Why Muslim TV Characters Matter

Professor of Theological Studies, Loyola Marymount, Los Angeles

I watched the “Go Cubs” episode of Roseanne, which I think is extraordinary.

When asked in surveys, most Americans indicate that they don’t know a Muslim, and so the images that they see on television are crucial, as they may be the only Muslims that people encounter.

(Spoiler alert!) In this episode, a new Yemeni Muslim family moves next door to the Conners. Not only are they Muslim, but they are also refugees from a country that was put on President Trump’s travel ban. Roseanne, not surprisingly, is suspicious. But when she is forced to go to their neighbors for help, which is also her first encounter with them, they help her out.

That’s the key. Her neighbors, like good neighbors, share their Wi-Fi password with her so her granddaughter can Skype with her mom. This simple act changes Roseanne’s perception so that when she sees Fatima, the mom next door, insulted by a store clerk, she’s able to speak up for her neighbor. And there’s also a lovely dig at the government bureaucracy which deems prepared food a luxury, so that people can’t use EBT for cooked chicken.

[Video credit: ABC/Carsey Werner]

It is a lovely episode, which brilliantly showcases the poetry of ordinary lives. We may have fears and prejudices, but when you actually meet people, they may be decent. And that transforms you in the process, so that you behave differently towards them. It’s in keeping with the best television done by Norman Lear in the 1970s. “Go Cubs” is a beautiful episode, where our stories, whether working class, Muslim, or working class Muslim, are told for what they are, part of our nation’s fabric.

As someone who teaches at a Catholic university, I need to add a confession. I never really watched the original Roseanne in the 1980s, and so I wasn’t anticipating its returning for a new season this year. No disrespect intended by that, particularly to the actors who are wonderful, especially the magisterial John Goodman. But, I grew up working class, with parents who worked in various factory jobs. Then, I wanted escapism on television, not the reality of my ordinary life.

When Roseanne premiered, I was beginning to do graduate work at the University of Toronto, where I would write a dissertation a decade later on Muslim communities in Toronto. I moved to the San Fernando Valley in 1997 to begin teaching at Cal State Northridge, and my work shifted to Muslims in the United States. I’ve been at Loyola Marymount University since 2005, where I have consulted and worked on various television shows including Saving Grace and The Story of God with Morgan Freeman. Los Angeles is really the creative heart of the United States, where we produce television and film that is consumed both at home and around the world.

As an American Muslim (I became a US citizen 5 years ago) and a scholar of Islam, it would be difficult to overstate the role of media in forming impressions of Islam and Muslims in the United States. The importance of news media, for example, became clear to me through my courses on Islam. In the years before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, I would begin with a standard historical introduction to the life of Muhammad and the beginnings of Islam, Frank Peters’ Muhammad and the Origins of Islam. I did this because my students–regardless of whether they were Muslim—often knew very little about Islam before they took my course.

In the semester after 9/11, I found that this was no longer effective, as the students thought they had a great deal of knowledge about Islam and the religious lives of Muslims. Most of their “knowledge” came from the popular media, however, and was often at odds with the ways in which the majority of Muslims understand their own faith. As a result, I began to use a book, Neil Postman and Steve Powers’ How to Watch TV News, that described how television news works, where ratings and profit are much more important than the number of awards won for investigative journalism. When what matters is ratings, the controversial and the provocative are privileged over the thoughtful and the accurate. To this day, I alternate between that book and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death as the first book in every Islam course that I teach.

I think “Go Cubs” is a marvelous episode. If there’s any negative feedback, I suspect it won’t be from Muslims, but from right-wing extremists who think Roseanne has gone soft. She hasn’t of course, she’s just come to realize that the Muslim refugees next door aren’t terrorists, but neighbors. And when the father, Salim, returns the money that Roseanne lent Fatima, he does it at 2:00 am, the same time that Roseanne awoke their family the day before. They are good neighbors, but not pushovers, and I think that wins Roseanne’s respect.

Amir Hussain is Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University, the Jesuit university in Los Angeles, where he teaches courses on Islam and comparative theology. His own particular specialty is the study of contemporary Muslim societies in North America. From 2011 to 2015, Amir was the editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. The most recent of his six books is Muslims and the Making of America, published in 2016 by Baylor University Press.

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This is one of two blogs about this episode. Read Sohad Murrar’s post. If you’d like to read Lear Center Director Marty Kaplan‘s take, it’s here.