by Duston Barto
As Muslims, we’re always very aware (whether we like it or not) of how we’re portrayed on television and in the media. Frequently, the images of us the media chooses to present to its viewers are inaccurate, biased, or completely false. These negative images collect in the minds of the public and, sadly, end up representing all Muslims instead of a small, radical, misguided minority. This struggle of ours is insufferable… or so it would seem.
Enter Alex Kronemer, fellow Muslim and co-creator of Unity Productions Foundation. Unity Productions Foundation is a multifaceted organization that produces Islamic films, promoting religious education and coexistence with all faiths. One of its championed projects, MOST, or Muslims On Screen and Television, has pioneered in providing an online “story bank” for Hollywood writers. Once there, writers have access to current news stories that feature real Muslims in everyday life, the ways they truly live, and how they practice Islam and contribute to society. Kronemer says that any writer “can go to this and get stories about people and ideas beyond the headlines.”
That is what makes the story bank of MOST so influential and instrumental in making sure that Muslims are accurately portrayed in movies, television, and other forms of entertainment. Kronemer recalls that he was attending a ceremony with several television writers when one of them told him that once she wanted to write a Muslim character into a sitcom, but because she was afraid that she didn’t know enough to write the character correctly, she ended up changing the character to be a Catholic. He said it was about that time that he began to wonder just how many writers were out there who, in their hearts, really wanted to branch out and write more diverse characters for a more diverse world.
“I can say honestly that, talking to writers, one of the inhibiting factors for this happening is fear. And it’s fear of saying the wrong thing [about Muslims] and it’s fear of backlash… from people who may have anti-Muslim feelings,” Kronemer explains. Due to the sensitive nature of religion, writers are generally reluctant to poke at something that, historically, hasn’t been a popular thing to poke at. Recently, Muslims rallied and cheered after succeeding in getting a show they considered offensive canceled from airing. Kronemer understands that after this, there “was a sense of victory.” However, he adds that there are also “unintended consequences” of events like this. Producers, he says, become reluctant to invest money and touch or approach the idea of Muslims or Islamic elements in their shows because they believe that they (the shows) will catch too much criticism from Muslims and never be able to air.
Kronemer says that as society moves forward and begins showing Muslims in a more cultural light instead of directly religious manner, the defensive attitudes could fade as Muslims themselves
become more relaxed seeing how they are portrayed. He also says that it’s generally a matter of exposure, meaning that as more Muslim characters or Muslim concepts are introduced, the public will become more comfortable, accepting, and open-minded.
However, Kronemer encourages Muslims to take leading roles in setting these changes in motion. He says that we should interact more with the media – and be the media ourselves! Careers in these fields are slowly being accepted as they are shown every day to be necessary if we want Islam to be represented and understood by those unfamiliar with our way of life. Just by getting out in the community and taking a stand, any Muslim could have an opportunity to become a dynamic part of the MOST story bank. Kronemer stresses that “stories shape understanding, stories shape the facts,” and “stories shape the narratives we see.”
If we want people to see us for who we are as Muslims, we have to raise our narrative of truth – our voice – over the narrative of falsehood. If we want that truth – the facts – reported and written down, sometimes we have to hold the pen ourselves. We can’t continue to take passive roles regarding our representation to the world. We have to get involved. If we want people to understand us, we have to provide information through stories that everyone can relate to. We, as Muslims, must be able to tell our stories for anyone who is willing to listen.