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Muslim Artists Struggle To Connect With American Audiences


Muslim artists are still waiting for their breakout moment, that moment when they finally connect with American audiences. Up until now, they've been frustrated by how they're portrayed and perceived. That is the takeaway from a new article by Hannah Allam. She's the national correspondent with McClatchy, and she joins us now. Welcome to the show.

HANNAH ALLAM: Thank you.

MCEVERS: Your article starts with novelist Jennifer Zobair and her first novel as an example of what Muslim artists are up against. Tell us about that.

ALLAM: Sure. Jennifer Zobair is an Iowa-born convert to Islam who set out to write this book with a powerful, glamorous Muslim female character at the heart of it. And it was to be a love story against a backdrop that involved a terrorist plot, but it was released in the spring of 2013 around the same time as the Boston bombing. The novel was set in Boston, and she found that reviewers just wouldn't touch the book. She didn't get any traction on it, and so she watched as this story she hoped would change the conversation around American-Muslims instead got lost in yet another round of nonstop coverage of Muslims and terrorism.

MCEVERS: It's not just about bad timing - right? I mean, for that particular book it was, but for many projects it's trying to get past this idea that the Muslim is a terrorist. I mean, we see it on the screen all the time, like we're going to listen to a clip right now from a recent "X-Files" episode.


ROBBIE AMELL: (As Agent Miller) You both heard about the terrorist bombing of an art gallery in Texas?

DAVID DUCHOVNY: (As Fox Mulder) Yes, two young Muslim men protesting the depiction of Muhammad.

GILLIAN ANDERSON: (As Dana Scully) Wearing suicide bomber vests.

AMELL: (As Agent Miller) Nine people killed in the act.

MCEVERS: We should say the "The X-Files" did get pushback from Muslim stereotyping in that episode. But you write there are other ways that Muslims are typecast. Tell us about some of those.

ALLAM: Well, what I kept hearing in the reporting of this story was that this faith with something with like 1.6 billion followers is really reduced to three main roles or archetypes, and that's the bad Muslim who's the terrorist, the plotter, the conspirator. There's the good Muslim who's hyperpatriotic and will inform on his or her neighbors, and then there's the oppressed woman...


ALLAM: ...Waiting for her liberators to come and save her.

MCEVERS: I mean, how are these ideas perpetuated and how are the people who you interviewed trying to subvert them?

ALLAM: Well, one thing that was surprising to me was to find that it's not just TV and movies where you find these. It's across pop culture. It's gaming. It's comic books. It's really - it's quite pervasive. And it's not that Muslims are not depicted. They're there. It's just not anyone who's recognizable or familiar to any Muslim-American that I know or that I interviewed for this story.

And so it's that feeling of being painfully absent from the conversation, but also conspicuously present every time you turn on any form of mass media and pop culture. There is this emerging generation of young Muslim image-makers who are trying really hard to change that, to diversify images. And to be clear, it's not that they want some kind of Pollyanna, Muslims can do no wrong...


ALLAM: ...Depiction. They're not apologists, but they just want nuance. They want a diversification of the kinds of roles they're offered. But what they're finding is that kind of change would need to come from an executive level. They just don't have the power yet.

MCEVERS: What are some of the narratives and characters that have broken out?

ALLAM: One of the breakouts that a lot of Muslims mentioned was "Quantico." it's about a group of FBI recruits who find themselves embroiled in this terrorist plot. And in particular, there are two Muslim twins played by the same actress, a Lebanese-born woman. That show won praise for something as small as showing the twin who wears a headscarf swimming in a full body swimsuit alongside her FBI colleagues. It wasn't a big deal to be remarked upon, it was just - she's there. Yes, she happens to be veiled, and she's still an FBI recruit doing all the other things that her colleagues are doing.

MCEVERS: Your article is called "Muslims Artists Push For Their Cosby Show Moment," referring to how "The Cosby Show" changed perceptions about African-American families by showing us one that was so relatable and lovable. What will it take for Muslims to get that moment?

ALLAM: There's certainly the push in that direction. There's the energy behind projects. There are pilots being written, shows even being cast, shows even going into production. But then they'll just reach some barrier whether it's loss of interest, the focus of the show isn't what they thought it would be, and it's quite frustrating for them.

But none of the artists that I spoke with said that they were giving up that idea. In fact, they were really pushing harder, and I think in this current climate of increased hate crimes against Muslims, really nasty rhetoric on the campaign trail against Muslim-Americans, that, in fact, this has propelled them to do more to diversify the images and to give a more realistic and recognizable depiction of who Muslim-Americans are.

MCEVERS: That's Hannah Allam, national correspondent with McClatchy talking about her recent article on Muslim artists. Thank you so much.

ALLAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.