foundation of our country is built on war and continues to this day.

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