Thursday, June 25, 2009

Yes, good TV does exist outside of Hollywood

I recently went to a panel discussion on Media and the Arab world which discussed the lack of positive Muslim role models in the Western media from TV news anchors to movie stars. Although the topic was Western media, they primarily focused on American media outlets as they believed that it is American TV shows, movies, and other forms of journalism that has the greatest influence on Western audiences. This may be the case, but I just want to briefly highlight a few non-American Western shows and movies that do star Muslim characters and/or focus on Muslim plotlines and are doing precisely what this panel would love to see from Hollywood.

1) Little Mosque on the Prairie. This Canadian TV show, now in its fourth season, follows a small Muslim community in the small town of Mercy, Saskatchewan. Its characters represent a plurality of religious, ethnic, and political voices and the writers demonstrate a real interest in presenting a more thoughtful, nuanced look at Muslim life in the West. Unfortunately, it's not available on Netflix, but you can watch all the episodes on YouTube.

2) Only Human, a screwball comedy set in Spain, tells the story of a Jewish woman who brings home her Palestinian boyfriend for Shabbat dinner. For all the madcap chaos that ensues, much of it not having to do with the Jewish/Palestinian premise, it also slyly manages to address stereotypes on both sides with a refreshing lack of melodrama or preachiness.

These are but two examples of media projects that are trying, through humor, to offer to bridge the seemingly insurmountable gap between the West and the Muslim world. I am excited by these works and enthusiastically say--keep them coming!

When nuance is not so nuanced

So I am currently working my way through The Heart of Islam, by Seyyed Hossein Nasr--a book I picked up at the recent Muslim Arts and Voices festival in New York City. The book's flyleaf promises a thoughtful and nuanced examination of cultural, political, and religious Islam as well as an acknowledgement and exploration of the religious beliefs and traditions that it shares with the other Abrahamic faiths, Christianity and Judaism. Given these laudable goals, I am disappointed that his discussion of these three faiths often results in his extolling the virtues of Islam above the others and dismissing facts which contradict his claims. For example, it is quite frustrating to read a sentence that states, "In the middle part of the Islamic world...[there are] still some Jews...although most of the Jews from Arab countries migrated to Israel after 1948." Factually, Nasr is correct in stating that most Jews living in Arab countries left during that time period (Andre Aciman in a recent New York Times op-ed placed that number at 800,000), but it is also misleading to make such a statement without any sort of context. There is no mention of the anti-Semitic rhetoric, policies, and violence that forced Jews to leave en masse. If Nasr wishes to extol the relative peace of minorities in Muslim lands, it is equally important to recognize when this is not the case.

Similarly, when Nasr discusses Christian missionary work in the Muslim world, he is equally one-sided. He is highly critical (appropriately I believe) of missionary efforts to convert Muslims and charges Christian groups with using material aid (food, medicine, etc...) as temptation. He does not however, or at least not yet, talk about how these same tactics are used within the Muslim world, especially among more radical groups (i.e. Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, etc...) to win converts. Perhaps these situations are not exactly comparable, but when Nasr so strongly condemns Western consumerist culture, and does not acknowledge that these same activities (with similar aims--conversion) occur within the Muslim world, between Muslims, it demonstrates a double standard which directly contradicts his stated aim of a nuanced discussion.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, these points of contention, this book is certainly food for thought. If I do finish it, I hope that by the end I will have gained a somewhat deeper understanding of religious Islam...if nothing else.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Victimhood revisited

In following the media coverage of the recent shooting at the Holocaust Museum, there has been a lot of focus on the psychology of the shooter and of white supremacist groups in general, but there has been no exploration (at least that I've seen) of the psychology of the Jewish response. The insistence on Jewish victimhood at the expense of other hate crime victims, the fear of a rise in anti-Semitism (despite polls that show otherwise), etc... that proliferated in op-eds and articles written by Jewish authors, in the Washington Post and other publications, presented a response that I found to be particularly narrow and frustrating. I wrote a Letter to the Editor (see below) that pretty much sums up my thoughts:

"From Professor Jonathan Sarna wondering if this latest attack signals an “open season on Jews” to Rabbi David Saperstein insisting on “the quintessential victimhood” of Jews in the Western world, this rhetoric of victimization only serves to breed fear and heighten tension. To pay mere lip service to other violent acts of discrimination recently suffered by other minority groups in the US, as both these men did, while emphasizing the anti-Semitic incidents is to deny the universality of racist and xenophobic hatred that James von Brunn, and others, embodies. The deadly attack at the Holocaust Museum serves as yet another reminder that there are those who wish to wreak havoc on our society, but in order to confront this threat, we must acknowledge this and fight against the danger that these views pose for all Americans, not just Jewish Americans. "

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Oy! American Girl Goes Jewish

Well, the papers are all abuzz with the new addition to the American Girl family: Rebecca, a young Jewish girl who lives with her Russian immigrant family on the Lower East Side in the 1910s.

I was a little too old for the books (and dolls) when they first came out and always thought the stories were a bit too fluffy (I was more of an All-of-a-Kind Family girl myself). But hey,
if a blond Christian girl in North Dakota enjoys pretending she is living in a tenement on the Lower East Side in 1914...

who am I to complain?