x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Muslims urged to fight stereotypes

Muslims need to make films in Hollywood to challenge the negative stereotypes of Islam, a debate hears at MEIFF.

ABU DHABI // Muslims need to make films in Hollywood to challenge the negative stereotypes of Islam, a debate heard at MEIFF, a debate heard today at the Middle East International Film Festival.

A panel of nine film-industry specialists was chaired by Cynthia Schneider, a former US diplomat. She claimed there was a "vast vacuum" of understanding and a predominance of "ignorance" that must be bridged from East to West. The panellists called on the region to help fund Hollywood's handful of Muslim film-makers combat the stereotypes. Kamran Pasha, a writer and producer who has worked on US television series such as Kings and Bionic Woman, said: "Only Muslims can change the portrayal of Muslims." The Pakistani-born film-maker said: "Your money needs to go to Hollywood to portray the right images of Islam." He said Muslims should "not be afraid" to enter Hollywood, saying it was the only way of ensuring a fair portrayal of Islam. Chip Johannessen, the consultant producer on the TV series 24, said he had seen "a sea change" in the writing of the show since he joined it in its second series. "We have Muslims and we have terrorists," he said. "But we don't have Muslim terrorists." Anti-Muslim and anti-Arab negative stereotyping did not begin with September 11, but has been going on for centuries, the debate was told. Mrs Schneider described a Gallup poll that asked Americans "what Islam thinks". A huge proportion had answered "I don't know" or "nothing". Such ignorance of the Arab and Muslim world is a "vast vacuum" at the heart of negative preconceptions, she said. "There is not just ignorance about Islam and Muslims, it's ignorance of anywhere else in the world. It's a reflection of our education system. We learn very little about the rest of the world." She said these misconceptions were learnt in popular culture, which in turn affected the rest of the world. "We export our popular culture. We send out these negative stereotypes. The world sees these images that America creates. In the long term we have to change these preconceptions." Kerem Bayrak, a producer on films including Super Size Me and Before Sunrise, said that Disney was one of the leading culprits of this media imperialism. Nashwa al Ruwaini, the film festival's director, said it had provided an ideal platform to open up the debate and hoped that the panel discussion had played "a vital role in balancing portrayals of Arab and Muslim characters and themes on American film and television". The debate, organised in conjunction with the US-based group Muslims on Screen and Television, was a joint initiative between the Washington research foundation Brookings Institution and a number of non-governmental organisations.

mswan@thenational.ae