Culture

Civil rights groups charge ABC with bigotry over pilot ‘Alice in Arabia’

Show promotes offensive stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims, rights groups say

According to ABC’s plot summary, “Alice must count on her independent spirit and wit to find a way to return home [from Saudi Arabia] while surviving life behind the veil.”
Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

Civil rights groups have expressed concern over a new ABC Family television pilot they say stereotypes and promotes bigotry against Arabs and Muslims around the world.

The show, “Alice in Arabia,” tells the story of an American teenage girl who is kidnapped by her relatives and taken to Saudi Arabia, where she is kept as a prisoner in her Muslim grandfather’s home.

According to ABC’s plot summary, “Alice must count on her independent spirit and wit to find a way to return home while surviving life behind the veil.”

In a statement issued Wednesday, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) said ABC Family is “promoting bigotry and stereotyping of millions of Arabs and Arab-Americans and billions of Muslims around the world” and said the show “perpetuates demeaning stereotypes.”

The show is problematic because it portrays Arabs 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,” the ADC said.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) also expressed concern over the pilot’s potential to perpetuate stereotypes and orientalist views of the Middle East.

CAIR sent a letter on Tuesday to ABC Family Channel President Tom Ascheim expressing concern over the show.

“As the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, we are concerned about the negative impact this program could have on the lives of ordinary Arab-American and American Muslims,” CAIR wrote.

ABC Family responded on Wednesday, telling Variety that it hoped people would give the show a chance.

“We hope people will wait to judge this show on its actual merits once it is filmed,” a channel representative said. “The writer is an incredible storyteller, and we expect ‘Alice’ to be a nuanced and character-driven show.”

Khaled A. Beydoun, a visiting assistant professor and critical race studies fellow at the UCLA School of Law, told Al Jazeera, “What struck me first was the title, which plays on arcane images … and conjures up the idea that the entire region is one monolithic country. There’s no nuancing, no indication that Saudi Arabia is a modern nation-state which is distinct from the rest of the Arab world.”

Saudi Arabia — arguably one of the most conservative states in the Arab world — is not Lebanon or Egypt, Beydoun said. “It’s unfortunate that the American public has been miseducated on Arab culture and Arab identity. Americans haven’t seen the richness in the tapestry that is Arab culture.”

Beydoun said a better way to feature Arabs and Muslims in mainstream media would be to assign them protagonist roles, as opposed to sidekicks or bad guys, as is often the case on television series.

CAIR has requested a meeting with ABC Family to discuss the matter further. Ibrahim Hooper, the group’s communications director, told Al Jazeera that a meeting was being scheduled. 

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