Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11 – A Review

Kristian Petersen

With all of the turmoil currently happening in the Middle East many Americans are revisiting their understanding of Islam and the character of Muslims, especially those that are their neighbors. While the 24 hour news cycle covers the events in Gaza or Iraq the average American can turn to a more entertaining place for shaping their opinions about Islam, TV shows. American television has a number of shows that revolve around Muslims, 24, Homeland, Sleeper Cell, just to name a few. All of these programs rely on worn formulas in their representation of Muslims, repeatedly introducing angry terrorists and oppressed women. In this media context, hate crimes against Arab and Muslim Americans and governmental policies that target Islamic identities can make sense to perpetrators. We can pinpoint the role of Hollywood television in shaping American attitudes towards Muslims because it always represents Muslims in a negative light ...right? Or at least this might be your assumption in a post-9/11 world.

In fact, after 9/11 there have been a proliferation of sympathetic representations of Muslim Americans in the U.S. commercial media. Making sense of this puzzle was one of the motivating factors behind Evelyn Alsultany’s, Associate Professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, recent book, Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11 (New York University Press, 2012). How are we to understand the discrepancy between numerous positive images of Muslims and the simultaneous enactment of racists policies central to the ‘War on Terror’ in a post-9/11 world? What are the effects of these depictions on American Muslims? Why may these positive images a surprise to us?

The assertion that Muslims are frequently situated within positive roles may catch many off guard. Of course, this is because Muslims are regularly portrayed as violent, misogynistic, and as terrorists in film and television. Our assumption that Muslims would be portrayed in a negative light is historically substantiated. Jack Shaheen has demonstrated that there is a long tradition of negatively portraying Muslims in his classic book and documentary, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. Alsultany’s research adds to this research on film and reveals the complicated polarity in ‘government and media discourses’ related to Islam in America. Alsultany connects her study to this earlier genealogy of Muslim representations but also situates it within the multicultural ‘post-racial’ context of contemporary American society. The complimentary sympathetic portrayal of Muslims, that accompanies their traditional demonization, projects an enlightened American perspective that values multicultural inclusion over and above the ‘necessary’ policy measures that advance exclusionary logics. Alsultany argues that these ‘positive’ representations, including hardworking patriots or hate-crime victims, seemingly offset any negative representations that usually move the plot forward.

But does a positive image cancel out a negative one? The problem here isn’t portraying Muslims as terrorist but that they are rarely portrayed in other contexts. These stereotypes of “good” Muslim and “bad” Muslim are incomplete and conform to a narrow conception of US patriotism. In this mediated world Muslims can only be either a patriotic America Muslim, the helpful civilian willing to participate in the fight against terrorism, or the victim, a target of harassment and hate crimes, removed from flights, or unjustly detained. These images fail to engage the diverse field of Islamic identities and harden the boundaries of the Hollywood Muslim, which effectively define an entire group of people for viewers. While there is tremendous diversity among Muslims, and even religious diversity within the Arab community (frequently assumed to be Muslim), the average American will not be exposed to the nuances of contemporary Muslim communities. 

Arabs and Muslims in the Media illustrates how the politics of representation in TV dramas, news reports, and public service announcements. Alsultany screens multiple shows for her readers, including 24, 7th Heaven, The Agency, Boston Public, The Education of Max Bickford, The Guardian, The Grid, JAG, Law and Order, Law and Order SVU, LAX, NCIS, NYPD Blue, The Practice, Sleeper Cell, Threat Matrix, and The West Wing. She explores the representational modes and strategies in great detail and reveals how the storyline of popular television very often justifies discrimination against Muslims. These pervasive images help structure the logic for the suspension of civil rights in a time of national security crisis, justify inequality and exclusion, and reaffirm Muslims’ association with terrorism. Without the ability to evaluate Muslims outside the context of terrorism viewers' perceptions and assumptions about Islam remain intact because the narratives conclude that the current status quo is an unfortunate but necessary evil. 

Alsultany is confident that a more nuanced and diversified field of Muslim representations in media can be realized. While media makers continue to overwhelmingly represent Muslims in a negative light or within the context of terrorism their audiences no longer sit back quietly and allow them to determine who Muslims are. Change largely rests on the shoulders of viewers and their demands of media creators. Audiences have become more powerful with the rise of social technologies and multiple platforms for accessing media that consumers thereby have a voice in shaping media representations. And writers and producers have economic incentive to respond. 

We have seen these effective challenges succeed in the recent past. Earlier this year, Brooke Eikmeier, a young writer and Arabic-speaking US army veteran, had dreams of producing a television show that would reveal some of the diversity of Muslims to an American audience. Well, her dreams came true when ABC Family picked up Alice in Arabia. However, the situation soon became a nightmare when people quickly turned to social media to voice their concerns for the project. Most of the controversy surrounded archetypal portrayals of Muslims which people feared were latent within the official ABC Family description of the show:

Alice in Arabia is a high-stakes drama series about a rebellious American teenage girl who, after tragedy befalls her parents, is unknowingly kidnapped by her extended family, who are Saudi Arabian. Alice finds herself a stranger in a new world but is intrigued by its offerings and people, whom she finds surprisingly diverse in their views on the world and her situation. Now a virtual prisoner in her grandfather’s royal compound, Alice must count on her independent spirit and wit to find a way to return home while surviving life behind the veil.

However, we will never know how Muslims would be portrayed in this show because it was quickly canceled. Media consumers voiced their concerns that Alice in Arabia would follow the pattern of one-sided stereotypical portraits of Muslims.
Ultimately, the fierce backlash led ABC Family to remove itself from further controversy by ending the show in its tracks.

More recently there has been a loud negative response to FX’s new show Tyrant. People were initially angered that the lead Arab character, Bassam “Barry” Al-Fayeed, was not Arab. Quickly, viewers had much more to complain about once the show aired. Here is a sneak peak of what upset viewers in the first episode.

Now you can see why people might be upset.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said “If the only thing you saw or heard about the Middle East was watching ‘Tyrant,’ you’d come away saying, ‘Man, what a bunch of savages. They deserve whatever they get.’” One of the authorities on media representations of Arabs and Muslims, Jack Shaeen, went so far to say that the show “displays some of the most racist anti-Arab images I have ever seen on American television. And I’ve spent 40-plus years documenting TV’s images of Arabs.” 

Its likely these types of images will not being going away any time soon. What we can do as historians of the American religious landscape and educators is help tease out the complex dynamics that are at play in the politics or identity and representation. Evelyn Alsultany’s Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11 does a great job of situating media makers and consumers within the context of social and political consequences of media production. The book is well-written and accessible while also being enjoyable making it a great choice for teaching. Those working on religion and politics will also greatly benefit from the book.

Finally, let me point to a wonderful online resources tracking the long history of Arabs in America and their representation within American culture. The Arab American National Museum developed the Reclaiming Identity: Dismantling Arab Stereotypes project under the curatorship Evelyn Alsultany. This exhibit provides numerous primary sources for students to peruse and a broader history of media representation of American Muslims. It would certainly compliment a reading of Arabs and Muslims in the Media well.

Kristian Petersen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Nebraska Omaha. He specializes in Islamic Studies and currently serves on the steering committee for the Contemporary Islam Group at the American Academy of Religion. This is the first post in an occasional series reviewing new scholarship on the history of Muslims and Islam in America.
You can find him on Twitter @BabaKristian


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