ABC Family has killed the controversial Alice in Arabia after complaints that it relied on stereotypes of Muslims, a spokesperson told BuzzFeed on Friday night.
“The current conversation surrounding our pilot was not what we had envisioned and is certainly not conducive to the creative process, so we’ve decided not to move forward with this project.”
The show’s original synopsis was met with widespread skepticism, and an early draft of the script – obtained by BuzzFeed – confirmed that the concerns were founded. The network’s decision to rescind support for the pilot comes after pressure from the public, and complaints from several civil rights groups, including the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). In a letter to ABC executives, dated March 19, ADC President Samer Khalaf wrote:
“By purchasing a pilot of the show, The Walt Disney Company, along with ABC Family, continue to unabashedly perpetuate harmful stereotypes, orientalism and Islamophobia… The imagery and depiction of the respective communities as kidnappers and oppressors of women, reinforces harmful stereotypical depictions of the communities as thieves, criminals, persons who engage in violent acts, captives and/or persecutors…
By purchasing the pilot, ABC Family has reinforced these damning views, and has shown the world that there is a market for hate and bigotry. ABC Family and the Walt Disney Company, as a major programming source for American children, adolescents, and families, possess immense influence on the American zeitgeist and next generation, and have a duty to exert that influence in a meaningful, positive way, not one that demonizes a people, a religion and a region.”
Following reception of said letter, high-level executives at ABC Family had agreed to meet with executives from the ADC, America’s largest Arab-American civil rights organization, and CAIR representatives were also to be present, ADC’s Legal Director Abed Ayoub told BuzzFeed in a phone call. The meeting was scheduled for Tuesday, March 25, in Los Angeles. On the evening of March 21, ABC Family reached out to Ayoub, postponing the meeting indefinitely, citing the network’s need to have some “internal conversations” first. Minutes later, BuzzFeed received news, from an ABC spokesperson, of the show’s cancellation.
Ayoub told BuzzFeed in a phone call prior to news of the cancellation that ABC Family’s willingness to communicate with the ADC was encouraging in itself. “It means that they recognize the need to cancel, and they recognize the importance of not engaging and not being part of a program that stereotypes a whole community… Our ultimate goal is to have them announce that the show will not be on air.”
Ayoub also emphasized that in the future networks should feel free to reach out to existing Arab-American communities while such works are in the pipeline, to eliminate the possibility of letting problematic scripts and ideas reaching such an advanced stage in the process.
“Arabs are always portrayed as one of 3 B’s: billionaires, bellydancers, or bombers,” Ayoub said. “But with most problematic shows, there is always room for debate. With this particular show there is none. We haven’t run into anything this egregious in a while.”
In a phone call with BuzzFeed, also prior to the news of cancellation, ADC President Samer Khalaf had voiced similar fears. Moreover, he questioned the sense in having such a show air on ABC Family at all. “Their other programs are lighthearted, wholesome types of entertainment. I don’t know where this fits into that whole paradigm… This is not ABC, this is not HBO, this is not Showtime. This is geared towards families. This is a heavy storyline and we’re dealing with some heavy issues here. We don’t think it is near appropriate for children to be exposed to. I don’t know what they were thinking.”
Khalaf agrees with the widespread sentiment that Alice In Arabia would simply have been the latest in a long line of Arab misrepresentations in American culture.
“For God’s sakes, one of the only Arab characters on TV happens to be in the show Community. The funny thing is, the character is supposed to be Palestinian, but the actor is an Indian-American. It reminds me of Hollywood of the ’40s. They used to have Arab terrorists and they’d pick a South East Asian-American with a British Accent to play him. What is that all about? What is your image of an Arab? What do they perceive of Arabs as being? That’s what really gets our ire. That’s what frustrates us. What is ABC Family teaching the young children of this country about what an Arab is?”
Khalaf cites several other gripes the ADC has had with the ABC networks and with Disney, reaching as far back as 1992 when Disney’s classic animated film Aladdin described Arabia as “barbaric.” This year, when Aladdin is being performed on Broadway as a musical, not much has changed by way of Arab representation: There are no Arabs nor Arab-Americans on the primary cast or creative teams. According to Khalaf, “The Arab-American actors community in New York is pretty irate about this fact.” Other Arab misrepresentations he mentions include the evil Jafar on ABC’s Once Upon A Time. The depiction of Arabs as terrorists, he says, is also perpetuated by several characters on Fox’s 24 and FX’s upcoming Tyrant.
There is a simple solution to ending the Islamophobia and racism that accompanies Arab representation on TV, Khalaf believes: Hire more Arabs and Arab-Americans.
“There’s a thriving Arab writers community, and a community of Arab actors, both in New York and in Los Angeles. I can personally vouch that they are extremely talented, and hope that they will actually be given a chance to be seen in some of these shows.”