By Arturo R. García
Bill Cosby seems to be behind the idea of a “Muslim Cosby Show,” which is understandable – until we remember that he paid for research that contradicts his argument on its behalf.
According to The Root.com’s Jenée Desmond-Harris , Cosby called the site to defend the concept, brought up almost flippantly by CBS’ Katie Couric on her webseries this past December. As part of a panel discussion – which included Desmond-Harris’ colleague, Sheryl Huggins Salomon – Couric made this suggestion:
Maybe we need a Muslim version of The Cosby Show… I know that sounds crazy, I know that sounds crazy. But The Cosby Show did so much to change attitudes about African-Americans in this country, and I think sometimes people are afraid of what they don’t understand — like you, Mo… If they became part of the popular culture …
During the call, Desmond-Harris wrote, Cosby emphasized his show’s focus on the family unit as a way viewers could find common ground:
When I get into taxicabs and/or limousines — and you know the taxicab situation in Washington, D.C.; that’s little Africa — every time I take the cab and I go to the hotel — the Madison, the Jefferson — the guy will look in the rearview mirror with recognition. And then I say, ‘How is the family?’
That’s when [the cab drivers] will break out pictures of the children. These are people from different countries in Africa, all of ‘em males — I’ve not met the females yet. But they talk about the family, they talk about what the children are doing, what they themselves are doing. They work 16 hours a day, and they all echo the same thing: You know why I like that [Cosby] show? Because it’s about family.
Later in the interview, he says a family-friendly show involving American Muslims would “put the truth out” and force the viewers to ask themselves key questions:
Am I a person who needs to change my attitude about [someone]? Was I a hater, and enjoying hating, and enjoying the fact that I really did not understand? That like an awful lot of racists, I didn’t care to know the truth, I just enjoyed hating? In the Muslim religion and culture, it can be different [from what we believe], but it’s what they believe in. If we take the good [from it] and the good works, it’s all there and it’s all about the same thing: Do good unto others. The strength of oneself.
What Cosby doesn’t mention are the less-than-positive results of a study he funded by University of Massachusetts-Amherst professors Sut Jhally and Justin M. Lewis, released in 1992 under the title Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences and the Myth of the American Dream. A synopsis of the findings is posted at Professor Jhally’s website:
[The Cosby Show] promotes the dangerous myth that blacks who don’t “make it” have only themselves to blame. The authors interviewed 52 focus groups, learning that viewers involve themselves deeply with the show and often see it as reality. White viewers can identify with and accept TV’s Huxtable family as “nice” blacks; black viewers appreciate the show’s lack of racial stereotyping. However, the authors argue, The Cosby Show ‘s images of the black upper class — like most images broadcast in recent years — hide and distort how most blacks live, thus relieving white viewers of responsibility for such inequalities.
However, Azeem Ibrahim, a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, defended the idea in a column for Illume Magazine, citing the work of playwright Wajahat Ali as a guidepost:
Ali’s characters bicker, laugh, complain, pontificate and discuss topical issues such as racial profiling, the War in Afghanistan, religious values and the importance of lamb biryani in a refreshingly honest, self critical and amusing manner reflecting the diversity of opinions that exists within Muslim communities.
But the core of the play deals with their very common and universal issues that everyone struggles with on a daily basis regardless of religion or race — questions of identity, purpose, sibling rivalry, dating, and parental expectations. The globalized dialogue, which mixes slang, proper English, Urdu and Arabic, feels authentic and reflects the multicultural mosaic of modern America.
By creating real, complex human characters, who just happen to be Muslim and American, Ali’s play illuminates the beautiful thread of commonality that exists and is shared between two allegedly alien cultures that some incorrectly assume are destined to clash. The play is a rare cultural story that simultaneously satisfies both Muslim and non Muslim audiences and proves conclusively that being Muslim and American is not mutually exclusive.
Plays like The Domestic Crusaders and TV shows like The Cosby Show cannot shoulder the burden in magically erasing bigotry and the cultural divides that persist. However, these universal stories, in conjunction with active political and civic engagement, education, responsible and effective foreign policy, fair and balanced stories by the media, and successful partnerships with multicultural communities, can help eliminate fear and misunderstanding.
Phrased like that, the thought of an American counterpart to Canada’s Little Mosque On The Prairie sounds more plausible. But if anything, a more informal “study” by The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi showed … well, it’s apparently going to take a lot to win over the “average American”:
In the story, Mandvi interviews Cordoba Initiative chairman Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a consultant on The Cosby Show, before unveiling a near pitch-perfect mock-up of the show featuring a suburbanite family – the teenage son listens to Toby Keith! – to a focus group that is less than receptive, offering up these critiques:
- “If you’re trying to portray Islam, maybe you should talk about Islam.”
- “You gotta have that closet terrorist or something.”
- “You could have, like, an uncle Rahib or something, who came over and he’s a Bedouin and he lives in the basement in a sandbox or something, with a goat.”
Like a lot of the Daily’s best stories, Mandvi’s conclusion is as cringe-worthy as it is true: “Apparently, the best way for a show to combat Muslim stereotypes is to confirm Muslim stereotypes.” It would seem Jhally’s and Lewis’ findings still hold up.