A recent Harvard analysis of news coverage found that Muslims spoke on their own behalf only three percent of the time. By contrast, 21 percent of the words spoken to the media about Muslims over the same period came out of one mouth—that of the president of the United States. “Donald Trump speaks more about Muslims than Muslims do,” writes author and Guardian columnist Moustafa Bayoumi. “Seven times more.”
A start to rectifying this dismal state of affairs, Bayoumi writes, is to listen to the voices of Muslims. Introducing the series, Reshaping Our World: Cinema Without Borders, a partnership with the the Arab American arts organization Mizna, he examines the Trump administration’s ban on travel to the US by visitors from six majority-Muslim countries, media representations of Muslims, and films connected to the countries affected by the travel ban, including Tewfik Saleh’s The Dupes (1973), which Bayoumi introduces at the Walker on July 12.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a remarkable scene from Booker T. Washington’s 1901 autobiography Up From Slavery, where Washington recounts visiting an unnamed town that was on the brink of killing a black man. Why was this the case? The “dark-skinned man” had committed the unspeakable crime of stopping at the town’s local hotel. During this Jim Crow era of racial segregation and deadly racial violence, a black person had to know where to go and where not to go, otherwise merely stopping at a hotel could become a life-threatening act. Washington tells us that the man’s presence so angered the local white population that “it seemed likely for a time that there would be a lynching.” And yet the man was spared. The townspeople soon found out that the man was not an “American Negro” after all but was in fact “a citizen of Morocco” who spoke English. And with that revelation, “all the signs of indignation disappeared.” Washington then informs us that “[t]he man who was the innocent cause of the excitement, though, found it prudent after that not to speak English.”
There was a time when being Moroccan and not speaking English would save your life in this country. Imagine that. Of course, escaping racial violence in 1901 because you’re a non–English speaker from the Maghreb can exist only within the context of centuries of brutality inflicted on African Americans. What really saved the man was not the fact that he was North African but that he was not African American (a notion the Moorish Science Temple of America would later reify). Today, African Americans are still disproportionately subject to both state and vigilante violence, and so are many Moroccans and Arabs and Muslims and also those who are assumed to be Muslim. I’m not sure what you’re supposed to call this turn of events, but I’m pretty sure it’s not called progress.
As a nation, we seem to be in a rush these days to move backwards as quickly as possible. How else to categorize Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning the entry of people from six Muslim-majority countries? This ban is a return to an ignoble past, recalling the dark days of the late nineteenth century, when for the first time the government excluded a specific ethnic group, the Chinese, from entering the country. That the Supreme Court has now allowed Trump’s ban to proceed, even if just in part, is ominous.
In fact, we were supposed to have moved beyond this type of immigration prejudice some time ago. For generations, American immigration policy had been based on a quota system that perpetuated racial and national-origin discrimination, a system that Lyndon Johnson called “un-American in the highest sense,” because it “violated the basic principle of American democracy—the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man.” Noting Johnson’s sexist language, we can still appreciate his point, a position that was inscribed in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. From that moment forward, we recognized that our past immigration practices of blanket discrimination on the basis of race or national origin were wrong, and so we changed the law. Since 1965, what mattered was not where you come from. What mattered was who you are.
Well, no longer. By exploiting a fear of refugees and capitalizing on a hatred of Muslims, our government, now abetted by our Supreme Court, has decided that grandmothers from Yemen are a national security threat. What madness.
Almost as infuriating is the tepid outrage that has accompanied the Court’s decision and the Executive Order’s implementation this time. The rapid mobilization that occurred last January, when the Trump administration first attempted to unroll their ban, was immensely inspiring and terribly important in showing how we, the people, can establish justice and secure the blessings of liberty. Perhaps freedom has since gone on summer vacation. More likely, the Court’s compromise decision, which will enable a large number of people from the six nations listed in the ban to still enter the country, has blinded many to the larger implications of what’s now happening, namely that our immigration system has again formally legalized a system of blanket discrimination, this time based on national origin and motivated by religious animus.
That this is a Muslim ban without a plausible national security rationale is abundantly clear. The Cato Institute found that the number of people killed on American soil by a terrorist attack perpetrated by someone from Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Libya, or Yemen is zero. The number of fatal terrorist attacks on American soil since passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, which systematized a rigorous screening procedure for would-be refugees, is also zero. Donald Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security has found that “country of citizenship is unlikely to be a reliable indicator of potential terrorist activity.” And the offensive idea that terrorism is primarily a Muslim phenomenon, a notion repeatedly amplified by the president, obscures the fact that right-wing terrorism (from white supremacists and antigovernment militia groups) is far more prevalent and deadly in the United States than terrorist acts committed by Muslims here.
The Muslim ban has succeeded as much as it has because it can be rationalized as necessary, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, and fear and prejudice lie at the heart of that rationalization. Considering that fewer than half of all Americans have ever met a Muslim, you can see how fear and prejudice become easy to produce and exploit. In this reality, media representations substitute for personal encounters, and if you think Muslims have a hard time being represented fairly in the media, you don’t know the half of it.
A new study from Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center provides a sense of how big the problem is. Focusing on the nightly newscasts of three major television outlets, the study found that Muslims on American television news are portrayed in overwhelmingly negative terms, are seen almost exclusively through the lens of violence, and are themselves rendered virtually silent. Over a 13-month period in 2015 and 2016, for example, about 75 percent of news coverage about Muslims was about war and terrorism, mostly about ISIS. Muslims themselves were heard from a paltry three percent of the time. And Donald Trump “accounted for 21 percent of the words spoken about Muslims.” In other words, on our television news, Donald Trump speaks more about Muslims than Muslims do. Seven times more.
What a dismal state of affairs. How could we rectify it? A start would be by listening to voices that are too often left unheard in our country, and that very opportunity is found in this carefully curated and wonderfully rich film series. Here, audiences will have the chance to see films connected to the countries listed on the Muslim ban. The occasion is invaluable.
This is not a film series meant to explain the “Muslim mind” or to justify America’s wars. Quite the contrary. This is a series that harnesses the creative energies of art and curation to dislodge the stupidity of our politics. In this series, what you’ll see is the beautifully rendered film A Stray, the austere poetics of The Dupes, the metaphysical absurdity of A Taste of Cherry, and much more. These are films that revel in the manifold ways that lives are lived. Policies like the Muslim ban may reduce people to threats, but films like these show us the importance of seeing people as subjects of their own stories rather than objects of our pity or our wrath.