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What can Hollywood do to change perceptions of Muslims?

Executive producer Reza Aslan at ABC's
Executive producer Reza Aslan at ABC's "Of Kings and Prophets" panel at the 2016 Television Critics Association Winter Tour.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

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President Trump's executive order barring travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. has re-ignited discussions about the image of Muslims in American culture.

Reza Aslan is making a bold prediction that, in the coming year, there will be more expansive and varied depictions of Muslims and Middle Easterners coming out of Hollywood.

The producer, religious scholar and author of the best-selling book, "Zealot," is developing a network sitcom. He joined The Frame in the wake of Trump's executive order to discuss the role that the entertainment industry has played in perpetuating stereotypes of Muslims and Middle Easterners – namely as terrorists. And Aslan discusses the role that Hollywood could play in undoing those often ill-informed depictions.

Aslan also is host of a new documentary series coming to CNN in March called “Believer," in which he'll explore the world's religions.

To hear the full interview with Reza Aslan click the play button at the top of this page or get The Frame podcast on iTunes. Below are some highlights.

Interview Highlights:

The "bad guy" depiction of Muslims in TV & film:

For much of the last two-and-a-half decades, people wanted to see the Muslim as the bad guy — the Middle Easterner as the bad guy. That's really how we frame the perception of good and evil in the film world here in the United States. I will say this: what I have noticed over the last decade living in L.A. and working in Hollywood is that there is now a real desire to change that story. It's no longer satisfying — not just from a political perspective, but honestly just from a storytelling perspective — to have these comically bad Muslim characters or that one good Muslim character who dies in the first act. People want three dimensional characters. They want a different kind of story. 

Why Hollywood wants to change that narrative:

On the one hand it's no longer effective. But the fact of the matter is, [studio executives are] human beings. They're Americans just like the rest of us. They see what's going on. They're as horrified by the events that have taken place in this country over the last year as anybody else is. Unlike the rest of us, they're in a position in which they can actually do something about this. They are more powerful than politicians are. The man who runs Disney has way more power over how Americans think than the Senate minority [leader] or, for that matter, the Senate majority leader in Congress.

This is the industry that has always shaped the perceptions of Americans, whether it's about African Americans, Jews or gays. Now we have an opportunity to change the perception of Muslims and Middle Easterners. It's already starting. But I think you're going to see a wave of new entertainment in this next year-and-a-half that is going to present a brand new way of thinking about this underrepresented part of the world. 

Protests are great but more needs to be done:

Marching and making speeches is good and important. This idea that because you happen to act on TV or in films means that therefore you do not get a political voice is absurd. In fact, you have a responsibility when you have that loud of a megaphone to make sure that your values — particularly when those are the values that give birth to the Constitution of this country in the first place — are being expressed. So that's important.

But what it's really going to take is the people behind the scenes, the executives, the studio heads, the people who have the purse strings, the people who make the decisions. I think what we need now is for that group to become galvanized and to recognize that they have the ability to absolutely and utterly reframe the way this country thinks about Muslims and Middle Easterners. In fact, they're the only ones with the ability to do so.

The challenge of getting stories about Muslims approved:

I've been meeting with Hollywood executives and pitching shows for a decade now. I got doors slammed in my face over and over again until about a year ago. Suddenly, everyone wants to hear these stories. Again, I'm speaking from my own personal experience, but what I hear when I sit down with these studio heads and executives is, Tell us how to do this. We want to do this but we don't know how. Because look, we have to make money. That's why we are here. But we want to do good. We just need the right outlet. And the timing has never been better. 

The new generation of Middle Eastern storytellers:

I am an immigrant. And [like] the vast majority of immigrants from the Middle East that I know, my parents gave me two choices: You can be a doctor or you can be an engineer. I chose option three. I was just talking to [actor] Riz Ahmed and it's the same thing. If you want to be an actor — Well, that's cute, honey. You do that on the side. I think that now you've had a whole generation of Middle Easterners who've grown up in the United States who are now eschewing those traditional outlets and deciding they want to be content creators. They want to be directors, writers and producers. You are going to see a sea change in the way these stories are told.

Why storytelling can change minds:

The news media is essentially built to create lanes, to create sides and to argue each side as though each side is equally valid. So, often when I show up on one of these cable news outlets in order to try to inject some measure of meaning or information into these conversations, I leave thinking to myself, I've changed nobody's mind, which is why I've changed course now.

I really do, as a storyteller, believe that the only way to change people's minds — the only way to reframe their perceptions — is not through information, but through relationships. The most powerful relationship-building mechanism in the world is television and films. Whether you are a Trump supporter in Oklahoma or a Bernie supporter in Los Angeles, you both love "Breaking Bad." So the idea that you can come together and unite based on your empathy for this fictional character has profound consequences for creatives and for storytellers. To be able to use that power for good is a solemn responsibility and it's about time that we start taking it more seriously.

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