As Events Turn, Muslims Fret Over Media Roles

For decades, Hollywood's villians have reflected the political climate, from Nazi soldiers in World War II to Russian spies during the Cold War. In recent years, the Muslim terrorist has become a common bad guy. Some Muslims worry that their image in the media is affecting how they are perceived in the real world. From member station KQED, Alex Cohen reports.

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Hollywood's villains have always reflected the political climate: Nazi soldiers in World War II; Russian spies during the Cold War. In recent years the Muslim terrorist has become a common bad guy. And as Alex Cohen of member station KQED reports, that worries some Muslims, who feel their image in the media is affecting how they're perceived in the real world.

ALEX COHEN reporting:

Ever since he was a kid, Ahmed Ahmed wanted to be an actor. Ahmed is Muslim. He was born in Egypt and raised in Riverside, California. In the mid-'90s, Ahmed got his first big break. He was offered a non-speaking part as a terrorist in a Hollywood blockbuster called "Executive Decision."

Mr. AHMED AHMED (Actor): The whole movie was about a group of Arab-Muslim guys, Muslim fundamentalists, who hijack an airplane. Imagine that.

(Soundbite from "Executive Decision")

Unidentified Man: We are the true soldiers of Islam. Our destiny is to deliver the vengeance of Allah into the belly of the infidel.

COHEN: Ahmed was thrilled to make good money and work with famous actors, but he wasn't thrilled about playing an Islamic terrorist. That part was just one of many roles he was offered that featured him as a bad guy.

Mr. AHMED: I called my agent, and I said, `Can I go out for roles that are other than these roles that I'm being cast in?' And she said--the agent at the time said, `You're only going to go out for these Arab roles as long as your name is Ahmed Ahmed.'

COHEN: Ahmed says his dilemma is one faced by many Muslim and Arab actors. There aren't a lot of roles available for them, and those that do exist tend to be villains. For example, the most recent season of the Fox hit show "24" featured a Muslim family. The husband, wife and teen-age son were all part of a sleeper cell plotting to detonate nuclear bombs throughout the US. Edina Lekovic is with the Muslim Public Affairs Council. She says when people see these sorts of fictional characters, there can be very real consequences.

Ms. EDINA LEKOVIC (Muslim Public Affairs Council): What you're seeing out there is pretty scary. And I don't blame your average American citizen for being afraid of Muslims based on what they're seeing on TV.

COHEN: The Muslim Public Affairs Council demanded that the Fox network counterbalance the portrayal of Muslims as terrorists on "24." In response, the show's star, Kiefer Sutherland, produced this public service announcement.

(Soundbite of public service announcement)

Mr. KIEFER SUTHERLAND: It is important to recognize that the American-Muslim community stands firmly beside their fellow Americans in denouncing and resisting all forms of terrorism. So in watching "24"...

COHEN: Muslim and Arab-Americans aren't the first minorities to complain about how they're portrayed in the media. For years African-American, Latino and Asian actors have struggled to find work playing positive roles. Alex Ben Block is the editor of Television Week. He says given that acts of terrorism are regularly making headlines, it's unlikely that audiences will be seeing an Arab version of "The Cosby Show" anytime soon.

Mr. ALEX BEN BLOCK (Editor, Television Week): Because these are, for the most part, commercial networks that are going to put on what they believe will draw an audience. And they're also reflective of the society around them. And in our society right now, the Arab, for instance, is not having a great image.

COHEN: It may be impossible to rid Hollywood of plot lines involving terrorists, but the least writers could do is provide more context to such characters, says actor Tony Shalhoub. The Lebanese-American actor is star of the TV show "Monk." He says he refuses to play terrorists in film and TV.

Mr. TONY SHALHOUB (Actor): They don't sort of give you the back story. They don't see, well, you know, what was the oppression or what was the injustice or what was the inhumanity or the extreme injustice that was done to this person that might have, you know, made him snap.

COHEN: But a new TV show is trying to do just that. Showtime is currently producing a program called "Sleeper Cell" about an LA-based al-Qaeda cell. Writer Kamran Pasha is one of several practicing Muslims working on the series.

Mr. KAMRAN PASHA (Writer, "Sleeper Cell"): We have to understand this phenomenon, have to understand what are its origins, what kind of people are being drawn into it, how it differs from the vast majority of people associated with this faith and how we can work with people within this community to stop it.

COHEN: And unlike other shows, the hero of the show is also a Muslim character, an undercover FBI agent who infiltrates the sleeper cell. While actors and activists may feel slightly relieved to see at least one Muslim hero, many would like to see characters that have nothing to do with terrorism whatsoever. But if that's going to happen, says actor Tony Shalhoub, Arab and Muslim performers will have to take charge.

Mr. SHALHOUB: It's time now to take it into our own hands and begin to initiate projects, you know, that we want to get out there.

COHEN: This year Shalhoub started a competition for Arab-American filmmakers to create stories which show Arab and Muslim characters in a more realistic and positive light. More than 60 filmmakers submitted screenplays. Shalhoub will begin producing the winning script this summer. For NPR News, I'm Alex Cohen in Los Angeles.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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