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Why the world could use a Muslim jedi

January 22, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
How can we relieve anti-Muslim discrimination? Haroon Moghul says that adding a Muslim character to a certain science fiction franchise might go a long way in changing perceptions and offering a vision of a more united future.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally tonight, a NewsHour essay.

What better way to battle discrimination than with pop culture? Or so thought Haroon Moghul, when he asked J.J. Abrams in an open letter to add an Islamic character to “Star Wars.”

Here’s more of his thoughts on why a Jedi named Mohammad could help fight fear with hope.

HAROON MOGHUL, Author: The day before “The Force Awakens” was released, I wrote an open letter to its director, J.J. Abrams, who also rebooted “Star Trek.”

With tensions between Muslims and our neighbors worse than I had ever known, I asked Abrams to add a positive Muslim character to one of these franchises, maybe, I mused, a Jedi named Mohammed.

But many readers were dismissive. One wrote simply that Star Wars was set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, where Islam doesn’t exist.

By missing my point, he made my point. We can accept a Ben Kenobi, though Ben’s a Hebrew name. We don’t seem to have any trouble with Luke Skywalker, even though Luke was also one of the 12 apostles. Captain Jim Kirk, great, but a Captain Hussein Kirk, that made some readers think I wanted Sharia law on the bridge, when I had said no such thing.

I only wanted us to confront how we treat Muslims. Islamophobia is real, and it’s ugly. Robert Doggart allegedly planned to attack Muslims in New York with guns, bombs, even a machete.

A former Klan member, Glendon Crawford, tried to build a radioactive weapon to attack mosques. People have been kicked, punched, stabbed, shot, murdered, even pushed in front of trains, targeted for their faith and their faith alone.

Islamophobia is like racism, not because Islam is a race, but because, for anti-Muslim bigots, Islam functions in the exact same way that race does for racists.

That doesn’t mean I deny the terrible violence committed by some Muslims, sometimes in Islam’s name. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect everyone’s right to contest ideas and beliefs they don’t agree with, including my own. It just means I think judging every single Muslim by the actions of a few, especially when nearly every Muslim institution and organization condemns those actions, is a problem.

What someone thinks of Islam depends a lot on whether she knows any Muslims. The challenge is that, out of 322 million Americans, only a few million are Muslim. Even in a transporter, how could we meet and greet everyone in time to change minds?

That is why I wrote that letter to J.J. Abrams in The Washington Post. Science fiction and fantasy, whether books or movies, are an astonishingly effective ways to reach huge numbers of people, to reflect us back to ourselves, and to provoke us to think differently.

The original “Star Trek” featured an African communications officer, a Russian navigator and a Japanese helmsman, not to mention a half-Vulcan, half-human first officer. That was back in the 1960s, during the civil rights era, at the height of the Cold War, just a few decades from Japanese internment camps. Yet the television show was wildly popular, and it still is, as are the many spinoffs that grew out of it.

It didn’t matter where all those characters came from, but where they were going, where no one had gone before. It gave us a vision for our divided planet, of a united future we could want, not dread.

Can we see someone of a Muslim background being part of that future too? I hope so.

People often ask me, how can ordinary folks fight extremism and intolerance? I tell them, by imagining a world that’s not just different, but better. You don’t fight fear with fear. You fight fear with hope.