For decades, the late Jack Shaheen researched stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood and detailed how they were positively portrayed in only a tiny fraction of about 1,000 films from 1986 to 2000. After 9/11, things got worse, he also found.
In his 2012 book Reel Bad Arabs, Shaheen wrote that these characters were now "portrayed as the civilized world's enemy, fanatic demons threatening people across the planet. Oily sheikhs finance nuclear wars; Islamic radicals kill innocent civilians; bearded, scruffy ‘terrorists,’ men and women, toss their American captives inside caves and filthy, dark rooms and torture them.”
He hopefully predicted in his book that one day “Hollywood will project Arabs and Muslims in all their complexity, no better and no worse than they portray others.”
In many ways, Season 1 of Ramy on Hulu did just that. The show, written and created by comedian Ramy Youssef, is about a young Egyptian American man who navigates his relationship to his faith while also trying to figure out his own identity and place in the world. The characters aren’t perfect and are often hilarious. Youssef won a Golden Globe for his starring role, and Season 2, which comes out Friday, features Oscar winner Mahershala Ali.
BuzzFeed News spoke with Youssef about the show and its place in representing Muslim Americans in pop culture.
How has your life changed since Season 1 and winning a Golden Globe?
It definitely changed in terms of how many people are watching the show, and it felt like the show came out again after the Globes so it was really exciting for all of us. Definitely feeling a level of recognizability that wasn’t there before, but also I have mostly been in a hole just working on the second season. I don’t think I’ve on a personal level felt it as much just because I’ve been in production mode.
Jennifer Aniston’s pause as she looked at your name on the winner card — I tweeted that night that her reaction “is like every grade school teacher I had when they read attendance the first day.” Did you feel that too?
Absolutely, it was actually in that gap where I was like, Oh my god, I think I won.
What inspired you to cast Mahershala Ali in Season 2?
He reached out because he is a practicing Muslim as well. He just reached out to congratulate me on the show and as a “hey, we should be friends.” It very organically turned into a thing where we had had this idea for a sheikh character coming in at the end of the second season, and then when it became clear that he was around and available, we were like it would be really good to actually build the season around this relationship.
Black Muslims make up 20% of Muslims in the US yet film and TV generally depict Muslims in America as being from the Middle East or South Asia. Why do you think that is?
I think that in general the way that black people are represented has always been obviously just a huge issue for this country. I think it is compounded by racist views that come from the country, but then there’s also anti-blackness that exists within the community you just mentioned as well. So even in the spectrum of Muslim experiences there is anti-blackness. The Muslim group in this country who has the longest historical impact and footprint are black Muslims. In terms of the American experience of Islam, it doesn’t really get any more American than black Muslims.
Have you received any pushback from folks in the Muslim American community on the “messiness” of the characters?
It’s absolutely a big part of the feedback that I’ve gotten. I think that the audience is in an unfair position because there are so few shows that even get close to touching on our identity in a personal way. This might be the only show at the moment, so that’s kind of unfair to put on a viewer that my show gets labeled as “the Muslim show,” so I think the pushback is almost inevitable.
Do you think there’s a natural inclination for folks to want your show to focus only on the positives of the community?
Well, only on what feels real to them. It’s like this should be real to my experience or this should be an advertisement, fluff piece of us being not the bad guys, but my approach is that this show is so personal that it’s algebraic: It’s like, okay, yeah, the uncle on this show is is anti-Semitic, but every Jewish person who watches this show says: “I have that uncle, but he hates Muslims,” or white people watch the show and they’re like, “I have that uncle who says that stuff about black people.” These characters very much represent an American family.
A few years ago, I spent a lot of time covering Muslim Americans as a reporter at a paper in San Francisco. I worried at times I was being pigeonholed because of my background. Do you ever worry about being branded a “Muslim” show or the actor and leader of the Muslim show?
No, I don’t just because I think that I’m trying to make work that is important to me, and right now it is very important to me to talk about these things. I think my work will be defined by more, but also if it is how I am branded, and this is how I am defined, then I’m also okay with that too because it is who I am and it is what I care about. I never want to be seen as the representative of the Muslim American experience — because it is not representative and it’s not fair to how diverse that is — but in terms of personal branding? I don’t care.
In Season 1’s “Strawberries,” we see some of young Ramy’s experience at school after 9/11. I remember my dad sat me down at the time — I was in my first year of high school — and explained to me life would be different and more difficult. How was your school experience after 9/11 and what moments do you remember from that time?
It was different in that I do remember a level of defensiveness that I started to have to take on in trying to defend where I came from and my family from the things that were put on us and put on our identity. But I wouldn't say I lived in a town or a school where things got outright racist. I do think that what it did for me and what I think it did for all kids is it instilled this very high level of fear. You grow up in fear and doubt and paranoia. For me, it was very disheartening to see people who looked like me and who had names like me being associated with these things, and when those are the only cultural references you have, you start to fear yourself in a way. That’s a lot of what that episode was about.
While running for office, President Donald Trump proposed banning all Muslims and later blocked those from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US. Do you think a show about Muslims in America during the Trump administration is inherently political?
Yeah, everything is political right now. I guess it is. Everyone is looking for meaning in whatever it might be. That’s not my intention. It’s not really what I predicate my show on. It’s not a show that’s built on the opposition to Trump or built on even opposition toward Muslims. It’s a show built on internal struggle. It’s really a show about faith. I actually think a lot of the people who consider themselves fans of Trump on any sort of basis of being very religious would really enjoy my show because my show is about a religious person who is trying to be a better religious person. In many ways, that’s really what we’re talking about.
Former president Barack Obama said in a speech a few years ago that “our television shows should have some Muslim characters that are unrelated to national security because it’s not that hard to do. There was a time when there were no black people on television. And you can tell good stories while still representing the reality of our communities.” Do you think that a show like Ramy can achieve this goal and make a difference in how people perceive Muslims?
I’m not sure. The honest answer. I don’t know enough to say. I think the state of television right now — you can watch anything to reinforce the reality that you would like to have. In the time of The Cosby Show, programming was different. If it was on TV, most people were seeing it. Today, there’s 500 TV shows, people watch whatever reinforces what they’re thinking. I do think this did bring nuances that hopefully spread. In terms of me looking at my show as a changemaker, I don’t make the show from that place and I don’t know that that’s exactly where we’re at.
Have you had any of those conversations with people that have told you it informed them of the community in a way they didn’t know before?
Yeah, definitely. There are so many people who say I didn’t even know a Muslim — I got an email from a guy who was like “I’m an Evangelical Christian father of three and I’m Ramy.” He connected to it on a level that he never thought that he would again because of that faith aspect. I’m by no means a pessimist. I make these things because I hope that they can bring emotional awareness. I don’t go into it thinking this show fulfills what President Obama hoped would happen.
What do you think someone like senior Trump advisor Stephen Miller would think of the show?
I think it would depend on what he’s into tonally. I think he would like the show. I think Trump would like the show because I think that the characters are very emotionally real, and I think that it is something that anyone can connect to. I don’t think that the show is particularly polarizing. We’re not really trying to make these grand statements. It’s really about complicating conversations. In our second season, we have an episode that maybe Trump wouldn’t like as much because there’s a character who isn’t a fan of his, but I think he’s used to people not being a fan of his.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.