Television commercial shows how America is accepting of Islam

Samuel G. Freedman / New York Times News Service /

On a Sunday afternoon several months ago, I was engaged in one of my favorite religious rituals, watching pro football on television. During a break in the game, I reflexively clicked the “mute” button on the remote control. But my eyes stayed fixed on a startling commercial.

The screen showed a balding man with tawny skin and a salt-and-pepper goatee, and seconds later it spelled out his name: Mujahid Abdul-Rashid. The advertisement went on to show him fishing, playing in a yard with two toddlers and sitting down to a family meal.

One week later, again during an NFL game, the same commercial appeared. This time I listened to the words. The advertisement was for Prudential’s financial products for retirees. Abdul-Rashid was talking about his own retirement after 19 years as a clothing salesman, and the family time he now intended to enjoy.

“That’s my world,” he said over that closing shot of the family dinner.

Appealing, everyday person

What I had just seen was something rare and laudable: what seems to be the first mass-market product commercial featuring an identifiably Muslim person not as a security risk, not as a desert primitive, but as an appealing, everyday American.

As if to underscore the point, the Prudential commercial with Abdul-Rashid was appearing on television during the same period last fall that saw two widespread commercial campaigns vilifying Muslims. One was the series of ads on New York subways and buses placed by a group led by Pamela Geller, the outspoken blogger and critic of Islam, which depicted a worldwide conflict between the civilized West and Islamic “savages.” The other was the billboard during the presidential campaign that showed President Barack Obama submissively kissing the hand of a sheik.

Then, during last weekend’s Super Bowl, a Coca-Cola commercial trotted out the stereotype of the Arab on camelback. As points of comparison, consider that Frito-Lay retired its “Frito Bandito” caricature more than 40 years ago. And in 1989, Quaker Oats removed Aunt Jemima’s kerchief and gave her pearl earrings so she no longer evoked a house slave.

I was intrigued enough by the Prudential commercial to find Abdul-Rashid. Like the other nine people in the campaign, he is an actual person, not a hired performer. And as his name implies, he is Muslim, an African-American born in Los Angeles who converted to Islam in 1980.

Abdul-Rashid, who does some acting on the side, first heard about the Prudential job through a search for recent retirees that was picked up by an email list for actors in the Bay Area, where he lives. He made it through several rounds of interviews to be selected for the series of “Day One Stories,” as the campaign was called. His spot had its debut during CBS News’ “60 Minutes” in November 2011 and has played about 130 times since then on networks like the History Channel and ESPN. Adweek magazine saluted the commercial with one of its “Ad of the Day” designations.

Ad doesn’t mention religion

Nobody from Prudential or from Droga5, the agency that created the “Day One Stories,” ever asked Abdul-Rashid about his religion. Nor does the commercial show him in any religious activity. Still, for any sensate viewer, his name alone attests to his Muslim identity.

“I’d never thought about the ad in those terms, because the thrust of the commercial had nothing to do with my religion whatsoever,” Abdul-Rashid, 61, said. “You saw an African-American family interacting and then my name at the end. But one day I went to a mosque in Oakland with my friend, and the imam said, ‘This is good; it lets people know we are the mainstream.’ ”

Abdul-Rashid’s first name, given to him by a Saudi Arabian teacher with whom he studied Islam before converting, is the kind of thing the Pamela Gellers of the world could have waved like a flag. Even some of Abdul-Rashid’s theater colleagues suggested after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that maybe he would be wise to change his name. He refused.

“The name Mujahid means someone who strives to live in the way of God,” he said. “And, yes, it means holy warrior, too. But if you ask me, that means fighting the good fight. If you see a hungry person and feed him, that’s fighting holy war. The greatest holy war is within ourselves.”

Expanding the dream

Not being an advertising specialist, I consulted several experts to hear their view of the Prudential commercial. They concurred on its uniqueness and importance.

“It expands our idea of the American Dream and it gives us a new way of looking at it,” said Timothy Malefyt, a professor of marketing at Fordham University who worked in the advertising industry for 15 years. “This guy shares our ideals, our fears. He talks about his work ethic, his love of family. Right away, you can see he’s Muslim. So he’s different from us, but he’s also like us. This lets us re-evaluate America Muslim identity.”

The ad struck Nazia Du Bois, the director of global cultural strategy for Ogilvy & Mather, as singular in the American market.

“I can’t think of any other ad as bold, as brave, as this,” she said in an interview. Amplifying her point in an email, she wrote, “This commercial demonstrates an enlightened definition of what it means to be American. It does this by broadening the definition of the American ‘everyman.’”

If you want a delightful postscript, try this: Abdul-Rashid, with more time for theater as a retiree, is performing in an acclaimed revival of August Wilson’s play “Gem of the Ocean” in San Diego.

But there’s a more depressing footnote, too. When I contacted Prudential for comment about the commercial, the company repeatedly declined to speak. Its vice president for global communications, Deborah Meany, asserted in an email that Prudential had no idea Abdul-Rashid was Muslim.

An aphorism says that no good deed shall go unpunished. You can only hope that Prudential’s silence about its own admirable commercial isn’t an example, in a nation where Islamophobia persists, of a good deed that is being disavowed.