Steven Speilberg once said film is the most powerful weapon (Fuller, 189). For Muslims, especially of Arab descent film has been the most powerful weapon in the war against Islam. Although Hollywood has a long history of negatively stereotyping Arab Muslims through time, the stereotypes have seemingly become more negative. The ideal Muslim in Hollywood has gone through a sharp twist in their portrayal. They are no longer bumbling desert dwellers or well to do oil sheikhs. Arab Muslims in Hollywood have become homicidal, suicidal, and genocidal terrorists. The silent acceptance of this Hollywood stereotype has led many to ask why characters have gone to such an extreme. There really is no definitive answer as to why; there are only reasons that could lead to an answers.
After September 11th, 2001, the Arab Muslim community became more radicalized in the mainstream media. This is one reason there is acceptance of Hollywood’s stereotypes. The classic “othering” of Muslims as a whole became popular on news outlets like Fox and conservative based “news” shows like the O’Reilly Factor. Psuedo-documentaries such as Obsession (2005), have also perpetuated the stereotypes that Fox has created. Arab Muslims through this “othering” have become “villainized” in the American psyche and for many it became natural to accept movie characters that modeled what many believe is reality. While many would assume it was post-September 11th when the Arab terrorist became popular it was actually the 1970s. With films like 21 Hours at Munich, Wanted Dead Or Alive, and On the Wings of Eagles, Arabs were shown thirty plus years before 2001 (Fuller, 189-194). With these films, the notion that Arab Muslims used one type of weapon and that was the bomb. It mirrored the thought that not only were these people violent; they were extremely violent and willing to kill the innocent. From these beginnings the negative Arab Muslim image has continued to grow and even in some films such as in the film version of Ironman (2008) characters were changed. One character specifically Raza, the head of the terrorist group Ten Rings, was a major change from the comic book version of Ironman. In the comics, Ten Rings referred to the rings worn by a character named Mandarin. In the 2008, film adaptation, Ten Rings became a terrorist cell in the middle of a Middle Eastern desert. To add a bit of a surprise, the updated Raza and Ten Rings were after Tony Stark for one thing, his Jericho Missile. Interesting, is why the filmmakers felt the need to change the characters. It would really seem that they were just trying to go with popular thought and the Hollywood model.
According to an article written by Sulaiman Arti (1-3), filmmakers have portrayed Arab Muslims in “exotic, ethnic terms.” This has served as a backdrop for the Arab Muslim villain opposing the “good” American hero in film. This notion has helped to shape the ever so present “othering” effect. Also, according to Arti (1-3), the Hollywood model, sort of speak has a deeper impact than just a person on a screen acting. Hollywood’s presentation of the Arab Muslim has been extremely alienating. Hollywood combined with global politics has left Muslims in a bad place. The depiction of them has changed so rapidly over the years that they have become out casted. For men they have gone from billionaire sheikhs and Bedouins to sadistic terrorists. For women there has not been too much of a sharp contrast according to Arti (1-3). Women are still seen as subservient to men, the only real difference between old Hollywood and now is that the women are no longer hypersexual but they are covered head to toe in a stereotypical burka/niqab type garment (Arti, 1-3).
Also, in his article, Arti (3) makes note that television tends to not depict Muslims in the same manner as Hollywood films. Some shows that have come from the United States such as Sleeper Cell and LOST have produced semi-positive Muslim characters in strong positions. Other shows such as Parks and Recreation and Community have shown the Muslim men in sort of beta male roles. Women on television tend to be veiled with these breathtaking, gorgeous facial features. There does not seem to be a happy medium. In all honesty, if someone was not paying much attention to most of these characters they would be easily missed or overlooked. One type of television program that seems to disagree with Mr. Arti’s statement is professional wrestling, more specifically WWE’s regular television slot. They have been consistently using the Hollywood model to create characters. For decades, they used a character called the Iron Sheik an outlandish Middle Eastern, anti-American stereotype. He would regularly attack all American characters like Sgt. (sic) Slaughter and Hulk Hogan. WWE would later use a more up to date stereotype with Muhammad Hassan, who was a post-September 11th, Arab-American Muslim. He would make anti-American statements and talk about his ill feelings toward the treatment of his people. The character was short lived after he was turned into a pseudo-terrorist.
Two big reasons that there is no huge public outcry over these negative Arab-Muslim images are Islamaphobia and racialization. In its simplest definition, Islamaphobia is the irrational or extreme fear of Islam and Islamic people. Racialization refers to processes of the discursive production of racial identities. It signifies the extension of dehumanizing and racial meanings to a previously racially unclassified relationship, social practice, or group.
As of 2008, polls showed that many Americans still feared Islam. The fact that many evangelical Christian leaders have portrayed Islam and Mohammed in a poor manner has not benefitted interreligious harmony. It has in fact done the opposite and created Islamaphobia. Throughout the twentieth and twenty first centuries this fear has lead to humiliating public images (Smith, J. 188-189). Some of these images, like the ones found in films, have led to violent acts toward those who practice Islam. One image that has created the most fear came in the form of a pseudo-documentary. In 2005, the film Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West compared Islam to Nazism. This growing fear has lead to a silently accepted view of the Muslim (Smith, J. 188-189).
The post September 11th government did not help the image of Arab Muslims. The legislation that came after September 11th has increased fear and paranoia (Jamal, 1). It also helped to lead to racialization. One large problem that leads to the acceptance of media stereotypes as truth is racialization. The United States is a nation based on racialization. Throughout history the country has removed a holistic view of its people and turned them into divided races. In simple terms, Arab Muslim has become the “new black”, meaning the unjust treatment that black Americans have faced is being put on the shoulders of Arab Muslims. The racializing of Arab Muslims is adding to the existent “othering” which opens the door for people to believe the negative images associated with the group (Jamal, 7).
Racialization involves the direct subordination of a minority group or “other.” The dominant group claims cultural and moral superiority over the “others”. In this case, it would be the American Christian majority and the Arab Muslim minority. Many would claim that this action has only taken place after September 11th. It has been going on longer; however, it was strengthened by September 11th, in addition to prior events. In a way the more lax generation of Hollywood and television has become more open to mythmaking. With this mythmaking it has become easier for many to accept a violent terrorist delivering bomb than an Arab Muslim truck driver delivering cheese (Jamal, 8-10).
In conclusion, the reason why Hollywood can seemingly get away with negatively stereotyping Arab Muslims is twofold. First, the Islamaphobia that exists in America contributes to most of the reasoning. The second is the racialization of Muslims in America. Once they have become a new race in the eyes of Americans, they became the new target for hatred. There is always hope that one day, writers in Hollywood can take a positive image and turn it into something great.
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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_Sheik (I know it’s a Wikipedia article but I think for the most part Iron Sheik is kind of a common sense thing since he has become semi-mainstreamed in 80s pop culture I just wanted something to prove I did not make him up)
*All photos are from Google.