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Stereotypes in Mass Media

Jack G. Shaheen
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

    Stereotypes in Mass Media

    Most Americans come to know the world's approximately 260 million Arabs and more than one billion Muslims through the mainstream mass media—television programs and motion pictures in particular—which provide most of the images U.S. citizens have of the peoples of the world. An examination of more than a thousand pre-9/11 feature films and hundreds of television programs, comic books and strips, music recordings, video games, newspapers and magazines (with their advertisements, crossword puzzles, and editorial cartoons), as well as textbooks, novels and reference works, computer and video games, and scores of graphic images from other communication channels reveals stereotypical portraits of Arab Muslims. Although more than 20 million Arab Christians reside in the Middle East—ranging from Eastern Orthodox to Roman Catholic to Protestant—they are invisible in the media. Thus, especially since the 9/11 tragedy and the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Arab-as-Muslim terrorist myth has positioned itself firmly in peoples’ minds around the world.

    Seemingly mindlessly adopted and casually adapted, images present the Muslim as the bogeyman, the quintessential Other: how else to explain the message from a student at the University of Wisconsin to an Iranian student: “Death to all Arabs, die, Islamic scumbags”? (“College Debate: Free Speech versus Freedom from Bigotry,” Chicago Tribune, March 8, 1991, p. 2). Imagemakers often lump together Arab, Iranian, Turkish, or Pakistani Muslims as threateningly dark-complexioned, bearded men with thick accents.

    Selective media framing makes it feasible to belittle Islam. Movies often reinforce audiences’ misperceptions by portraying Muslim men as deceiving, suppressing, and abusing white Western females. In Not Without My Daughter (1990), for example, the Iranian protagonist treats his American wife like chattel; he slaps her face and keeps her prisoner in their home, boasting “I’m a Muslim.” The film portrays Muslims as hypocrites; breaking his oath sworn on the Qurʿān, the husband says, “Islam is the greatest gift I can give my daughter.” As his family leaves the mosque, we see posters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, suggesting that Muslims and ayatollahs are one and the same.

    Portrayals in the News.

    Rigid and repetitive news images of Palestine's Yassir Arafat, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini and Iraq's Saddam Hussein have been blended with scores of fictional motion pictures and television programs featuring Muslim terrorists shouting, “Allah be praised,” while murdering innocents. Deceptive portraits are common; skewed documentaries are named The Sword of Islam and The Islamic Bomb, books are called The Assassins: Holy Killers of Islam, The Dagger of Islam, The Fire of Islam, Holy Wars, Inflamed Islam, and Militant Islam, and magazine essays are titled “The Roots of Muslim Rage” (Atlantic Monthly, 1991) and “The Muslims Are Coming, The Muslims Are Coming!” (National Review, 1991). As a result of these representations, the media's Arab Muslim lacks a human face.

    Demonized and delegitimized, the Arab Muslim is portrayed as different. In TV movies such as Under Siege (1986) and The President's Man: A Line in the Sand (2002), Arabs and Muslims from Dearborn, Michigan, and Dallas, Texas, are presented as anti-American “religious fanatics” willingly sacrificing their lives in “holy wars” for “the cause.” In President's Man, they try to explode a nuclear bomb in Texas. In Siege, they topple the dome of the U.S. Capitol and kill scores of American civilians. The FBI director explains to his associate that “those people,” Arab and Iranian Muslims, are different. The writers and producers, unable to distinguish Arabs from Iranians, portray them as one ethnic group, even though each group has its own origin, ethnicity, language, and cultural heritage. Consequently, “Arab” is used throughout the film interchangeably with “Iranian.” Referring to atrocities being committed by Muslims in the United States, the FBI director tells his associate: “It's a whole different ball game. I mean the East and the Middle East. They have their own notion of what's right and what's wrong, what's worth living for and dying for. But we insist on dealing with them as if they’re the same as us. We’d better wake up!”

    Continuously repeated, stereotypical images and statements transmitted by media have a telling effect on innocent people. In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, leading to the Gulf War. During this time, two prominent Americans, Senator J. J. Exon of Nebraska and former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Edward Peck offered comparable commentary about Arabs and Muslims. In remarks for which he later apologized (according to Casey Kasem), Exon said, “In the Arab world, life is not as important as in the non-Arab world” (Omaha World Herald, August 30, 1990, p. 3). Edward Peck stated on television, “We in the West tend to think of our New Testament heritage, where you turn the other cheek and you let bygones be bygones and forgive and forget. [But] the people of the Middle East are the people of the Old Testament. With Muslims there's much more of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. You don't forget and you don't forgive; you carry on the vendetta and the struggle long after people in the West would be prepared to say it's all right, it's over, let's not worry about it any longer” (NBC Nightly News, January 16, 1991).


    To enhance the myth of the Muslim's otherness, imagemakers clothe him in foreign garb, such as strange “bedsheets.” Made up with dark features, he is unattractive and in need of a shave. Speaking with a “foreign” accent, he poses an economic threat by using oil and/or terrorism as a weapon against “developed” socie-ties. Most important, he is painted as worshiping a different deity and possessing an unprovoked hatred of “civilized” peoples, notably American Christians and Jews. “These bastards [Muslim hijackers] shot those people in cold blood. They think it's open season on Americans,” explains a passenger in the television movie, Hostage Flight (1985). Journalist Edward R. Murrow said that what we do not see is as important, if not more important, than what we do see: seldom do audiences see or read about a devout Muslim caring for his wife or children, writing poetry, or tending the sick.

    Children's cartoons, such as Inspector Gadget and Heathcliff, show Muslims not glorifying God, but idolizing Westerners. In an episode of Heathcliff, Egyptians, perceiving Heathcliff to be their ancient ruler, bow before the cat. When, in a Mr. Gadget episode, Gadget discovers an ancient relic, Arab hordes worship him. Falling to their knees, they mumble “the chosen one, the chosen one.”

    Consider how the media paint two holy cities, Mecca and Jerusalem. In 1991, on CBS-TV's top-rated 60 Minutes program, Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem, neglects to mention Jerusalem's Muslim population when he says that Jerusalem is a city inhabited by “Christians, Jews, and Arabs.”

    The city of Mecca is the birthplace of Muḥammad and the site of the Grand Mosque, the most sacred place in the Islamic world. Yet, media merchants transform Mecca into a corrupt town, where offensive antics reign. In 1966, producers of the successful television series I Dream of Jeannie (episode no. 16) represented Mecca not as a holy city with devout worshipers, but as a topsy-turvy bazaar filled with thieves robbing Western tourists. The plot focused on Jeannie, a two-thousand-year-old genie, who will soon die unless she visits Mecca's “thieves market.” In the “First National Bank of Mecca,” Jeannie's friend performs ridiculous rituals. To save her life, he must “raise his right arm, face the minaret of the rising sun, and repeat the sacred words: ‘bottle to genie, genie to master, master to Mecca. Ronda!’   ”

    The dialogue and imagery in I Dream of Jeannie is designed to amuse, but instead it narrows our vision and blurs reality. In 1987, Ishtar, a $50-million comedy, starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman continued this trend. Riddled with anti-Arab sentiments, Arab culture is labeled “devious,” and Hoffman is told, “Go act like an Arab.” Ishtar also lampoons Mecca with “I Look to Mecca,” a song concerning a romantic rendezvous under a tree. Islam's holiest city and the pilgrimage to Mecca, a sacred journey that Muslims look forward to making all their lives, are belittled with sexual innuendo. There is a dangerous and cumulative effect when imagemakers continually transmit repetitive stereotypical pictures of Muslims. Such imagery does not exist in a vacuum: teaching viewers and readers whom to fear and whom to hate, the Muslim stereotype affects perceptions and consequently U.S. public opinion and policy decisions.

    Changing Attitudes.

    Some public figures are recognizing the differences between image and reality. On March 8, 1991, following the Gulf War, General Norman Schwarzkopf made these remarks to departing American troops in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia: “You are going to take back home the fact that ‘Islam’ is not a word to be feared, a religion to be feared. It's a religion to be respected, just as we respect all other religions. That's the American way.” Although the general's comments appeared in the Washington Post, his statements about Islam were not widely circulated.

    Even imagemakers are gradually addressing negative portraits of Muslims. Producers of documentaries and feature films, print journalists, and others are presenting more accurate and humane portraits. Islam: A Civilization and Its Art (1991), is an informative ninety-minute documentary focusing on Islamic civilization, culture, and art. Legacy (1992), a PBS television documentary series, points out that Islam is “the true basis” of our culture. Host Michael Wood shows that “the West's rediscovery of its ancient science and knowledge of the Italian Renaissance was indebted to the Muslims.” Revealing scenes of mosques, mosaics, calligraphy, and devout Muslims at prayer underscore his commentary: “When Europe was still in the dark ages, the fertile crescent entered another glorious phase of its culture. Here, in the universities and libraries of Baghdad, Babylonian astronomy, Hindu mathematics, Chinese science and technology were passed on by Arabs. It was one of the great multicultural epochs of all time. The triumph of the modern West was made possible by a flood of ancient learning and science from Islam.”

    Two 2006 feature films, Paradise Now and Babel, pr0ject humane, three-dimensional images of Palestinians and Moroccans. In Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Islam is presented as a devout, compassionate faith, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), introduces Azeem, a Moorish Muslim who is devout, intelligent, innovative, and Robin's equal, both as a combatant and as a humanist. With Robin in the English countryside, Azeem takes his prayer rug, faces Mecca, and prays. He refuses to drink alcohol—“I must decline, Allah forbids it”—and he is tolerant of other faiths—“it is vanity to force other men to our religion.” Also, Azeem embraces other races and colors: “Allah loves wondrous variety.” Equipped with scimitar, Arab headdress, and robe, he manages not only to deliver a breech baby, but also to save Robin's life and the day by introducing the telescope and gunpowder to the British Isles. Robin acknowledges the Moor's humanity, saying, “You truly are a great one.”

    In Chicago magazine (April 1991, p. 26), journalist Gretchen Reynolds describes a service at a mosque, calling it “a revelation. Canonical and dignified, moving even if you don't know the language, it evokes deep visceral emotion in Muslims attending. Some of the women start to cry. The people attending stand and kneel, call back to the khatib leading them. Anyone looking to have western preconceptions of Arab religion confirmed would be disappointed: There is no fanaticism here, only faith”.

    Mindful that American Muslims are either dehumanized or neglected in the media, the U.S. Senate for the first time invited an imam, W. Deen Mohammed, to offer the opening prayer on February 6, 1992. Fifteen years later, Minnesota Democrat Keith Elllison, the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress, took the oath of office on the Holy Qurʿān. As for the future, the ultimate result should be an image of the Muslim as neither saint nor devil, but as a fellow human being, with all the potentials and frailities that condition implies.

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