Case Study of Stereotypes: The Portrayal of Islam and Muslims in the Western Media
By Riley Robertson
The representation of Muslim and Arab communities for the past several decades has been negative. There have been a number of ways in which these stereotypes have emerged and become ingrained in Western Society. The origins of these representations have been more-so clear and defined after numerous events in the mid twentieth century. For instance, the perception of Islam in the West didn’t take a turn for the worse until the 1970’s, with the events of “the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the consequent Arab oil embargo, and the 1978-79 Iranian revolution and ensuing hostage crisis-shocked many American officials into viewing Islam as a threat to Western interests” (3). These congruent events that took place within the same decade began a built representation of Islam being a force that should be feared and associated with negative connotations because of certain political actions.
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These actions didn’t just speak for themselves, however. Over time a more fearful perspective of the Islamic Faith became dominant in Western representation. This was due to the overbearing fears of terrorism, with links of terrorism to specific Islamic groups or individuals. “Perhaps the most memorable of these instances was the February 1993 World Trade Center bombing, as a result of which ten Muslims were convicted of waging ‘a war of urban terrorism’ against America and of plotting to kill President Mubarak” (3). After these terrorist attacks, there was misguided linking of, as James Brooke describes, “Muslims and domestic terrorism in the minds of many Americans”, which led to the misrepresentation of Muslims as terrorists throughout Western Society. He continues and states “Hollywood routinely ‘demonizes’ Muslims…’The result is that when a mosque burns, we don’t get the same reaction as when a church or synagogue burns,’ said Mr. Sheehan, who wrote a book on stereotypes in the press, ‘The TV Arab'” (1).
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TV Arab” stereotype can be seen in more recent media as well. In Season 10 of the American comedy-sketch show, MadTV, a sketch satirizes the Al-Jazeera Network, using absurd caricatures of Muslim newscasters stating dozens of times throughout the sketch “Death to America”. It should be noted that this phrase originated from news footage of certain Jihadists after 9/11 (5). However, this is not representational of the majority of those within the Islamic Faith. Although this is a comedy act and can be argued as funny, this illuminates the ongoing representation of Muslims and Arabs as savage people who wish death upon all Americans. These representations don’t illuminate the reality of how Arabs truly are, but rather show how these people are ‘thought of’ by the general populous of the West. It’s also possible that, due to these misrepresentations, reactionary actions are made against Muslims in United States. Dr. El-Sayed el-Aswad, PhD. examined the difficulties experienced by Arab Americans in terms of cultural representation and conformation. He notes that the “American reaction to the events of September 11 have made the feelings of exile more visible and prevalent among Arab Americans who have experienced a variety of forms of discrimination stereotyping based on factors such as race and ethnicity, inability to speak the language, dress, customs, and religion” (2). El-Aswad Notes the inherent negativity associated with Arabs, and how Arab Americans endure a “double identity”, thereby keeping Arab traditions in private while not expressing these qualities whilst in the midst of the American public (2).
As Stuart Hall has noted on the subject of representation through the lens of the constructionist model, he states “representation involves making meaning by forging links between three different orders of things:…the world of things, people, events, experiences; the conceptual world…and the signs” (4). Through the constructionist approach of representation, we can note that many of the representations we’ve constructed are not reflected upon what is real. In other words, the representation of Islam and Arabs in the United States and throughout the Western World doesn’t reflect what necessarily has a basis in reality. These misrepresentations are more-so reactions rather than reflections of the real world. This should be considered when thinking about stereotypes about Muslims and Arabs in America. These stereotypes of viewing Muslims as extremists, terrorists, etc. have a basis to their emergence as representations, like the terrorist attacks and rise of Islamic extremism, but lack the basis for representing the overall Muslim community in an accurate and meaningful fashion. The distinction between ‘us’ versus ‘them’ follows the essential formation of “group identities”. Stanley states that “underlying effective propaganda are certain kinds of group identities…When our own identity is tied up with that of a particular group, we may become irrational in these ways. When this occurs, when our group affiliates are such as to lead us to these kinds of rigidly held beliefs, we become especially susceptible to propaganda” (6).
. Brooke, James. 1995. “Attacks on U.S. Muslims surge even as their faith takes hold”. New York Times. 28 August.
. El-Sayed el-Aswad. “The Dynamics of Identity Reconstruction among Arab Communities in the United States.” Anthropos, vol. 101, no. 1, 2006, pp. 111–121., www.jstor.org/stable/40466623.
. Gerges, Fawaz A. “Islam and Muslims in the Mind of America.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 588, 2003, pp. 73–89., www.jstor.org/stable/1049855.
. Hall, Stuart. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Milton Keynes: Los Angeles, Calif., 2013. Print.
. Shaban, Fuad. “ISLAM AND THE WEST: EXTREMISTS IN ALLIANCE.” Arab Studies Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 1/2, 2009, pp. 69–79., www.jstor.org/stable/41858575.
. Stanley, J. (2015) “The Problem of Propaganda.” How Propaganda Works. Princeton University Press.
(Feature Image source: Muslim Stereotypes)