TV Museum Looks at Muslim Portrayals

On Tuesday, May 22, the Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills, Calif., held a panel discussion, part of its "Media as Mirror" series, called "Arab and Muslim Characters in Prime Time TV: The View From Hollywood."

Entertainment journalist and author Alex Ben Block ("Outfoxed: Marvin Davis, Barry Diller, Rupert Murdoch and the Inside Story of America's Fourth Television Network") was moderator of the panel, which featured "24" executive producer Howard Gordon, "Lost" executive producer Damon Lindelof, and, from "Sleeper Cell," writer Kamran Pasha (a Pakistani-American, and the only Muslim on the panel) and co-creator Ethan Reiff.

Block opened the discussion by talking about political correctness, prompting Gordon to remark that, since FOX's "24" -- which features different terrorist plots each season -- has been accused of many things, from misogyny to promoting torture, that "political correctness doesn't enter much" into the discussions.

Lindelof pointed out that because ABC's "Lost" features plane-crash survivors -- including Sayid (Naveen Andrews), a former member of Iraq's Republican Guard -- on a mysterious island, "We can do things that, under any other lens, would be offensive, like having a brother and sister sleep together. But on our show it's just surprising."

Pasha commented that fellow Muslims had accused him of being "a traitor" for working on "Sleeper Cell," a Showtime limited series about terrorists in America, adding that one Web posting even accused him of being an agent of the Israeli security force Mossad.

Various clips were shown, including a flashback scene from "Lost" that showed Sayid forced to acknowledge and apologize to a woman he had once tortured in Iraq.

Gordon praised the clip, saying that it was "more articulate" on the subject of torture than anything done on "24." The theme of torture is often brought up in the context of "24," which uses it as a storytelling device to heighten tension and propel the plot.

Gordon explained that when counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) tortures someone on "24," the assumptions are that, first, the terrorist has the information, and second, that torture works.

"That's wish-fulfillment," he said.

And, like Sayid, Jack can't escape the toll being a torturer takes on him.

"Jack Bauer is a damned creature," Gordon said. "He will never get to enjoy the milk of human kindness. The blood of these people is on his hands."

Lindelof returned Gordon's compliment, saying he was a "24" fan from the beginning, then went on to explain that the real questions are not about the torturers themselves, but the people who enable or employ them.

Pasha spoke about the image of America in the Muslim world, emphasizing that if America resorts to extreme tactics, its ability to inspire others would be lost.

"We do represent a beacon for much of the world that we are fighting with," Pasha said.

He also pointed out that one must understand one's enemies to defeat them.

During the Q&A session with the audience, one questioner made a similar point, talking about how "Lost" has devoted time to the motivations and history of the castaways' adversaries, the Others.

"The mysterious enemy is the scariest," Lindelof said. "We're 72 hours into the show now, and we still don't know what the bad guys believe in. Maybe when we do, we'll realize that the bad guys landed on the plane."

As might be expected, Lindelof was questioned about the announcement that "Lost" would end after 48 more episodes, spread after three seasons.

"The show can move out of a question modality," he said, "into an answer modality."

As for the very end itself, Lindelof said, "People will say it sucked, but at least it will be done."

Toward the end of the discussion, Pasha emphasized that portrayals of Muslims on television will change significantly if more Muslims, like him, choose to enter the business.

He said, "Muslims can't complain about your portrayal in the media if you don't participate."

He continued, "No one is required to write TV shows about your characters. It is not the responsibility of Hollywood to cater to Muslim interests; it's up to Muslims. Get involved."