Recasting the way Muslims are seen, one actor at a time

Comedian Ramy Youssef, shown in D.C. in April 2019, has a Hulu show, “Ramy,” which is loosely based on his life as an Egyptian American Muslim millennial from New Jersey who lives with his parents. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Marvin Joseph

In 2013, actor Serena Rasoul found herself on a set where there were no scarves for her or the other women cast as hijabis, Muslim women who wear the hijab, or headscarf. She improvised, but that experience left a mark on her.

“It dawned on me that there isn’t a home for Muslim talent,” Rasoul said. “We had generally been left out of this industry for so long. We were just on the fringes making our own content for our own spaces, not really entering the mainstream until the last five years or so.”

She didn’t act on the thought right away. “I didn’t even think it was possible to shift or move this industry, let alone influence it,” she said.

But after the death of George Floyd in police custody in May 2020, she said, “We really started to see a racial reckoning, an injustice reckoning, of multiple industries opening up, and I thought it was the perfect time to take that discomfort that I felt and channel it into something meaningful.”

Although there are Muslim advocacy groups and Arab American casting agencies, none of the latter were focused on changing stereotypes of Muslims in TV and film. So, Rasoul, who lives in Virginia and works as an international trade analyst by day, began to build a broad roster of Muslim and Middle Eastern, Southwest Asian and North African talent that includes actors, writers, directors, technicians, sound editors and costume designers. On Jan. 21 – the day after the Biden administration repealed what has widely become known as the “Muslim ban,” which barred entry to the United States to citizens of several majority-Muslim and other countries – she launched the talent agency Muslim American Casting.

What started as a side gig has turned into a much larger endeavor: Actors from the United States and beyond have been getting in touch with Rasoul in hopes of landing roles that are better suited to their needs and aspirations. She is working with three clients: two filmmakers and a major beauty brand.

“Many said they finally had a home … an entity that advocated for them and understood their needs or their hesitations in possibly taking on some roles and could advocate for them when creating better characters,” she explained.

Those hesitations are rooted in Hollywood’s tendency to cast Arabs and Muslims using a narrow set of – sometimes racist – tropes, experts say.

“Historically, Arabs and Muslims have been horrifically misrepresented and underrepresented in film and TV,” said Cherien Dabis, an award-winning Palestinian American director, producer and writer who is based in New York. “Back in the day, we were thieves and genies, sheikhs and belly dancers. Then we evolved into evildoers and terrorists. And we women have almost always been depicted as weak and oppressed.

“As our community fought back, especially after 9/11, the representation became only slightly more nuanced in that though we were still depicted as terrorists, there was now some question as to our innocence,” she added.

Jack Shaheen, the late American writer and lecturer of Lebanese descent who was renowned for identifying and contesting stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in U.S. media, found that Americans began vilifying Arabs and Muslims after the 1967 war between Israel and some of its neighboring Arab states. The trend worsened with the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon outside D.C. on Sept. 11, 2001.

Other research has found that a lack of extensive cultural, religious and linguistic understanding can, at best, lead to inauthenticity in representing the Muslim community in Hollywood and, at worst, ramp up Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment off-screen.

“There is a correlation between viewing images of Muslims as terrorists and supporting policies in the U.S. that restrict Muslim civil rights – like the Patriot Act and Special Registration – and also support for war in Muslim-majority countries,” said Evelyn Alsultany, an associate professor in the department of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California.

Rasoul wants to play a part in combating these stereotypes by preventing miscasting. “What I’m doing is just a tiny part of a much larger initiative that needs to take place. I’m trying to appeal to larger studios and filmmakers to say: ‘Stop miscasting. If you need someone who speaks Arabic, I have the actors. You don’t need to use different levels of brownness or individuals that can possibly pass for these roles, because we have the talent – they do exist.'”

Rasoul and Alsultany say they think combating demeaning stereotypes in Hollywood requires a multipronged approach that ensures Muslims are involved in the writing process that creates Muslim characters and story lines. “If we look at White characters of European descent, there is such a diversity – there are heroes, everyday people, villains and psychopaths – and one does not represent the whole group. That is the goal,” Alsultany said.

Last year, Alsultany teamed up with Sue Obeidi, the director of the Hollywood Bureau at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, to create the Obeidi-Alsultany test, which proposes five criteria to determine whether a movie or series presents Muslims accurately and with nuance, in the hope that it will help Hollywood and other makers of media humanize characters beyond “bad Muslim terrorist” or “good FBI informant” tropes.

Their research led them to find that there has been a concerted and notable effort in Hollywood recently to expand and improve Muslim representation, especially in response to the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban.

“As a result, there has been an unprecedented increase in representations of Muslims in contexts that have nothing to do with terrorism over the last five years alone. It is quite refreshing,” Alsultany said.

“But we noticed some instances where something in the story line or character diminished the potential impact or authenticity of the character, as if those creating the characters had good intentions but did not know enough about the communities they were writing about or were still informed by limiting frameworks,” she added.

In the Showtime series “Homeland,” one of the characters, a White convert to Islam, is seen burying a Koran because it had been “desecrated.” On Fox’s “9-1-1: Lone Star” a Muslim character prays incorrectly. And in ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” a Muslim doctor at a hospital rips off her hijab to use as a tourniquet on a bleeding patient despite being surrounded by medical equipment and bandages.

In contrast, Hulu’s “Ramy,” written by and starring Egyptian American Ramy Youssef, passes the Obeidi-Alsultany test, as does NBC’s “Transplant,” about a Syrian refugee doctor, Alsultany said. “The one issue with the show is that the actor who plays the Syrian doctor is Pakistani. He is a great actor and does a great job with the role, but many viewers will assume that Pakistanis are Arab.”

And that’s one of the changes Rasoul intends to effect with the new casting agency. “I want to convey that we are not a monolith; we are a diverse demographic ethnically, racially, linguistically and dogmatically,” Rasoul said. “So, I really hope to deconstruct this stereotype, this trope that keeps getting propagated throughout Hollywood, by showcasing the diversity of our community and our talent.”

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