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The “Brute Math” Behind Hollywood’s Outsized Role in Shaping Perceptions of Muslims and Jews in America (Guest Column)

As we enter the heart of Hollywood awards season, there are signs everywhere of both how far the entertainment industry has come in telling the whole American story — and just how far it has left to go.

Last month, events during the Sundance Film Festival reflected on the fractious times we are living in.

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There was a conversation with Jewish hostages on their harrowing experiences and a public protest against the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, which has resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths.

There were also hundreds of Muslim creators and their allies who gathered one evening at the festival’s Muslim House. The standing-room-only event confirmed both the vitality of Muslim creators — writers, directors, producers, artists — and the immense challenges they continue to face in breaking through.

The statistics confirm their experiences. A 2022 study from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that, across 200 series, 87 percent did not feature a single Muslim with a speaking role. Of 12 Muslim series regulars across these projects, seven were either perpetrators or targets of physical violence.

Of the 10 films nominated for best picture at this year’s Oscars, only one features a self-identified Muslim in a meaningful, non-stereotypical role (Ramy Youssef in Poor Things).

Monochromatic depictions of our society combined with stereotyping and villainization of difference are problematic in and of themselves. But they are made worse by how they inflame rather than soothe episodes of division and discord in our society.

The problem of intolerance is growing more acute by the day, as U.S.-based Muslims and Jews alike report increased rates of harassment and even physical violence.

In October, shortly after the Gaza attack, a 6-year-old Muslim boy was brutally murdered in Illinois by his family’s landlord. Dearborn, Michigan, which has the largest proportion of Americans of Arab descent of any U.S. city, was recently characterized in a Wall Street Journal op-ed as “America’s Jihad Capital,” requiring Mayor Abdullah Hammoud to increase police presence at religious centers.

Even before Oct. 7, antisemitic incidents have nearly tripled since 2016, reports the Anti-Defamation League. The U.S. Department of Education currently has 19 open investigations of potential civil rights violations in K-12 schools related to antisemitism or Islamophobia.

The Biden-Harris Administration recognizes the role of the arts and culture in stemming this tide. On the heels of a range of actions over the fall to address antisemitism and Islamophobia, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, respectively, announced just last week that they would commit $5 million towards arts organizations that work to combat hate.

Laudable though these efforts are, they will fail without wider reach. Person-to-person contact combines catharsis with connection, enabling a powerful shared experience, and a part of what makes intolerance so intractable is brute math: Most people just don’t have experience with certain kinds of diversity.

Jews are 2.4 percent of the U.S. population and Muslims just 1.1 percent. Despite many in the U.S. harboring negative views of Muslims, fewer than half say they have ever met one. People in the U.S. are also comparatively less knowledgeable about Judaism as a faith and consistently overestimate how many Jews live in the U.S.

This complicates conventional efforts to bridge divides that rely on bringing people into direct contact with those unlike them — it’s simply impractical.

This is why the entertainment industry has a special role to play in fighting hate. Hollywood’s stock in trade is the industrial-scale generation of shared emotional experiences between strangers from different backgrounds and diverse walks of life. To stem the tide of dangerous and baleful hate, it’s time for the entertainment community to step up.

First, we need opportunities for Muslim actors and creators to step out of typecast roles, both in front of and behind the camera.

Recent examples show that a film or series can reach new heights by considering Muslim artists for roles historically intended for others. Succession cast Hiam Abbass in the role of Logan Roy’s sharp-witted third wife, Marcia. Mahershala Ali has been defying stereotypes before and since his Oscar-winning breakout as an unlikely father figure in Moonlight. In addition to his performance as an actor in Poor Things, Youssef directed “Honeydew,” one of the most acclaimed episodes of the bemedaled series The Bear in which pastry chef Marcus undergoes training in Copenhagen.

Second, portrayals of Muslim peoples and cultures must do a better job of combining entertainment with enlightenment.

Grammy-winning folk artist Rhiannon Giddens won the Pulitzer Prize this year for her opera Omar, which tells the story of a Senegalese Muslim impressed into slavery through a vibrant melding of U.S. music styles. In the latest installment of the Assassin’s Creed gaming franchise — which has sold over 200 million copies worldwide — the gaming studio Ubisoft developed a new feature that allows players to take a guided tour of the game’s historical setting of ninth-century Baghdad.

Third, we need stronger distribution and equitably disbursed marketing dollars for films and shows that otherwise might not be found by audiences.

Despite an uphill climb, Muslim characters and stories can anchor tentpole offerings. Mindy Kaling is currently producing Amazon Prime’s Hana Khan Carries On, a new rom-com about a Muslim woman living in Toronto. British Pakistani comedian and writer Bisha Ali was the head writer for Ms. Marvel, which starred Canadian Pakistani Iman Vellani as an American Pakistani teenager-turned-superhero. Shows like Disney Junior’s Mira, Royal Detective, which takes place in a fictional setting meant to depict 19th-century India, offer more expansive representations to young audiences.

This is progress, but we still have a long way to go.

Despite a packed house, speaker after speaker at Muslim House underscored the ongoing challenges that Muslims face in securing a seat at the table. Creators talked about having shows and projects canceled after Oct. 7, the difficulty in developing “marketable” intellectual property and the need to expand the scope of Muslim stories and portrayals.

The entertainment industry must do better because in so doing, it can make our society more welcoming for all.

The best way to fight hate is to prevent it from taking root in the first place. Great stories combined with mass distribution connect our emotions to our highest ideals and transport us to worlds and situations unlike our own.

Hollywood must harness its privileged role in shaping our culture to illustrate the poetic eloquence of toleration: that what makes our society great is not what we have in common but precisely what we don’t.

Samsher (Sam) Singh Gill is the third president and CEO of the Doris Duke Foundation, whose mission is to build a more creative, equitable and sustainable future. One of the foundation’s programs is Building Bridges, the only charitable grantmaking program in the U.S. dedicated to increasing mutual understanding through work with U.S. Muslims. The foundation also operates Shangri La, the largest center for art devoted exclusively to global Muslim traditions.

At the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, Doris Duke Foundation announced $6 million in grants to support Muslim creators, including through project completion funds and the provision of “Muslim houses” at major U.S. film festivals. The foundation provided funding for Muslim House at Sundance, hosted by the MPAC Hollywood Bureau.

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