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Degrassi: Next Class EP on tackling terrorism with 'a tremendous amount of nuance'

From the Syrian refugee crisis to terror attacks in Europe and an attempt to radicalize a student, Stephen Stohn discusses the real-world issues explored in season 4

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Degrassi: Next Class’ introduction of a gender fluid character isn’t the only new ground the Netflix series has tackled this season. The show also addressed terrorism and the rise of Islamophobia.

That particular story line saw Saad Al’Maliki (Parham Rownaghi) — one of the two Syrian refugee characters introduced last season — grapple with his feelings regarding the recent terrorist attacks in Belgium as his fellow students wore T-shirts expressing their support for the European country and having a bake sale to raise money. However, as he attempted to explain that his lack of participation was because he felt every country affected by terrorism deserved to be supported, his peers didn’t give him a chance to fully describe his stance, instead shutting off his microphone and booing him.

This only compounded the bullying he faced after unknowingly helping a classmate come one step closer to ending her life, leading him to find solace in an online friend who then tried to radicalize him. Upon realizing the trouble he was in, Saad instantly contacted his friend Lola (Amanda Arcuri), whose friend Yael scrubbed Saad’s social media accounts so he wouldn’t be in contact anymore with this online “friend.”

Elsewhere in the season, graduating senior Goldi Nahir (Soma Bhatia) was attacked for wearing her hijab on her way home. The experience inspires her to start a Muslim Students’ Association at the school to aid the school’s Islamic community.

DHX Media

EW spoke to executive producer Stephen Stohn about touching on yet another sensitive subject in the most recent season of the series.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Are there any topics you’ve wanted to tackle in recent seasons on account of it being the right time for it?
STEPHEN STOHN: The Syrian refugee crisis. We felt it was very important that we at least try to tackle it, in as open a way as possible and not sugarcoat it, but to show characters themselves going through conflicting times and those around them reacting in different ways. I love the scene this season, where Saad’s trying to talk about the terror attack in Belgium and what he’s trying to say is, “These tragedies are happening all over the world, so why are you singling out this one tragedy and giving it a prominence? Does that mean that you’re putting down the other ones?” And of course, nobody understood him. They cut the microphone off. And he just ends up really alienated. But that’s a valid question, and it’s confusing because it is important to us. If something happens in an American or Canadian town, or in Paris, we do react differently than if it happens in Islamabad. It’s not right or wrong, it’s just the way it is.

What were some of the things you had to consider when touching on something as recent as the Belgium attacks?
There are so many ways of coming at that, like Saad’s reaction. To me, that is a very real and genuine reaction that should be out there. At the same time, the kids who cut off his microphone and didn’t want to hear that, there’s a point there too. All that we can do is present both sides of the story and show that it’s not black and white. I like the scene where Saad himself is bullied and attacked. That’s an important part of it. We’ve seen the terrorist attacks, and we think of ISIS. But it’s too easy to respond and say, “Someone of color, or from that region, there’s something wrong about how they approach life. So we’ve got to be fearful of all of them.”

We’ve seen it in Canada and the U.S. and Britain where people are attacking people it’s easy to be afraid of because of their color or their religion. That’s not right. At the same time, we understand that it’s natural to be afraid. So it would be good for us to introduce a character who represents rural America or rural Canada, the ones who probably would have voted for Trump if they were old enough to vote, who are worried about what’s going on and think life is going on in a very difficult way and can’t they just pull back into themselves to protect themselves from what’s going on in the world? That’s a genuine point of view that needs to be portrayed. It’s not one that I personally espouse. But it’s a genuine point of view, and I think we need to be understanding of it and address it. Not just say, “Oh, that’s a Trumpism.”

This is really the first time we’ve seen Degrassi take on terrorism. Was it because you had something specific to say and address regarding everything we’ve seen happen lately, or was it because it just couldn’t be ignored and you knew you’d have to touch on it eventually?
In the past, it wasn’t as much of a nuanced issue. These things were happening and there was 9/11. But there wasn’t too much a story you could tell besides, “Terrorism [is] bad.” It’s like smoking. We don’t have episodes talking about how bad smoking is because we know it is. Whereas now, there is a tremendous amount of nuance — talking about the Muslim religion, talking about how we respond to these things and the backlash. We haven’t really gotten into the White Supremacist type either. There’s a whole range of things, that, on the one hand, are understandable, on the other hand, are bad. You can sort of understand where they’re coming from. So there’s really room for real, genuine storytelling. Not just, “Terrorism Bad. America Good.”

DHX Media

And this is the first couple of seasons where you have characters who’ve experienced terrorism on a more personal level because both he and Rasha are Syrian.
Yes. Absolutely. He’s been there. He’s had friends there, and people who’ve died. He has photographs of the terror and the horror from his homeland… And of course between Goldi and Rasha we were able to explore different aspects of being a Muslim. Goldi ultimately felt more comfortable with a more conservative approach, with Rasha being more open.

A major development of Saad’s story line this year saw someone try to radicalize him. Is that part of showing the different points of view?
Yeah. He’s being bullied and ostracized so you could understand how he would be pushed in that direction. Of course, in the end, he’s not. I loved the scene at the end where Lola and Yael confront Saad, and they open the door and he doesn’t want to talk with them and they want to apologize because what they’ve done is not only wrong, but it was probably racist. But you understand where both sides are coming from.

Was there a chance he could have been radicalized?
When we have the brainstorming session, it’s very important to be very open to all kinds of eventualities. But the thought was not to go there. It may have been mentioned [during the process], but that isn’t the story or the drama to us. The drama is that there’s somebody who is a real human being, who’s going to be pulled back and forth and in their heart is a really wonderful human being and would not ultimately go in that direction.

Degrassi: Next Class is currently available to stream on Netflix.

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