June 28th, 2014
05:57 PM ET
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Editor
Los Angeles (CNN) – For years, Ahmed Ahmed’s acting resume read like a rap sheet.
His first film role was Terrorist No. 4 in “Executive Decision.”
His first sitcom part: Hakeem, a terrorist, on “Roseanne.”
“I realized there was a big market out there for playing bad Arabs,” the actor said with a sarcastic laugh.
Born in Egypt and raised in Riverside, California, Ahmed - a friendly, round-faced guy - carries no trace of an accent and doesn’t look particularly sinister.
But he said he was rarely considered for parts playing doctors, lawyers ... or anything, really, but menacing Muslims during the early days of his career.
Meanwhile, a pilgrimage to Mecca, the spiritual home of Islam, pricked his conscience. He felt responsible, in some small way, for the violent images of Islam broadcast across American screens.
“I realized I was becoming a slave to the industry,” Ahmed said.
The role in which the actor was regularly cast, an Islamic extremist, has become almost as familiar a Hollywood cliché as the noble savage or gold-hearted hooker.
In films and television shows from “24” to “Syriana,” Muslims are the olive-skinned evildoers who cloak their violent schemes in religious rhetoric while cursing their American adversaries.
Ahmed wanted no part of that anymore. He quit Hollywood and went back to waiting tables, where he compensated for the bad food with a bonhomie that would blossom into a standup comedy act.
Fast forward to 2014, and Ahmed, who turns 44 this month, is starring in “Sullivan & Son,” a raunchy TBS sitcom that revels - or wallows, if you like - in political incorrectness. (CNN and TBS are both owned by Time Warner.)
Yes, his character - a hapless tow-truck driver also named Ahmed - endures a cringe-worthy barrage of ethnic jokes.
But it’s a sign of progress, in his view, for Ahmed to be considered as ripe for ribbing as the rest of the multiethnic gang on “Sullivan & Son,” one of the few sitcoms to feature an Arab-American Muslim who is a character, not a caricature.
“I don’t have to be the ‘Arab guy’ or the ‘Muslim guy,’” Ahmed said. “Those things fade into the background, and I’m just a regular guy.”
For decades, Ahmed and other Muslims say, Hollywood has put their faith very much in the foreground, often cast in an ominous light.
After 9/11, the typecasting only increased, experts and activists say, especially for actors of Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian descent.
“When Hollywood dealt with Muslim characters it was completely one-dimensional,” said Arsalan Iftikhar, an American writer and intellectual who blogs at TheMuslimGuy.com. “They were the seething terrorists, without any sort of humanizing attributes.”
But American Muslims may be finally smashing the silver-screen stereotypes.
Groups like the Muslim Public Affairs Council consult on screenplays, train Muslim writers and connect network honchos with budding talent.
Young Muslims are producing their own projects, with the Internet as their global studio and audience.
And Muslim actors don’t just play terrorists anymore: They play presidents and “Star Trek” captains.
It's not just about landing juicy acting roles, American Muslims say.
How Hollywood sees Islam influences the rest of the country and carries deep implications for civil liberties, foreign policy and interfaith relations.
"Intentionally or unintentionally, images teach people whom to fear, whom to hate, and whom to love," writes Jack Shaheen, a longtime scholar of how the media depicts Muslims.
Billionaires, bombers and belly dancers
Hollywood’s increasingly complex portrayal of Islam flickered across American screens this past Tuesday, when Ahmed’s “Sullivan & Son” began its third season and Fox debuted a new series from a producer of “24” and “Homeland.”
“Tyrant,” a drama, follows a California pediatrician back to his fictional Middle-Eastern homeland, where his father is a brutal dictator.
The plot, producer Howard Gordon says, is modeled on the Arab Spring and real-life tyrants like Moammar Gadhafi.
“To have the opportunity to tell a story about people and put faces on the things that are merely headlines felt just too good to ignore," Gordon told Indiewire.
It’s the same ripped-from-the-news recipe that brought the Hollywood veteran critical and commercial success with “Homeland” and “24.”
But Gordon’s work has been controversial, even “Islamophobic,” according to some Muslim groups, for its depiction of their religion as rife with terrorists.
“Tyrant” displays some of the same problems, the Council on American-Islamic Relations complained after a screening in Washington this month.
“If the only thing you saw or heard about the Middle East was watching ‘Tyrant,’ you’d come away saying, ‘Man, what a bunch of savages. They deserve whatever they get,’” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Shaheen, author of "Reel Bad Arabs" and other media studies, once said that Arab Muslims are limited to three roles in Hollywood: billionaires, bombers and belly dancers.
“In ‘Tyrant,’ you get everything but the belly dancers,” Hooper said.
Secular critics weren’t much kinder.
Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever called “Tyrant” a “stultifyingly acted TV drama stocked with tired and terribly broad notions of Muslim culture.”
Gordon’s agent said he could not be reached for comment.
But Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which consulted on “Tyrant” scripts, said the show doesn’t present Islam or the Middle East as a monolith. What's more, "Tyrant," can help Americans understand the plight of Muslims who suffer under the brutal rule of dictators, he said.
“Twenty or 30 years ago, a show like `Tyrant’ would have turned into a clash-of-civilizations plotline. With Howard, it’s about the human dimensions and social realities, and how everyone is responsible for creating tyrants.”
Al-Marayati said he considers Gordon a partner who takes MPAC's suggestions seriously.
For example, the “Tyrant” script was changed to make clear that one character’s poor treatment of women does not derive from Islam, Al-Marayati said.
“We made the point that it's not religion that drives this behavior,” Al-Marayati said. “It’s a personal choice.”
Gordon has said the Muslim Public Affairs Council had a “significant impact” on “Tyrant” from the beginning of production.
“I tried to address their concerns regarding cultural inaccuracies and potentially incendiary characterizations,” he told The Daily Beast. “I may not always have been entirely successful, but the dialogue has always been open and fluid.”
The relationship between the council and Gordon wasn’t always so rosy.
The Muslim council opened its Hollywood bureau after 9/11 to counter negative images of Islam in popular culture. Season four of “24,” which broadcast in 2005, was one of its biggest tests.
The plot centered on a seemingly nice, middle-class Muslim-American family who were secretly scheming to launch a nuclear attack on the United States.
The council was one of several Muslim groups concerned about the sleeper-cell story line.
“They were creating this idea in people’s minds that your neighbor, who you think is a doctor and has a lovely home, is actually plotting an attack on the country,” explained Deana Nassar, the council’s Hollywood liaison.
“It was a very scary indictment.”
Members of the council met with the shows producers, including Gordon, to convey their concerns.
Initially, the “24” team resisted the council’s entreaties, citing creative license, until they realized that their show might put real Muslims in danger, said Nassar.
Fox agreed to run a disclaimer before each episode of “24,” stating that American Muslims denounce terrorism. More importantly, the council said, “24” began to feature more Muslim “good guys” and fewer Islamic terrorists.
“’24’ is a big success story for us,” Nassar said.
But others weren’t so sure.
Shaheen, the media scholar, said the disclaimer before “24” was laughable, and the addition of more likeable characters was a silly sop to placate Muslims.
“It was like, ‘OK, we vilified you in seasons four and five but now we’ll make it up to you,” he said.
Al-Marayati and other Muslims acknowledge that modern Islam faces unique challenges. Terrorist groups like al Qaeda and Boko Haram weren’t dreamed up by screenwriters. They are real threats to international security.
The council said its goal isn’t to erase all negative images of Islam in Hollywood. It’s to persuade producers and writers to include balanced, accurate and nuanced views of Muslims in their work. And it hasn’t been easy.
“Hollywood still has a long way to go to humanize Muslims,” Al-Marayati acknowledged. “But we have to start somewhere. We can’t just throw up our hands and refuse to engage.”
From Aladdin to Alice
Few Muslim groups engage Hollywood as much as the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which has built relationships with studio executives at all four major networks, and consulted on shows from “Seventh Heaven” to “Bones.”
More recently, the council advised “Project X-Ray,” an upcoming film about Guantanamo Bay, and a project with actor Forest Whitaker about a Muslim ex-con adjusting to life outside prison.
Even when the Muslim council sharply disagrees with a television show or film, it often calls for consultation, rather than cancellation.
“It’s very important for us not to act like watchdogs,” Nassar said, “because we don’t want to discourage executives from doing stories about Arabs and Muslims.”
Still, word of a recent ABC project called “Alice in Arabia” prompted a quick call from Nassar to network executives.
According to ABC, “Alice” was to be a dramatic series about an American teenager who gets kidnapped and taken to Saudi Arabia, where she copes with life “behind the veil.”
Many American Muslims said the show’s premise “reinforces old racist tropes” about dark-skinned men threatening white women.
This tweet pretty much sums up the sentiment.
ABC quickly canceled the show, saying that the “conversation” about “Alice in Arabia” was “not what we envisioned” and “certainly not conducive to the creative process.”
To Nassar, an entertainment lawyer by training, the “Alice” incident reminder her of watching “Aladdin” as a child.
The Disney movie, which takes place in a fictional sultanate, presented Arab culture as a “whole new world” apart from Nassar’s home in California.
“I loved that movie, and I was like, 'Wow, that’s where my people come from?’ It’s so scary and mysterious,’” Nassar said.
“But the the time is over for America to look at that place and its people as mysterious and exotic. We’re here. We’re in America. We’re so integrated in this society that you know we’re the same.”
Muslims are not only integrated in the United States, they’re highly successful here, according to studies.
More than 80% of Muslims say they are satisfied with their lives in this country, according to Gallup surveys, which also show that only American Jews have higher education levels.
The country’s estimated 3 million to 6 million Muslims are congressmen, business leaders, doctors, lawyers, and, increasingly, actors and filmmakers.
“The millennial generation is starting to push back on their parents’ imposition of career choices,” said Iftikhar of TheMuslimGuy.com. “There are more Muslim artists, actors, academics, writers and comedians.”
And, with the help of groups like the Muslim Public Affairs Council, they’re making inroads in highly competitive Tinseltown.
Earlier this month, for example, the council partnered with the Disney/ABC Television Group to host a screenwriters’ workshop.
Thirty-five young Muslim writers applied for a spot by writing sample scripts for their favorite shows; a dozen were accepted.
At the daylong event, ABC executives and a dozen young Muslim men and women, a few in colorful headscarves, crowded around a long table at the council’s Los Angeles office.
(The workshop was closed to the media, but the council sent a description and photos, and connected CNN with participants.)
The Hollywood insiders offered advice on how to write compelling stories, pitch projects and get good gigs on studio lots.
“It's a journey to work in this business,” Tim McNeal, ABC’s head of creative talent development, told the writers, according to a statement released by the council.
“We are here to help you along your journey. If you choose to work in a creative space in television, please think of us as a resource.”
Hala Alsaman, an Iraqi-Canadian who applied for the workshop with a “spec” script on “Mad Men,” said she appreciated the writing tips, but the chance to network with ABC executives was even more valuable.
The benefits behind the workshop can run both ways, the Muslim council and ABC said. Muslims get a voice at the writers’ table, and networks can tap into new and diverse talent pools.
“If we get even one person inside Hollywood who can be a source of good information about Muslims, that’s our goal,” Al-Marayati said.
But the information source doesn't always have to be screenwriters. Sometimes the actors can change the scripts as well.
A Muslim president
Those e-mail chains forwarded from your grandmother are right: America has had a Muslim president.
His name is Faran Tahir, and he played President Patel in the 2013 sci-fi flick “Elysium.”
The 50-year-old actor also may be the first South Asian cast into outer space. He played Capt. Robau in J.J. Abrams’ 2009 “Star Trek” reboot.
Yes, both plots are fictional, but they’re not trivial, Tahir said.
“The movies might be futuristic. But the person sitting in the theaters has to accept it as a possibility.”
Tahir didn’t have an easy road in Hollywood. There weren’t many roles for Pakistani-American actors 30 years ago. He couldn’t find mentors or hold down an apartment. He lived in his car for a while.
But Tahir built up his chops by acting in plays while waiting for film and television roles to trickle in, and turning down parts when they felt too much like typecasting.
Those oversimplifications often resulted from laziness, not an anti-Islamic agenda, the actor said, and Muslims must remember that sometimes stereotypes are accurate.
“If a show is being based on current affairs, let’s not forget that in this war on terrorism there are people who are doing some terrible things,” Tahir said.
The actor estimates that he’s played five or six Muslim terrorists during the past 15 years, but he’s also played radiologists, principals and sci-fi characters.
“Things are definitely starting to change,” Tahir said. “We’ve been in this culture long enough. We’ve been through what everyone else has been through.”
The actor himself was the source of one big change in his most famous role to date, playing the villain in the 2008 film “Iron Man.”
The script called for his character, Raza, to be a Muslim terrorist. “That would have been fine if the movie was about current affairs,” Tahir said. “But it’s a superhero movie. Why would we have to bring in such a sensitive subject?”
The actor said the “Iron Man” producers agreed and stripped the religious references from the script. Tahir wasn’t the only Muslim-American actor to benefit from the revisions.
Ahmed Ahmed, the comedian who once quit Hollywood, was cast as one of Tahir’s fellow mercenaries.
He said he still had some qualms about playing a dark-skinned villain, but the chance to be part of a blockbuster movie was too good to turn down.
Ahmed said he’s also started to take typecasting less seriously. He recently starred in a “Funny or Die” short film about “How to be a Terrorist - in Hollywood.”
“It’s gotten so out of control with the one-sided depictions of the Middle East,” he said, “we might as well try to have some fun with it.”
But as he drove onto the Warner Bros. lot on a recent morning, international affairs were far from Ahmed’s mind.
Twenty years ago he was a struggling actor, knocking around the same studio lot, just trying to find a job.
Now, the third season of “Sullivan & Son” was about to air, and the actor was readying for a stand-up comedy tour with fellow cast members. It took a long time, but by his lights, he’s made it in Hollywood.
“I’m still playing an Arab character,” he said with a laugh, “but I’m not playing a terrorist!”
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.