September 24th, 2021


Cast Me --- Or Else

Julia Gorin

By Julia Gorin

Published March 13, 2017

Actor Riz Ahmed attends the 89th Annual Academy Awards.

No sooner did I subject myself to HBO's "The Night Of" (young Pakistani-American arrested for murder he didn't commit), than the star of the show, Britain's Riz Ahmed, was asked to deliver Channel 4's annual diversity lecture in Parliament this month.

"[Ahmed] said the lack of diverse voices and stories onscreen," the Guardian reported, "led people from minority backgrounds to 'switch off and retreat to fringe narratives, to bubbles online and sometimes even off to Syria. If we fail to represent, we are in danger of losing people to extremism....Where is the counter narrative? Where are we telling these kids they can be heroes in our stories...? ...If we don't step up and tell a representative story...[w]e are going to see the murder of more MPs like Jo Cox.'"

I know that in show business it's good to have a surefire backup plan, but this is ridiculous. When Whoopi Goldberg didn't see enough people on TV who looked like her, she got angry too. And resorted to...a one-woman show.

To be fair, Ahmed was mostly scolding the UK, saying that Asian actors "end up going to America to find work." To overturn the unconscious bias in hiring, he said "that public money should be tied to representation targets for broadcasters to break the cycle of top jobs going mainly to white men," read the Guardian article.

While Indians in the UK would also benefit from such a policy, it's worth noting that they don't seem to make such brazen demands. And if anyone has a case against the Brits, it's the mistreated Indians, not the worshipped Muslims and Arabs. Yet one never hears about Indians massacring, making threats, or remolding society to their likeness. So maybe Ahmed can explain what it is about his people that their runner-up thought toward belonging goes to violence, as his speech seems to suggest.

I can't say the thought of show business as a bulwark against terror has never occurred to me; it has — but as a joke. In 2006 I blogged:

Ramzi Yousef, who orchestrated the 1993 WTC bombing, was said to have become a radical because it was the only industry, and the only route out of poverty. But with Hollywood trying to keep pace with current realities, the terror film genre is set to outpace the horror film genre. Given the sheer quantities of Middle Eastern actors needed for these projects, this means the emergence of a whole new, more productive, profitable industry for glory-seeking would-be terrorists and professional radicals. What's more, very little professional acting instruction would be required, as it'd be the ultimate in Stanislavsky method acting, the actors often bringing their direct experience and frustrations to the roles. What rich resources at our disposal, within our very borders.

At the same time, they get upset being typecast as terrorists, so this somehow all needs to occur without that. (Though just as often they play decent people mistaken for terrorists by bumbling, terrorized Westerners.) Which leads to the next catch-22: On one hand, Ahmed doesn't want his fellow Muslim thespians typecast as terrorists; on the other, he says the alternate draw for them — and for young Muslims watching — is terrorism.

No one seemed too upset about the typecasting in the '80s and early '90s — before every other Muslim was a potential jihadist. Further, why keep giving all the terror roles to Hispanics and Indians, to play Muslims and Arabs? Remember how Hispanics threw a fit when Latino roles like the gangster/drug-dealer leads in "Carlito's Way" and "Scarface" went to Al Pacino instead of to Hispanic actors? So Middle Easterners should likewise want their own roles. Terror is yours, own it. If you find this insulting, use that anger for the role. Transitioning from terrorists to playing terrorists is good methadone. It could even lead to endorsement deals and public service announcements: "I'm not a terrorist, but I play one on TV. Don't do terror."

As ridiculous as Ahmed's argument sounds, given our times one can't dismiss entirely what he's saying about the risks resulting from kids not seeing themselves reflected in the wider culture (though it would help if they weren't being fed a steady diet of hate at home and mosque). Trouble is, even fame or the possibility of it doesn't always work as a disincentive, with some entertainers still moonlighting as terrorists. Recall the medical doctor who'd gotten his moment in the sun on "Canadian Idol" and a couple years later was implicated in a jihad plot. The judge (the one in court, not on the show) ultimately gave Khurram Sher a second chance and didn't convict while acknowledging his jihadist sympathies. One supposes you could call Sher a real triple threat: medicine, singing, and terror. (He actually embodies a routine I'd written in 2003: "I see a lot of Middle Eastern students on the subway, their noses buried in medical texts, and I just try not to say, 'Oh please stay focused. Don't get distracted by jihad.' Considering the sheer focus and dedication it takes to become a doctor, how do they manage that and jihad? I couldn't multitask like that. These are talented people.") Meanwhile, notice that the wide acceptance of Muslims in the medical and scientific fields hasn't kept them from dabbling in terror.

A case of a Muslim rejected by show business and turning to jihad is Mohammed Sajid, head of the "Module" terror group in India who was arrested last May. He had auditioned for two dance reality shows and apparently didn't get far, leaving an opening for an imam to convince "him that music and dance would lead him to hell," reported India Today. So the composite message seems to be: Make it easier for Muslims to have singing, dancing and acting careers, or they'll help create a world where no one can sing, dance or act. Nothing Freudian there at all.

This puts Hollywood types in a bind: we've moved beyond fear of breaching laws like Equal Opportunity Employment, to it being just plain dangerous to say No to some people. Consider how many people try out for a single role, then compute how many Muslims are getting rejected every day. Yikes.

That's why — and I think a late-night host finally did a sketch on this — we could perhaps pioneer a reality TV competition for aspiring terrorists. "Who Wants to be a Terrorist?"; "So You Think You Can Bomb"; "America's Got Terrorists!"

Seriously, though, can Ahmed really not have noticed the thousand-fold increase in casting of Middle- and Near-Eastern types in the 15 years since 9/11? That is to say, he warns of a terrorist response to lack of representation, when in fact increased representation came in response to the terror. England hasn't been immune to this trend, even if it saves top roles for white men needed for those "stories set in Cornwall in the 1600s," as Ahmed quotes some of his rejecters.

The trend itself became apparent just months after 9/11, when there was a sudden spike in print and TV advertisements — then in news media, then in movies and TV shows — of people appearing to hail from the regions that attacked us. With 9/11 still raw at the time — and, one thought, ushering in a more mature understanding of the world around us — these images were shocking. 'Oh. My. G0D," I thought. "So this is the direction we're going to go in?" It was instantly recognizable as a form of Stockholm Syndrome, and I wrote as much for Wall St. Journal: "There is something puzzling about a culture that, at a time when it is experiencing tremendous hostility from the Middle East...responds by reconfiguring its multicultural mosaic. It feels like an apology for sins not committed, a muffling of justifiable indignation, an attempt to earn goodwill with symbolic cliché. It’s an odd way to react to Sept. 11."

By now, of course, our frog has been boiling for 15 years and we accept Stockholm Syndrome as our new normal, indeed as the way things ought to be.

Julia Gorin, a former refusenik, is a widely published opinion writer and essayist whose book "Hillarisms: The Unmaking of the First Female President" is the only original humor volume on the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate.

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