Tolerance, via storytelling and humor

March 1, 2017 - 12:00am -- Living City

Tolerance, via storytelling and humor
How to fight discrimination against Muslims with a new narrative

By Emilie Christy

A young boy was disturbed by the news of lions being killed for sport and asked how and why such things can happen. His father’s response was: “Until the lion learns to write, every story will glorify the hunter.” Victims — the misunderstood, marginalized, etc. — have to learn to tell their story.

Today, Muslims in North America often feel that they have to make an extra effort to appear in movies or on TV, not only as an exotic addition, but to tell stories about who they are as American citizens. It brings them into the mainstream of society. Through the arts, one can reach people who would not be inclined to participate in meetings and other more formal encounters of interreligious dialogue.

Zarqa Nawaz is author of Laughing All the Way to the Mosque and creator of the Canadian TV sitcom series Little Mosque on the Prairie, now seen in over 60 countries throughout the world. She offered a great example of how telling a story about something so culturally specific can actually evoke a universal connection.

Nawaz reflected on her surprise that her sitcom drew the highest ratings ever on Canada’s broadcasting system. People of all cultures identified with the characters: the experience in the mosque or the Muslim community or family was seen as something similar to what they have experienced in their own community, their church, synagogue or civic association.

“Someone told me that the more specific it is, the more universal it becomes,” she says. This has certainly proved true with the series, which dealt with her personal experiences as a Muslim woman with overbearing parents and the cultural confusion that occurs as one assimilates in a new country.

The audience could laugh at the human frailties that are common to all. It demystified Islam by illustrating how practicing Muslims live their lives, from dating to marriage to burying their dead in ways that struck similarities. Even though some practices may differ, the emotional content was not so different from everyone else.

In this era of growing Islamophobia, where bias is often influenced by the action of extremists who do not represent the majority, media accounts of terrorist atrocities remain imprinted on the minds of the public. Many feel there is a need to change the prevailing narrative, to put a human face on the victims of extremism, among whom are Muslims themselves.

In fact, academic research has shown that the current tone of news reports lead people to support discriminatory stereotypic attitudes and policies that impact communities. It also showed that portraying positive stories has an equally strong impact.

Zarqa was born in Pakistan and speaks of growing up in a very conservative immigrant community in the prairies of Saskatchewan, Canada. The Muslim community there didn’t initially appreciate the humor she used in relating situations of her childhood and entry into adulthood, thinking it made fun of and furthered the stereotype of Islam. Not to mention the fact that the Little Mosque on the Prairie was being produced on the heels of the controversy surrounding the Danish cartoon about Islam.

But the underlying love for her faith and respectful telling of a human story garnered the respect for her art and the value of her efforts. Interestingly the press, anticipating a potential uprising of thousands of Muslims protesting in the streets, brought it to the public’s attention and in the process contributed to the show’s success.

It has been said that ignorance leads to fear, fear leads to hate, and hate leads to violence. Therefore there is a constant call for education as an antidote to discrimination, but while featuring exhibitions or introducing the thought of tolerance in school curriculums is mandatory, it is also important to reach people outside the educational system. Since people prefer to be entertained than to be preached to, using films or video clips as a vehicle to boost tolerance can be a path to follow. There are many journalists, comedic writers and film producers who are using their talents to intervene with humor and storytelling. They believe that comedy opens people’s minds and enables them to identify with the common struggles of life.

“Life is not simply a bare succession of events, but a history, a story waiting to be told through the choice of an interpretative lens that can select and gather the most relevant data,” as Pope Francis recently said to a gathering of journalists. “In and of itself, reality has no one clear meaning. Everything depends on the way we look at things, on the lens we use to view them. If we change that lens, reality itself appears different.”

In some way Alex Kronemer, an internationally known writer, producer and director of several independent films, affirms Pope Francis’ sentiment with his latest film The Sultan and the Saint, which tells the story about how St. Francis of Assisi and the Sultan of Egypt worked together to stop the Crusades. His stories are about people whose lives change the way we look at others and have the potential to change the direction of a society.

Kronemer has been struck by how often people have said, “I’m not biased; I have a friend or a colleague who is a Muslim,” but have not transferred that positive feeling on to a people, a culture, a religious tradition. He believes stories that convey the emotions of people, as they engage in the struggles of life, stay with us more than analytical dissertations on an intellectual level, and these stories are key to addressing this cognitive dissonance.

Kronemer is co-founder of Unity Productions Foundation (UPF), whose mission is to produce films that counter bigotry and create peace through the media. He seeks to tell compelling stories for television, online viewing and theater as part of an educational campaign aimed at increasing understanding among people of different faiths and cultures, especially between Muslims and other faiths.

Kronemer cites novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which created sympathy for the slaves and contributed to the beginning of the Civil War; and The Jungle, which changed the way we look at working conditions, child labor and led to the creation of new labor laws. His other films like Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Kahn Story, about a Muslim woman who worked as a British spy during World War II and Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World are all efforts to create a positive narrative that will open minds and change the way people look at things and form connections.

Reviewing some of the films that have been nominated for awards this year, it was striking to see several that carry a message of hope, courage and going against social norms that accept the treatment of some members as second-class. One recent one among them, Hidden Figures, is the story of three African-American women whose significant contribution at NASA ensured the safe flight into space of John Glenn. It showed the everyday ways in which prejudice limited not only their own success but that of the entire NASA mission until they themselves and the whites who worked with them saw each other as equals.

As Pope Francis reminds us, stories like these underline our common humanity and give hope that is the “thread with which sacred history is woven.”


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