Just as megachurch pastor Rick Warren argues that churches can succeed where governments fail when it comes to humanitarian work, particularly in Africa, so some policy thinkers have begun to believe that culture can succeed where the current administration cannot when it comes to bridging the Islam vs. the West divide.

This win-through-culture approach resulted in a strange event this past Monday night, when the buttoned-down Brookings Institute, through its Saban Center for Middle East Policy, hosted the premier of a new sitcom, combined with an iftar, or Ramadan fast-breaking. “As a comedy writer, you generally don’t think you are going to screen your show at Brookings,” said David Guarascio, the long-haired co-creator and executive producer of “Aliens in America.”

The receptive audience — an invited mix of policy types, media leaders and D.C.-area Muppies (Muslim Urban Professionals) — laughed its way through the pilot (and third episode) of “Aliens,” which tells the story of a Wisconsin family that accidentally ends up with a Pakistani Muslim exchange student. (The premier aired on the CW Network on Monday at 8:30 PM, but is currently available for free download on iTunes.)

The show is amazingly accurate in its Muslim details, thanks no doubt to the advisory work of Edina Lekovic, communications director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles. When Raja, the Pakistani student (played by Adhir Kalyan, a Hindu in real life,) is feeling down, he cups his hands and correctly recites in the shahadah, or Muslim testimony of faith, before asking his host-brother, geeky teenager Justin (Dan Byrd,) what prayers he recites when he needs a boost. (Justin replies that he usually eats something, like a whole tray of brownies.)

Guarascio and show co-creator Moses Port did not set out to create social change through sitcom. Rather, as Guarascio recounted in the discussion panel that followed the screenings, he and Port were “just sitting in an office, thinking up TV show ideas, trying to make each other laugh.”

The departure point for the show was the torture that high school presents for insecure teenagers. Guarascio and Port wanted to riff on that theme, but also “respond to what is in the culture,” which, as Guarascio put it, is a response to terrorism that is sometime cautious and sometimes “paranoid.” Introducing a Muslim exchange student into a regular high school-angst comedy presented an opportunity to be “funny and poignant at the same time,” he said.

The show has received a level of press attention out of proportion to its potential for commercial success (a Newsday reviewer pointed out that several high school-based sitcoms have recently bombed,) and the basic headline is this: “‘Aliens’ Is First Sitcom To Have Sympathetic Muslim Main Character.” You can write the rest of the story for yourself: “What Murphy Brown did for single professional mothers, what Will and Grace did for gay people, so ‘Aliens’ may do for Muslims in America: make them seem human and harmless.”

Omar Amanat, an Internet entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist who also spoke on the panel, went so far as to say the show represented a “turning point,” a moment when culture begins to make the decisive difference not only in how Americans view Muslims but how Muslims view themselves. Amanat said he is inspired by the argument, made in 1968 by two psychologists in their book Black Rage, that widespread black violence erupted in America only in the 1960s, when TV began to penetrate the general population and blacks began to see themselves depicted negatively. The Cosby Show, and later BET, began to slowly reverse that trend, he said. So, Amanat suggests, “Aliens” could begin to turn the tide of Islamophobia in the same way.

But isn’t that assessment a bit optimistic, ReligionWriter asked Amanat during the panel, given that Jamie Foxx is currently shooting up Saudis in the box office, and a September survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life revealed that the general American population has a less favorable opinion of Islam today than they did in 2002?

Amanat was undaunted, however, asserting that the “creative community” is always out ahead of the general public, “pushing the culture forward,” and that “Aliens” is just one example of this phenomenon. He pointed to the United Nations’ Alliance of Civilizations and a number of other similar initiatives designed to promote dialogue and also mentioned the upcoming film based on Khaled Hosseini’s best-seller, The Kite Runner. “That film will create a great emotional experience that will shift perceptions,” he said.

Indeed. ReligionWriter was privileged to see an advance screening of The Kite Runner movie last Friday night at the Religion Newswriters Association conference in San Antonio, thanks to Grace Hill Media, which specializes in marketing films to religious (and usually evangelical) audiences. The movie stays very close to the book, but several visual elements are striking.

In one scene toward the end of the movie, the main character, Amir (Khalid Abdalla,) a haunted Afghani immigrant to America, must search through the streets of Peshawar for his missing nephew — who represents his hopes for goodness — and he ends up at a mosque. Raised by a secular father, Amir finds himself making ritual ablutions and then bowing his head in prayer. Playing in the background is a English-language Muslim praise song (a Grace Hill representative wasn’t able to immediately identify it.)

To the casual observer, this scene may seem quite normal, even expected: a moment of spiritual renewal for troubled character. But the representation of Muslim prayer in connection with a positive theme — a man coming to terms with his tragic past — may be something of a mainstream media first. In many other films — for example, The Siege and United 93 — images of prayer are directly connected to acts of terror.

So even if “Aliens” doesn’t last more than a season (though ReligionWriter found it genuinely funny and is considering adding it as a “favorite show” on her Facebook page,) those who believe film and media have the power to open minds should be looking ahead to The Kite Runner’s release on November 2.

Update, Oct. 5: The Kite Runner is now scheduled for limited release in the U.S. on Dec. 14, according to the Washington Post, due to concern about the safety of the young Afghani actors.

Related on ReligionWriter:

Humanizing Iran, and Other Ways to Save the World With Summer Reading” Posting June 25, 2007

» » » » » »


3 Comments so far

  1. Amad on October 3, 2007 6:23 pm

    The show is amazingly accurate in its Muslim details

    I respect your take on this, but I take some umbrage at your characterization of this show. Most people I know take this to be yet another lame attempt at bringing Muslims to the screen- its more like Muslim lampoons to the screen.

    I am not sure how you got the impression that it was “accurate”, considering that the show’s producers were not even able to put a Muslim name on the kid! By the way, Raja is a Hindu name.

    Moreover, if you ask a Pakistani like myself, I found the whole cultural shtick and the odd moments not only NOT funny, but also unrealistic and stupid. Pakistanis don’t act this way… neither do they speak this way. So, when American kids do come across a “REAL” Pakistani exchange student, they won’t even recognize the connection. I also wonder how many kids will use the show to make fun of newly minted Pakistani schoolers in America.

    My 2 cents.

  2. mariam on October 5, 2007 12:59 pm


    I think it’s nice that you wrote this article. It’s clear your objective is to bring a fair view of all religions. It’s easier to hate something foreign than to get to know it and respect it.

    I somewhat agree with the above post. They named the kid a hindu name and the accent that he has is TYPICAL of when someone with an American accent tries to do an Indian/Pakistani accent. Granted Indo-Pakistanis DO have accents, it’s just A LOT different than what Hollywood thinks it is. As for the Shahada, it was recited terribly. I think they even cut it off, but considering the kid isn’t Muslim to begin with, we should give him some credit.

    At first I thought the idea of this show, along with it’s name (Aliens - implying something weird and scary), was a bad idea. However, after watching an episode because my husband made me, I have to say it’s not THAT bad. It’s the best we can ask for at this point. Coming from Canada, I find it quite amazing and scary how much the American media likes to protray anyone who isn’t a white American as bizarre and uncivilized. We don’t need to alienate ourselves from the rest of the world. We live in a Global community whether someone likes it or not.

    Thanks for writing the article!
    Best of luck!

  3. victoria on October 9, 2007 2:07 am

    well, the fact that amad took umbrage at its inaccuracies (certainly you have a right to)proves that its an american sitcom, and actually points to its unremarkable acceptance into american culture.

    it was kind of cute, no laugh out loud moments, but no boring lulls either.

    it wrapped up the lesson learned, and had the familiar respolution neatly tied up at the end, all in all a regular american sitcom experience.

    welcome to america! land of bad accents and mediocre comedic talents!

    i think the name itself is a deliberate provoker- because the kid isnt really that alien at all, is he? which i think is the point.

    the accent couldnt have been too realistic though- it is not an easily discernible one to the dull american ear-

    this is a sad but true comment on my own and my countrymens international deafness-

    once i went to a khutba- and on the way out someone on the street asked me what it was about- i replied, “i dont know, it was in urdu.”
    a gentleman behind me chided me and proclaimed- “no, it was in english!”

    im glad the attempt was made, ive been saying for the longest that muslims need to take the reins and define themselves instead of letting others define them.

    so heres to living and learning about our differences

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