The NBA Hall of Famer and THR columnist, a practitioner of Islam since college, is hopeful that the Kumail Nanjiani starrer and Aziz Ansari’s ‘Master of None’ are bringing an end to portrayals of the devoted as “rabid, merciless terrorists” onscreen.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” an apple farmer observes in the opening to Robert Frost’s Mending Wall. That line, indeed that poem, is the spiritual essence of America: a country founded on a sacred mission to tear down walls that needlessly separate neighbors. There are all kinds of walls, from the $70 billion physical wall that Trump wants to build to walls that one-percenters build to keep their money in (they don’t call it Wall Street for nothing). But the most formidable wall of all is the Perception Wall of false images and ideas that nurtures fears and prejudices about other groups based on religion, ethnicity, national origin or gender identity.
Muslims have had a great run being portrayed as rabid, merciless terrorists. That’s what Americans saw in movies and television shows from True Lies to 24 to Homeland. That is the image of Muslims many Americans still cling to. Even with the many recent positive portrayals of Muslim-Americans in the arts, it takes time for images to dilute the poison that’s been mixed in for so long. Every time the news reports that a Muslim has been involved in a terrorist attack, the prejudice stored in our body sweats through the pores and reheats our fear. And yet, as of Nov. 6, there were 307 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2017, the majority by white Christian men. When a generic white man fires 1,100 bullets into a Las Vegas crowd, killing 58 and injuring 546, we have nowhere to go with our anger or fear. We can’t be on the lookout for every disaffected white Christian male. We can’t profile them. But we think we know what Muslims look like (though vigilantes have often mistakenly targeted non-Muslims), so our mistrust more easily takes a human form. We prefer our villains with a physical Cain-like identifier — dark skin, large nose, prayer hat, veil, foreign accent — to clarify that they’re not one of Us. The irony is most Americans are descended from a persecuted group.