alice in arabia muslims on tv gi 'Alice in Arabia' outrage: The difficult relationship between Islam and U.S. TV

When ABC Family announced a trio of new drama pilots in development earlier this week, one of them — “Alice in Arabia” — sparked immediate notice and anger.

Why is that? What caused Muslim groups and many across the Internet to come down so hard on a TV show that no one has actually seen yet? Is it just a knee-jerk response by over-sensitive people?

Or could it have more to with how American television programs have dealt with Muslims in the past? Any red flags on a current show have to be colored by years of terrorists, torturers and protested normalcy.

The current controversy erupted Monday (March 17) when ABC Family announced it had greenlit a pilot for “Alice in Arabia,” along with two other dramas. An official description of the show was released as well:

“‘Alice in Arabia’ is a high-stakes drama series about a rebellious American teenage girl who, after tragedy befalls her parents, is unknowingly kidnapped by her extended family, who are Saudi Arabian. Alice finds herself a stranger in a new world but is intrigued by its offerings and people, whom she finds surprisingly diverse in their views on the world and her situation. Now a virtual prisoner in her grandfather’s royal compound, Alice must count on her independent spirit and wit to find a way to return home while surviving life behind the veil. The pilot was written by Brooke Eikmeier, who previously served in the U.S. Army as a Cryptologic Linguist in the Arabic language, trained to support NSA missions in the Middle East. She left service in September 2013 as a rank E-4 Specialist.”

Although many immediately complained about phrases like “surviving life behind the veil,” “a virtual prisoner in her grandfather’s royal compound” and “unknowingly kidnapped,” the issues run deeper than that.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations posted a letter to show concern about the wider issue:

“As the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, we are concerned about the negative impact this program could have on the lives of ordinary Arab-American and American Muslims … We are concerned that, given media references to the main character ‘surviving life behind the veil,’ the pilot and any resulting series may engage in stereotyping that can lead to things like bullying of Muslim students.”

Still, no one has seen “Alice in Arabia” yet — is there any reason to be worried that negative stereotypes of Muslim people might be in it?

The answer is, unfortunately, yes. The history of American TV makes that clear — how many Muslims in scripted television can you think of? Of those characters, how many were not terrorists or soldiers?

There aren’t many. Rare exceptions like Abed Nadir on “Community” or Arastoo Vaziri on “Bones” — both of whom have received accusations of being terrorists, by the way — are hard to find amidst the dangerous individuals and groups seen on shows like “Homeland,” “24,” “Sleeper Cell” (whose hero, to be fair, was also a practicing Muslim) and more.

Evidence also exists that television in the United States actively avoids the thought of Muslims not fitting into stereotypes. The reality show “All-American Muslim,” lasted only 8 weeks on TLC in 2011 and 2012 — but 65 companies (most notably Lowe’s) pulled sponsorship in that time. Meanwhile, attempts to import or adapt the successful Canadian sitcom, “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” (a show that ran from 2007 to 2012 on CBC) have been relegated to Hulu and obscure cable channels.

When looked at this way, why would any group concerned about the portrayal of Muslims in popular culture not protest “Alice in Arabia”? One would hope that if the show goes to series, it will feature a more nuanced portrayal of Muslims than many of its predecessors. History, though, suggests the show will go the same route as so many before it.

Posted by:Laurel Brown