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NEW YORK, New York. Most depictions of muslims on television are, to say the least, negative. Perhaps that is why muslims, according to Gallup, are the most disliked religious group in America.
But in New York City, a group of producers, writers and actors are fighting to change America’s impressions of muslim americans. But instead of holding a rally or a forum, they are producing a web series featuring the lives of muslim americans, called NEWYORKUSTAN.
“We’re not trying to change people’s minds so much as their hearts,” says Steven De Castro, the Producer and Director of NEWYORKUSTAN. ”History shows that propaganda does not work very well. The reason why muslim americans have such a bad image is that most Americans simply have never spoken to a muslim. So we are not combating hate as much as we are a lack of meaningful encounters between muslims and non-muslims.”
Although the public knows very little about their fellow Americans who follow Islam, Hollywood is doing precious little to enlighten them. ”If you watch TV, there are more realistic dramas set in outer space than in the mosque down the street.” Says De Castro. ”Our vision in NEWYORKUSTAN is to involve the audience with characters going through everyday dilemmas, just like in any series. But the characters are muslim characters, dealing with dramas that mirror what is going on in American mosques.”
NEWYORKUSTAN features the story of three friends in their 20′s — played by Vinny Anand, Bilal Beydoun, and Axita Patel — who live in Queens, New York. They become embroiled in struggle to save their neighborhood mosque from eviction. To their surprise, they realize that they must overcome stiff opposition from a city politician and a Tea-Party-like protest group.
Sound familiar? Aside from the obvious parallels to the Ground Zero mosque controversy, the Pew Research Center is aware of at least 37 proposed mosques and Islamic centers across the country that have encountered community resistance in the last three years.
The producers and writers of NEWYORKUSTAN met and researched this story for almost a year before filming. ”The most fascinating aspect of Muslim Americans, which distinguishes them from Muslims in other countries, is how diverse they are. Unlike standard depictions of Muslims, Muslims in America are radically different regarding how they dress, the organization of their mosques, and their social and political views. I think that the viewer who is used to seeing Muslims on TV as all from the mideast, and Muslim women all wearing white hijabs (head coverings), will be surprised when they see NEWYORKUSTAN.”
Only 26% of American Muslims are from the Mideast and North Africa. One out of three American Muslims were born in the United States. Muslims in America come from 77 different countries. ”We do not attempt to represent all Muslims so much as we try to show that being Muslim in America involves a culture clash, not with non-Muslims, but a clash of different Muslim cultures, as well as the standard immigrant generation gap.”
“It has been a challenge to tell stories about such a complex community. But as yet there is literally no vocabulary in mainstream film to communicate these stories.” In contrast to Hollywood, the best filmmakers around the world find Muslims to be a rich source of material. Of the Academy Award nominees for best foreign film, all six except one dealt in some way with the relationship between the West and Islam. In America, of all the Academy Award nominees, not a single film featured a Muslim story, according to the New York Times.
NEWYORKUSTAN will be releasing its first episodes in December 2011. For more information, find NEWYORKUSTAN on Facebook or go to www.newyorkustan.com.
(NEWYORKUSTAN is a New Media Project of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).