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Mideast film fest challenges Muslim stereotypes

New initiative builds bridges between Hollywood and Arabs

Terrorists. Headscarves. Men shrouded in white, women in black. Masses prostrating with foreheads on the ground. Iconic images of Muslims that have become the primary, if not sole, media representation of a diverse religious group comprising 1.2 billion of the world's population.

TV shows like '24' and movies like 'Rules of Engagement' portraying Muslim evildoers bent on destroying the civilized world rocketed to fame in recent years. Yet rarely are such portrayals countered by other stories from the majority of the world's Muslims. Few if any characters in Hollywood portray Islamic financiers who have created an alternative banking system, Muslim athletes who compete on the world stage, or the semi-observant 'Muslim on Friday' types.

A new initiative launched at the Middle East International Film festival in Abu Dhabi hopes to change this. Muslims on Screen and Television, or MOST, is a joint venture between the entertainment industry and policy experts that will address Muslim stereotypes through seminars and an information clearing-house.

"It's about Muslims being portrayed accurately in the media," Sonya Adelman, a spokesperson for MEII, told AlArabiya.net

Panelists from Hollywood, Washington and the Arab world discussed how to overcome stereotypes and build cross-cultural understanding between American filmmakers and their counterparts in the Muslim and Arab world.

The first discussion seminar "Challenging stereotypes – what film can and cannot do, and the role of the U.S.-Muslim world partnerships" was held on the penultimate day of the film festival it was a joint initiative with the Brooking Institute's Saban Center, the international polling company Gallup, Unity Productions and the One Nation for All Foundation.

"At a time of great tension and mutual suspicion between the United States and the Muslim world, there remains a critical need for increased understanding and accurate representation on both sides," said Mohamed Khalaf Al Mazrouei, Vice Chairman of MEIFF and Director General of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage.

A 2007 report by the Islamic Human Rights Commission found that films, cartoons and television shows reinforce negative prejudices about Muslims as violent and dangerous, with 62 percent of the 1,125 respondents believing the media to be Islamophobic.

A similar report in 2005 commissioned by the Kuwaiti government found that western media portrayals of Arabs and Muslims in the news and entertainment are "typically stereotypical and negative."

The reports recommended working with Hollywood to improve the portrayal of Muslims and Arabs. "Recognizing the power of the arts to increase knowledge and impact society, MOST seeks to create and maintain a relationship with the creative community in American film and television," said a statement released by the organizers following the panel.

At a time of great tension and mutual suspicion between the United States and the Muslim world, there remains a critical need for increased understanding and accurate representation on both sides.

Mohamed Khalaf Al Mazrouei, Vice Chairman of MEIFF