Last weekend, millions of Americans (and I) tuned in to watch the premiere of the sixth season of Showtime’s Dexter. The show’s protagonist is a serial killer who follows a personal code of harming only those who have harmed others. Fans of the show identify with him, wondering who his next victim will be and hoping he doesn’t get caught by the police.
It doesn’t matter that Dexter is a lying murderer. All that matters is that on some fundamental level, we share certain values with him. To just lump him in with other serial killers — well, that would be prejudicial and downright un-American.
It seems that the American entertainment industry can get us to connect with just about anyone.
When it does so in a way that challenges hatemongers and the status quo, however, there is inevitable resistance. In 1970, for example, a Mississippi state commission voted to ban Sesame Street because of its racially integrated cast, reversing course only after the decision became a national embarrassment.
Of all the diverse fictional characters who have inspired us, Muslim protagonists remain very rare in American entertainment. On some level, I get that. We have a saying in Arabic that after a snake bites you, you become afraid of rope. And some pretty terrible people have done some pretty terrible things in the name of Islam.
Historically, we’ve seen television shows and other cultural forms as reflecting changes in society. The Cosby Show no doubt changed the way white Americans viewed black Americans. But it made an equal impression, I would suggest, on how African Americans viewed themselves.
As terrible as its portrayals of bad guys were for Muslims, the Fox show 24 may in a small way have prepared the country for President Obama. The show gave us two seasons of bad white presidents, one of whom looked and acted like Richard Nixon, followed by two good black presidents who happened to be young siblings, one of whom was assassinated and one of whom almost was. (Kennedys, anyone?) The following year, Obama was elected.
The media don’t only reflect reality; they create reality. And by focusing their energy on demonizing Muslims, we are missing an opportunity to positively influence the next generation. After all, if you tell children they’re stupid enough times, they start to believe they’re stupid. And if you tell them they’re terrorists enough times, they start to believe they’re terrorists.
We live in an age when children are learning the alphabet from Rihanna’s “S&M” and French from Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night.” Surely Muslim protagonists need not be anathema to American entertainment. Portrayals of Muslim doctors and teachers and parents, Muslim heroes and superheroes, and just ordinary Muslims may well help save a generation.
But when that day comes, inshallah, we can’t allow hatemongers to operate as Dexter does in the night, stalking and eliminating Muslim protagonists through bullying and boycotts. Those who break Dexter’s code and attempt to hurt the innocent should be named and shamed. Unlike him, they deserve to be caught.
Naif Al-Mutawa is a Kuwait-born, US-educated psychologist who created “The 99,” a comic book about a group of superheroes based on Islamic archetypes. A new documentary about his work is scheduled to air on PBS this week. This article originally appeared on philly.com.