How Muslims flipped the script in Hollywood

By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Editor

Los Angeles (CNN) – For years, Ahmed Ahmed’s acting resume read like a rap sheet.

His first film role was Terrorist No. 4 in “Executive Decision.”

His first sitcom part: Hakeem, a terrorist, on “Roseanne.”

“I realized there was a big market out there for playing bad Arabs,” the actor said with a sarcastic laugh.

Born in Egypt and raised in Riverside, California, Ahmed – a friendly, round-faced guy – carries no trace of an accent and doesn’t look particularly sinister.

But he said he was rarely considered for parts playing doctors, lawyers … or anything, really, but menacing Muslims during the early days of his career.

Meanwhile, a pilgrimage to Mecca, the spiritual home of Islam, pricked his conscience. He felt responsible, in some small way, for the violent images of Islam broadcast across American screens.

“I realized I was becoming a slave to the industry,” Ahmed said.

The role in which the actor was regularly cast, an Islamic extremist, has become almost as familiar a Hollywood cliché as the noble savage or gold-hearted hooker.

In films and television shows from “24” to “Syriana,” Muslims are the olive-skinned evildoers who cloak their violent schemes in religious rhetoric while cursing their American adversaries.

Ahmed wanted no part of that anymore. He quit Hollywood and went back to waiting tables, where he compensated for the bad food with a bonhomie that would blossom into a standup comedy act.

Fast forward to 2014, and Ahmed, who turns 44 this month, is starring in “Sullivan & Son,” a raunchy TBS sitcom that revels – or wallows, if you like – in political incorrectness. (CNN and TBS are both owned by Time Warner.)

Yes, his character – a hapless tow-truck driver also named Ahmed – endures a cringe-worthy barrage of ethnic jokes.

But it’s a sign of progress, in his view, for Ahmed to be considered as ripe for ribbing as the rest of the multiethnic gang on “Sullivan & Son,” one of the few sitcoms to feature an Arab-American Muslim who is a character, not a caricature.

“I don’t have to be the ‘Arab guy’ or the ‘Muslim guy,’” Ahmed said. “Those things fade into the background, and I’m just a regular guy.”

For decades, Ahmed and other Muslims say, Hollywood has put their faith very much in the foreground, often cast in an ominous light.

After 9/11, the typecasting only increased, experts and activists say, especially for actors of Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian descent.

“When Hollywood dealt with Muslim characters it was completely one-dimensional,” said Arsalan Iftikhar, an American writer and intellectual who blogs atTheMuslimGuy.com. “They were the seething terrorists, without any sort of humanizing attributes.”

But American Muslims may be finally smashing the silver-screen stereotypes.

Groups like the Muslim Public Affairs Council consult on screenplays, train Muslim writers and connect network honchos with budding talent.

Young Muslims are producing their own projects, with the Internet as their global studio and audience.

And Muslim actors don’t just play terrorists anymore: They play presidents and “Star Trek” captains.

It’s not just about landing juicy acting roles, American Muslims say.

How Hollywood sees Islam influences the rest of the country and carries deep implications for civil liberties, foreign policy and interfaith relations.

“Intentionally or unintentionally, images teach people whom to fear, whom to hate, and whom to love,” writes Jack Shaheen, a longtime scholar of how the media depicts Muslims.

Billionaires, bombers and belly dancers

Hollywood’s increasingly complex portrayal of Islam flickered across American screens this past Tuesday, when Ahmed’s “Sullivan & Son” began its third season and Fox debuted a new series from a producer of “24” and “Homeland.”

“Tyrant,” a drama, follows a California pediatrician back to his fictional Middle-Eastern homeland, where his father is a brutal dictator.

The plot, producer Howard Gordon says, is modeled on the Arab Spring and real-life tyrants like Moammar Gadhafi.

“To have the opportunity to tell a story about people and put faces on the things that are merely headlines felt just too good to ignore,” Gordon told Indiewire.

It’s the same ripped-from-the-news recipe that brought the Hollywood veteran critical and commercial success with “Homeland” and “24.”

But Gordon’s work has been controversial, even “Islamophobic,” according to some Muslim groups, for its depiction of their religion as rife with terrorists.

“Tyrant” displays some of the same problems, the Council on American-Islamic Relations complained after a screening in Washington this month.

“If the only thing you saw or heard about the Middle East was watching ‘Tyrant,’ you’d come away saying, ‘Man, what a bunch of savages. They deserve whatever they get,’” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Shaheen, author of “Reel Bad Arabs” and other media studies, once said that Arab Muslims are limited to three roles in Hollywood: billionaires, bombers and belly dancers.

“In ‘Tyrant,’ you get everything but the belly dancers,” Hooper said.

Secular critics weren’t much kinder.

Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever called “Tyrant” a “stultifyingly acted TV drama stocked with tired and terribly broad notions of Muslim culture.”

Gordon’s agent said he could not be reached for comment.

But Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which consulted on “Tyrant” scripts, said the show doesn’t present Islam or the Middle East as a monolith. What’s more, “Tyrant,” can help Americans understand the plight of Muslims who suffer under the brutal rule of dictators, he said.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, a show like `Tyrant’ would have turned into a clash-of-civilizations plotline. With Howard, it’s about the human dimensions and social realities, and how everyone is responsible for creating tyrants.”

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