At a Netroots panel I went to on Friday, someone in the audience got up and asked the panel what Muslims in America who want to fight Islamaphobia could learn from the American gay rights movement. Adam Serwer rightly pointed out that one thing the gay community has on its side that Muslims don’t is deep penetration into popular culture. Even if you don’t know gay people in person, it’s almost impossible to watch television or see movies without encountering gay characters, even if only the archetype of the sassy gay best friend. Katie Couric is right that we need a Muslim version of the Cosby show. But more than that, I think we need a positive, plug-and-play archetype for Muslim characters so we can have not just one show that portrays American Muslims, but many.
Obviously, those gay archetypes are problematic: they turn people into stereotypes, they’re limited, they arguably elide the most powerful part of gay difference by being sexless, they erase the fact that there’s more than one kind of gay person. But as the thinnest edge of the wedge, they’re a powerful tool, as long as people stand behind them with a mallet and a lot of creative ideas. And I doubt we’re going to immediately get a wide, humanized variety of Muslim characters on television in America without some sort of intermediate step.
The thing is, I have no idea what that archetype would look like. I threw the question out on Twitter. Ramsin Canon suggested the main character in East Is East. Neil Lambert jokingly proposed a snappy halal cook (which would be an interesting appropriation of the foodie trend). And there were several nominations for Abed from Community, a suggestion that is, of course, dear to my own heart and that I think has some compelling possibilities. As Mike Wasson put it: “Wacky personality + being comfortable w/ US pop culture — while being distinctly Muslim — should prevent othering.” But Benjamin Blattberg, came back with what I thought was a useful framing of the question: “If Jews bring liberalism and homosexuals bring aesthetics, what’s the Muslim cultural mark?”
The sassy gay friend has its failings as a cultural trope, but it does offer something more than simply peaceful coexistence: there’s a clear value add there. If you overcome your fear (assisted by the harmlessness of the stereotype) and let your gay coworker or the Queer Eye guys into your life, you’ll emerge with a better sense of style, better taste in wine, renewed self-confidence. Abed’s a good neutral character, a demonstration that one person can love divergent religious and secular cultures. But we need something affirmatively positive, a promise to mainstream American audiences of how getting to know your friendly neighborhood Muslim will open up your world.