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Muslims Need An Ellen DeGeneres-Style Advocate

03/04/2015 09:50 EST | Updated 05/04/2015 05:59 EDT
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Many Muslim communities around the world are calling the killing of three young Muslims at Chapel Hill a hate crime. Others are calling it a parking dispute, a sort of road rage over space. According to his Facebook page, Craig Stephen Hicks, the alleged murderer was a supporter of gay rights, but didn't seem to extend the same warm feelings towards Muslims and Islam.

Why tolerance is higher for one minority group and not another has complex roots. But I wonder if popular culture played a role in how Mr. Hicks viewed these two groups. After all, as little as 15 years ago, LGBTQ individuals were also highly maligned as a group without a lot of positive representation in popular culture. But that has changed much in recent times.

Joe Biden famously told NBC's David Gregory on Meet the Press, that the television show Will and Grace had helped America change it's views on homosexuality. By the time Modern Family aired, it wasn't abnormal to see two gay married men on a mainstream American sitcom. But I would argue that the real pioneer for portraying a gay character on television is Ellen DeGeneres. In 1997, when Ms. DeGeneres, the star of her sitcom Ellen came out publically on The Oprah Winfrey Show and then again in her sitcom Ellen with Ms. Winfrey playing her therapist, right-wing religious groups angrily protested in front of ABC until the network felt pressured to put a disclaimer in front of the show advising parental discretion "Due to adult content."

One year later, ABC finally cancelled the once-popular show citing low ratings. As a result of coming out, Ellen DeGeneres has talked about her feelings of depression and how her career had suffered. Then on October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student was found beaten, burned and tied to a fence. He died of severe head injuries a few days later. Like Yusor Mohammad, one of the Chapel Hill victims, he was also just 21 years old. The two men who killed Matthew Shepard were convicted of first-degree murder. Although the motives for Matthew Shepard's murder were later revealed to be complex, his death triggered the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr, Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which President Obama signed into law on October 28, 2009.

Are the triple Chapel Hill Muslim homicides similarly posed to show how increasing Islamophobia may be linked to rising violence against the Muslim community in America? We do not know all the facts of this case, but it's clear that Muslims are portrayed negatively in popular culture, and that we need positive role models.

Ellen DeGeneres famously came to Matthew Shepard's vigil, tearfully stating that one of the reasons she came out on her show was to prevent this type of crime. Dr. Suzanne Barakat, the sister of Deah Barakat one of the murder victims, has also appealed to Americans to consider how Islamophobia may have played a role in the death of her brother and sister-in-law. Both Ms. DeGeneres and Dr. Baraket became eloquent advocates for their respective communities during times of crisis.

Just as Ms. DeGeneres had to fight right-wing reactionaries who opposed the acceptance and portrayal of homosexuality on television, the Muslim community is also engaged in a similar struggle. The parallels between how right-wing groups treated the first American Muslim reality show is remarkably similar to what Ellen DeGeneres went through with her television show in 1997.

In 2011, TLC aired All-American Muslim, which portrayed the lives of five American-Lebanese Shia Muslim families in Dearborn, Michigan, home to the greatest concentration of Muslims in the U.S. It was the first mainstream reality show about an American Muslim community. The Muslims on this show weren't particularly devout, and just like Ellen DeGeneres, they were ordinary Americans going about their lives. A few days after it aired, David Caton, a Florida man, who described himself as a born-again Christian, created a one-person group entitled the Florida Family Association (FAA).

He sent out e-mails to various companies whose commercials played during the show, saying that "... clearly this program is attempting to manipulate Americans into ignoring the threat of jihad and to influence them to believe that being concerned about the jihad threat would somehow victimize these nice people in this show." In other words, Muslims were being seen as "too American" instead of as the frightening "other," thus threatening American values. And just like on Ellen's show, his intimidation tactic worked. Lowes and other major companies withdrew sponsorship from the show.

American television shows such as 24 and Homeland overwhelming portray Muslims as terrorists and a threat to America. A Pew Report released in 2014 indicated that Islam and Muslims had the lowest approval ratings among Americans then than ever before. But it's not like this everywhere. I created Little Mosque on the Prairie, the first show about Muslims in a mainstream sitcom in Canada, where we don't have a reactionary right-wing as vocal and powerful as the one in the U.S. In fact, because the show skewed so heavily towards educated, higher income earners, advertisers flocked to the show, including banks, insurance companies and even Hockey Night in Canada. But this simply indicates that Canada has a better environment for media to portray Muslims as regular Canadians.

I don't know why Craig Stephen Hicks murdered three American Muslims. By all accounts, they were compassionate individuals committed to social justice, such as caring for the homeless and refugees, who were well on their way to becoming successful professionals. In other words, they were the type of Americans that America loves.

But Mr. Hicks clearly did not view them as such. Would their lives have been valued more if he had seen them as being as American as himself? Would he have acted differently if Islam was portrayed respectfully and accurately in American media? Only Mr. Hicks can answer this question. But it's possible he may not have been able to distinguish between his feelings about his American neighbours from the overwhelmingly negative attention given to Islam. If that's true, then this was a hate crime of immense and preventable tragedy.

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