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Is there Finally Hope for Challenging Orientalism in Hollywood?

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Crossposted from TikkunDaily

By Saadia Faruqi

Last week the world of American Muslim social media (if there is such a thing) was rocked by an unexpected victory. A proposed ABCFamily show provocatively entitled Alice in Arabia was cancelled after a protest by American Muslims. The reason: this tale of an American girl kidnapped by Saudi relatives and held, veiled against her will in Saudi Arabia was all too familiar as stereotypical orientalism. The question then becomes, with films and television shows preceding it rife with the racist prejudices of our American consciousness, why was Alice in Arabia different?

In fact the case brings several questions to mind. First off, what exactly was wrong with the show? As the show’s writer herself claimed, and as many experts agree, one of the ways to call out injustices like Saudi Arabia’s horrific treatment of women, is to call them out, to tell it like it is, to expose the truth no matter how ugly. While true to an extent, this strategy also backfires in that it paints an entire culture with the same brush. We don’t have to look very far to know this is fact: an extensive  research of Hollywood films document how these Arab stereotypical images and concepts are perpetuated over generations under the guise of entertainment.

In the case of Alice in Arabia, the stereotypes of Muslim/Arab male dominance and female oppression especially in the context of the hijab would have been cemented even further in the minds of the American public. That the show was to be presented on ABCFamily as a teen drama, an entire new audience, children and youth among them, would then be exposed to harmful stereotypes and us-versus-them mentality.

As if that wasn’t enough, perhaps the most important negative aspect of Alice in Arabia was the absence of any actual Arabs and/or Muslims in the production or writing team, or in the cast. The writer, a white ex-military person, claimed the show to give Arabs and Muslims a voice on American television, yet the protests against it prove that it was not the voice they wanted to see. Imagine if a film about African Americans or Hispanics included no-one from that ethnic group as consultants, actors, actresses or even team members. Nobody would consider the film in any way realistic, representative or even believable.

So how did the show get cancelled even before its pilot appeared on television? Social media can take the credit for that. Within days of the script being leaked on  BuzzFeed, individuals, activists and organizations led a surprisingly vocal and effective effort to block the show from seeing the light of day. Twitter saw the majority of the activism through the hashtag #AliceinArabia and both the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee sent written letters of protest to ABC. And wonder of wonders, the show was promptly cancelled, leading Islamophobes to concur that the “ angry Muslim mob” had won by using threats of violence once again.

Is the show’s cancellation a testament to the growing political and economic power of the American Muslim community? I doubt it. What it does signify is that the American media is beginning to view Muslims as a vocal group with sufficient bargaining power and access to more avenues of protest thanks to the infiltration of Twitter and Facebook. However, most American Muslims agree that ABC’s decision to cancel the show without any conversation was not a step in the right direction. Instead of re-working the script, bringing in Muslim consultants, or hiring Arab actors, ABC decided to cancel the show. If we really want to reduce and even perhaps eradicate orientalism and racism from Hollywood and other media, surely a conversation is in order? True representation of Muslims in Hollywood are certainly needed, and that can only happen if both parties work together with that goal in mind. Perhaps Alice in Arabia can be a starting point instead of a dead end.

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