Hollywood’s Responsibility in Combating Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism

In an era marked by the unsettling rise of Islamophobia and antisemitism, media narratives serve as critical avenues for fostering familiarity and empathy towards communities that represent relatively small proportions of the population.

Hollywood’s Responsibility in Combating Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism
Doris Duke Foundation President and CEO Sam Gill at the 2023 Tribeca Screening Room. Photo source: Gabi Porter

How can Hollywood stop reinforcing negative sentiments towards American Muslims and Jews? This is the question Sam Gill, President and CEO of the Doris Duke Foundation, sets out to answer in a recent op-ed on The Hollywood Reporter.

In an era marked by the unsettling rise of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, media narratives serve as critical avenues for fostering familiarity and empathy towards communities that represent relatively small proportions of the population.

Against the backdrop of the ongoing Hollywood awards season, Gill says it is overwhelmingly evident how much progress the entertainment industry has made in portraying the diverse tapestry of American society — and at the same time, just how much further it still needs to go. Recent events at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival serve as a sample of the world we live in right now. Jewish hostages talked about their harrowing experiences; at the same time, pro-Palestinian protestors shut down traffic while calling for cease-fire. Also Sundance, the Doris Duke Foundation announced $6 million in grants to support Muslim creators. The foundation provided funding for Muslim House at Sundance, hosted by the MPAC Hollywood Bureau. And at a standing-room-only event at the festival's Muslim House, hundreds of Muslim creators and their allies underscored both their vibrant presence in the industry and the immense challenges they face while grasping for meaningful recognition and representation in mainstream media.

Statistics paint a stark picture of the disparity in portrayal. A 2022 study from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that, across 200 television series, 87 percent did not feature a single Muslim with a speaking role. The few representations that were series regulars on these projects (a meager 12) often fell victim to stereotypical depictions as either perpetrators or targets of physical violence.

Similarly, the Oscars, a pinnacle of cinematic recognition, notably lack substantial representation of Muslims in non-stereotypical roles.

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” (2023). And notably, Youssef himself was not nominated for an award.

Gill says that such monochromatic depictions of Muslims not only fail to accurately reflect the complexities of society but also exacerbate societal divisions by perpetuating negative stereotypes and villainizing differences. This exacerbation is particularly troubling against the backdrop of escalating incidents of intolerance, ranging from harassment to physical violence targeting both Muslims and Jews across the United States.

The Biden-Harris Administration's recognition of the arts and culture's role in combating hate is a significant step forward. Initiatives aimed at supporting organizations working to counter hate through artistic expression are commendable, but Gill says that their efficacy hinges on broader dissemination and engagement.

Indeed, the crux of the issue lies in the brute math of societal dynamics: the limited exposure most individuals have to diverse perspectives due to the demographic realities of minority communities. Jewish people are 2.4 percent of the U.S. population, and Muslims are just 1.1 percent. And despite studies saying that many in the U.S. harboring negative views of Muslims, fewer than half say they have ever met one. Gill says that 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.

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Bridging this gap necessitates concerted efforts across various fronts, with the entertainment industry occupying a pivotal position in driving meaningful change.

Firstly, Gill says that providing opportunities for Muslim actors and creators to transcend typecast roles is imperative.

Secondly, Gill says that portrayals of Muslim peoples and cultures must strive to combine entertainment with enlightenment, offering narratives that educate and inspire while entertaining audiences.

Lastly, Gill says that ensuring equitable distribution and marketing support for films and shows featuring diverse perspectives is crucial for reaching broader audiences and fostering inclusive narratives.

While progress is evident, as evidenced by recent projects and initiatives, the journey toward authentic representation and inclusivity is far from over. The voices of Muslim creators, echoed at events like the Muslim House at Sundance, underscore the ongoing challenges and the pressing need for sustained efforts towards positive change.

Ultimately, Hollywood's unique ability to shape cultural narratives presents an unparalleled opportunity to promote tolerance and understanding. By embracing diverse stories and amplifying underrepresented voices, the entertainment industry can play a pivotal role in fostering a more inclusive and empathetic society — one where differences are celebrated, not vilified.

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.

You can read Gill’s full op-ed at the link below.

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