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There has always been some sort of prejudice towards Islam, however, in the years following the attacks on 9/11 the debate concerning Islam has become extremely politicized. In post 9/11 American society there has been a prevailing public ideology implying that Islam and its followers are naturally violent and dangerous, non-muslims should be alert and suspicious, and because of their alarming threat, acts of aggression against them are justifiable. This close-minded prejudice or hatred against Islam and Muslims is known as Islamophobia. One of the leading sources that’s been encouraging this representational identity has been the American mediascape.
Tv and film, more specifically, rely on the extensive archive of negative, critical, and insufficient depictions of Muslims in American and European visual and literary sources, and largely continue earlier actions of demonization and alienation. The Islamophobia that has followed the 9/11 attacks has been spread throughout the news and Hollywood in particular.
This can be considered rather dangerous because Hollywood has such an enormous sphere of influence, especially among the younger generation, thus prolonging the issue.
By continuing to stereotype and dehumanize Arabs and Muslims, Hollywood is prolonging anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment and violence. The topic that will guide this paper is how Hollywood’s depiction of Islam and Muslims, through the use of stereotypes and derogatory rhetoric, increases Islamophobia in Americans and limits their ability to establish knowledge about the religion and its people. The films that are going to be used are: Zero Dark Thirty (2012), American Sniper (2014), and The Hurt Locker (2008). The films focus on post 9/11 events and the ideological markers that cause Islamophobia in the films are then related to the opinions of Muslims and Islam that have become widespread throughout Hollywood and the media since; examples such as Muslims are savages, dangerous, terrorists, and non-compatible with Western societies.
These films were specifically chosen because they focus on post 9/11 events, and because they have reached out to large audiences giving them a good amount of influence in the societal perceptions of Muslims. Another reason these films were chosen is because they take place in different settings but under similar hostile situations. Zero Dark Thirty takes place in Pakistan documenting the search for Osama bin Laden. The Hurt Locker takes place in Iraq and focuses on an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team. And American Sniper is about the life of Chris Kyle and his four tours during the Iraq War. By analyzing how these films, taking place under hostile situations, build Islamophobia cinematically one will be able to demonstrate how the Islamophobic sentiment that has dispersed across America post 9/11 is depicted. At the beginning of each section there will be a short summary of the film that will give an idea of what the subject of the movie is, who the main characters are, and which themes are key. Afterward, a couple of scenes will be analyzed to serve as evidence for the argument.
The Hurt Locker was directed by Kathryn Bigelow and it follows the story of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team that is stationed in Iraq during the Iraq War. At the beginning of the film the EOD team consists of Sergeant J.T. Sanborn, Specialist Owen Eldridge, and team leader Staff Sergeant Matthew Thompson. Early in the movie Staff Sergeant Thompson is killed in an explosion from an improvised explosive device. He is then replaced by Sergeant William James who formerly served in Afghanistan. The EOD team faces many situations such as IEDs, ambushes, booby traps, and remote control detonations. The Hurt Locker shows the last 39 days of the EOD teams current deployment and witness the evolution of it and the relationships of the team members. The proper historical context of the film is that it takes place during the Iraq War, when the United States invaded Iraq because they believed they had weapons of mass destruction.
This later proved to be a false accusation. The first scene that will be discussed is when Sergeant James has a stand-off with a taxi driver who crashes through a barricade that was put up by other soldiers. Just before Sergeant James begins communicating with the taxi driver to tell him to backup, another U.S. soldier says the following: “EOD pulled a nine on this Haji in a car” (pulling a ‘nine’ is to do something stupid). “Haji” is a derogatory term used to describe Muslim that was used by US soldiers. This bit of dialogue is one example of Islamophobia at its core, especially when said to a Muslim. The taxi driver could have just been referred to as “Iraqi” which would simply indicate that he is from Iraq but instead he was called haji assuming that he is Muslim. It was assumed that because the man looked like he had harmful intentions he must be Muslim which is a harmful assumption for Muslims. The next scene being discussed is the one that depicts an attempted attack through the use of a car bomb on a United Nations building.
In this scene a gun scope shot is used to show the presumably Muslim Man who is recording the EOD team as they dismantle the car bomb as being a potential threat but then later turns out not to be. When using a gun scope shot in these types of scenes in order to make it look as if every Muslim man that is near or in close proximity to a possible attack is a terrorist is a case of tarring all Muslims with the same brush. This won’t help at all in trying to decreasing the discrimination at Muslims face. The Hurt Locker uses gun scope shots all throughout the film to give a sense of unease and fear to the viewers. It also illustrates the characters seen through it, in this case it’s Muslim men, as being potentially dangerous which instills the Islamophobic ideology in the viewers head. The distinction that Hollywood regularly defends is that Americans work for a more eminent good, while giving Muslims a bad reputation of being barbaric. When Hollywood does this it is limiting Americans ability to learn the truth about the religion and its people. Hollywood needs to show the true form of Islam and show how almost all Muslims reject violence and terrorism and consider extremists interpretation a distortion of the religion.
Zero Dark Thirty is also directed by Kathryn Bigelow and it follows CIA agent Maya on her search for Osama bin Laden. Maya was recruited straight out of high school and has since then been solely dedicated to the Al-Qaeda case file. In 2003 Maya gets reassigned to the embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan where she will work together with another CIA agent named Dan who leads an interrogation unit at a black site. At the black site Maya witnesses extreme forms of torture like waterboarding and sleep deprivation which at the start makes her feel uncomfortable with the situation, but as the film goes on she gets accustomed to it and adopts a “whatever is necessary” approach to it in order to get bin Laden. For years Maya combs through old CIA files and ultimately discovers that an old lead she was chasing may still be alive. This lead is what leads them to bin Laden’s compound. After being heavily surveilled for many months the CIA and many other units raid the compound and finally kill Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden’s body gets transported to a U.S. base where Maya identifies it and afterwards she boards a military plane and heads back to America.
Zero Dark Thirty is critically acclaimed for dramatizing the success of the U.S. on finding and killing bin Laden, but it also is glorifying the act of torture and strengthens the justification of violence towards Muslims. In the entirety of the film scenes of extreme and brutal torturing justifies the idea that torturing Muslims is acceptable. From the very start of the film, Zero Dark Thirty uses narratives of good guys and bad guys to group the audience with the CIA and anger towards the terrorists. Torture is introduced in the second scene of the film at a CIA facility where potential terrorists are being held. Rather than examining the possibility of their innocence, They are assumed to be guilty the whole film. When a detainee questions his guilt, he is later showed to be lying. This strengthens the stereotype that Muslims are lying, shifty, and dangerous. Then torturing a Muslim is justified again because exceptional measures are needed to make sure they don’t lie and tell the truth. A detainee named Ammar is being interrogated by Dan. “I own you, Ammar. You belong to me” says Dan(5). The language used by Dan towards Ammar is clearly derogatory and degrading. This gives of the idea that a white man is of higher status than a brown Muslim man. Ammar is then shown being interrogated again in a different location on the floor with his hands tied to the roof.
Once again the linguistic aspect of the scene are more obvious than the cinematic aspect. When Dan says “When you lie to me, I hurt you” it implies that Dan owns Ammar which again is implying that brown people are not equal to white people, nor Muslims to Christians(5). Dan also dehumanizes Ammar by putting a dog collar on him and forcing him to walk around on his knees and hands while he says “You’re my dog, I gotta walk you”(5). Dan doesn’t relate to Ammar on a personal level. It is difficult to relate to someone without some degree of shared history and culture. When someone can’t relate to another on a personal level discrimination can sometimes find its way into the situation. After the release of Zero Dark Thirty there were a lot demonstrations of the films excessive Islamophobia on social media. One person said the film “made them wanna shoot an Arab with an assault rifle”(4). This shows the capacity of Islamophobic representations in movies which could create conditions for hate crimes or extremist violence. The film made people want to kill Muslims for no reason which gives no room for them to learn about the Muslim society or about how Islam’s most important principle is to love everyone.
American Sniper was directed Clint Eastwood and is loosely based on the the story of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sniper. Chris Kyle is from Texas and for the first 30 years of his life he just wanted to be a cowboy. After he saw a news report regarding some terrorist attacks at U.S. embassies, Kyle came to the conclusion that he wants to do more with his current life. He decides to join the military because he believes his talent in shooting will be put to use. It is a major key to the film that the audience sees Kyle witness both the attacks on the embassies and the 9/11 attack because his witnessing this ultimately leads to his decision to join the military to ‘kill some terrorists’. The film does this to make the audience identify with Kyle. With the audience on Kyle’s side it allows for the rest of the film to take a more Islamophobic approach without upsetting them so that it can look like a justified retaliation. He gets deployed to Iraq and gets the nickname “legend” because of his many kills.
Throughout the film you can see Kyle starting to grow distant from his life back home because he is having trouble readjusting to civilian life. During one of his missions one of Kyle’s teammates gets injured by an opposing sniper named mufasa and another dies. Feeling guilty about his teammates Kyle leaves his family and goes back to Iraq for a fourth time and kills Mufasa which alleviates his guilt. He returns home but faces problems related to PTSD. His psychiatrist recommends he start working with wounded veterans. During this work a veteran ultimately kills Kyle. Even after killing so many people, American Sniper tries to humanize Kyle by showing his struggle of trying to readjust to civilian life. Muslims on the other hand are dehumanized throughout the whole film by illustrating every Muslim as a terrorist without humanity which is a false representation of Muslims. Kyle and other American characters in the film have depth to themselves and are not based on stereotypes. Muslims on the other hand are based entirely on stereotypes such as being savages and evil. Not only does this create Islamophobia where it was not already present, but it also intensifies it. This leads to extreme discrimination in the Western nations which can be seen in the U.S. and Europe. American Sniper also uses a gun scope shot when filming certain scenes.
Using this type of shot in a film is an intention choice. It’s central aim is to portray whatever character is seen through it as dangerous which in this case is Muslims. Once again Hollywood is stereotyping all Muslims in a film as a threat and not considering them as a population group. These stereotypes of Muslims in American Sniper will only create further separation between social groups whereas the vast majority of Muslims shouldn’t be demonized or alienated because of the actions of extremists who they themselves don’t even approve of. The extremist only occupy a very small percentage of Muslims globally so when American Sniper illustrates almost 95% of Muslims as terrorists an injustice is done to Muslims. Threats against Muslims and Arabs have drastically increased 3 fold following the release of American Sniper. Social media’s were flooded with hateful, discriminatory, and sometimes violent messages directed at Muslims and Arabs(3).
Muslims and Arabs are discriminated against throughout The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, and American Sniper through the use of derogatory rhetoric and stereotyping. Muslims are viewed as the universal Other, when in actuality there is no real universal Other as each person creates a sense of Self and Other that is unique. Muslims are seen as non-compatible with Western societies, terrorists, evil, savages, and a threat to everything what Western societies hold dear. When Hollywood and other medias illustrate all Muslims with these stereotypes, a whole population group is denounced. Ultimately in the end, the intentional and unintentional sides of Islamophobia can only be overcome by educating people about the harm stereotypes can cause, and if Hollywood and other medias abandoned these negative stereotypes and depicted Muslims in a way that is more realistic rather than choosing to illustrate the whole population group as terrorists. It isn’t fair to the Muslims who aren’t extremist and show nothing but love for others.
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