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SHARIQ SIDDIQUI: Movies could change perception of Islam, Muslims

April 13, 2018

Siddiqui
I just had the opportunity to watch “The Shape of Water” a few weeks ago. No spoiler alerts—but I was amazed by the ability of the filmmakers to humanize the sea monster. The ability of filmmakers to help us suspend disbelief and enter the world of fiction is remarkable.

I have also been hooked on the “Beauty and the Beast” soundtrack. Maybe it is only me, but doesn’t the Beast look much better than the human equivalent? When he turns back into a human, I have a feeling Belle might have been a bit disappointed. No offense to the actor.

This column isn’t about movies or filmmakers doing remarkable things. My point is that Hollywood, when it wants to, can change narratives and transform the way we think about creatures, beings and people.

As much as I was mesmerized by the sea monster in “The Shape of Water,” I came away thinking: Hollywood has humanized a sea monster but has yet to do so to Muslims. The reality is that Hollywood and the media have contributed and profited from the demonizing of Muslims and Islam. Research, books and articles have traced the role Hollywood has played in heightening Islamophobia.

The Hollywood elite fail to understand the monstrous role they have played. As they seem to champion the fight against racism, xenophobia and sexism, they have yet to evaluate their own role.

This is not just another anti-media or anti-Hollywood diatribe, but instead a suggestion that, before Hollywood can claim to be on the correct side of the civil rights movement, it must examine its own troubled past—especially when it comes to Islam and Muslims.

There have been some changes in how Hollywood thinks of Islam and Muslims. At the Oscars, a woman wearing a hijab performed as a backup dancer to “This is Me!” Hollywood has also sought to embrace Muslim characters who embrace their cultural, rather than religious, identity. These are good steps forward. But you somehow come away with the impression that—if you drink, date and are willing to sleep around—you are one of the “good Muslims.” However, if you are a devout, practicing Muslim, you should have an accent (meaning you are foreign), are a villain, or you just don’t deserve to be on the screen.

Assimilation into a perceived broader American culture seems to be a prerequisite to be accepted by Hollywood. Hollywood’s requirement of assimilation that results in removing religiosity in order to be accepted is racism of a nuanced kind—but is just as deadly.

Amazing stories that will take our breath away emanate from the Muslim and Muslim-American communities. Hollywood’s inability to translate these into positive narratives in their work is either ignorance, laziness or prejudiced.

As a Muslim-American, I am concerned that Hollywood doesn’t see a world where people like me or my family have a role that helps society. I question Hollywood’s lofty rhetoric, assumption of the high moral ground and public indignation when I know it has contributed and profited from creating hatred toward me and my family.

It is too easy for the left to lay the blame of racism, prejudice and xenophobia on President Donald Trump and the extreme right when, in reality, this also exists on the left. These are not partisan challenges but an American problem.•

Click here for more Forefront columns.

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Siddiqui is an attorney, has a doctorate from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IU and leads the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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