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The media we consume in the 21st century holds an important place in today’s society. Its ability to carry stories in multiple formats across many nations allows us to freely choose the stories we’d like to see and for the producers to produce the ones they’d like to bring out from dark. As with many great abilities, this too comes with a great responsibility. The political situation found in our world today wants us to be critical thinkers, and be careful at every step we take.
Movies and mainstream media can have a big effect on how we observe people different from our backgrounds. Any form of misrepresentation of an ethnic group could lead to the general people thinking of them in a negative and regressive manner, bringing those who belong to the group under great harm and stress for a reason out of their control. One example of such would be the Muslim and Arabic ethnic group because they have been seen negatively in many forms of mainstream media especially in post 9/11 world.
This essay focuses on the representation of Muslims in western media and its effect on Muslims.
Walter Lippmann (1991: 96) in his definition of stereotype talks about that a stereotype is simply a prediction of our own views and biases on the world. The shows and movies we choose to watch and the stories they choose to show, can have a big impact on our world views and biases. The TV show, 24 offers us great understanding on how television shows and their representation of an ethnic group, the Muslims in this example, can have an impact on the groups they try to represent.
In its 4th season, the show focused on the idea of an American Muslim family being a terrorist sleeper cell in reality. Along with their plot, the slogan “They could be next door” (Anon 2005; DiLullo 2007: 17), the season had caused many to criticize the series for the promotion tactics used by the show. Cristian Blauvelt, an accomplished journalist known for his time as the deputy editor for BBC Culture, compared the plot to works such as Judd Suss and Der Ewige Jude; movies that had a prominent effect on boosting Nazi Propaganda and bringing fear in the hearts of German people against Jewish families.
The fourth season of the show surrounds the Arzazes, a typical Muslim family consisting of Navi the father, Dina the mother and Behrooz, their teenage son. In the story line, Navi shows the traditional barbaric traits found in Muslim stereotypes. He is dedicated to the jihadist cause, expecting to gain rewards for his deeds. This can be seen during the first episode of season 4, where we can hear him saying to his family that they are blessed as a family to act during this day. He is harsh when his son or his wife disobeys or unite against him, sometimes even punishing them in brutal ways. The terrorists shown today often show a willingness to go above and beyond in the way of Jihad for the Muslim ummah. Their ideologies are sometimes different from the moral code and they get lost from the path of logic and reasoning that is found in the heroes of civilization a lot. Navi’s decision to have his son killed for the reason that he was now a stranger to the family since living in America has changed who he was is an example of him losing his logic and reasoning. His regressive ways can be seen once again when he decides to take his very own son hostage while escaping from John Bauer, the hero of the series. Navi is the very embodiment of the barbaric anti-west Islamic terrorist stereotype that finds its way into the movies and shows we like to consume.
Dina too in her ways as a mother, promotes a negative stereotype of Muslims showcased in today’s movies and television. Torn between her son and the benefit to the cause, Dina sometimes has to take drastic actions to protect what is beloved to her in the story line. In order to be an obedient wife to Navi, she asks Behrooz to not talk back to his father, she acts as a mother to her son, protecting him by uniting with him to not let his father know about Behrooz’s relationship with Debbie. In an act to please and stay loyal to the cause of the terrorist group she again tries to protect his son by killing Debbie so that Navi could see that his son is not an outsider to the family. The ideology of getting into the act of killing an innocent being to protect one of your own is what would be expected from a heartless terrorist such as Navi. Dina, by killing her son’s daughter, fails to be a mother to her son, and in her attempt to save her son, betrays her cause and in that very act, betray her husband.
It would seem that it is not just the misrepresentation of Arabs and Muslims as a regressive group but also the lack of representing them in a balanced way. Pistritto in (The Real Faces of Islam), compares the image of Muslims in “Islam vs Islamists”, a documentary that had taken the task to show Muslims battling with Islamic extremists in a struggle to represent Islam and “The Muslim American” a documentary that explores the lives of Muslims in Europe and America after the events of 9/11 in an attempt to show their diversity and compare the lives between them. Islam vs Islamists in its attempt to display the morals held by extremists, failed to show who they were trying to represent. The characters, who were fighting for a better representation of Islam felt nothing more than an odd minority in a sea of anti-western extremists. But (The Muslim Americans) on the other hand handled its picture of Muslims in a more appropriate manner; showing that Muslims in America are less likely to express radical views due to them being better off financially. It also brings to our attention that Muslims just like any other ethnic group, do not hold extremist views and that many of these extremist views held by the minority differ in numerous levels.
This form of stereotyping is nothing new in the modern world. This stereotype does not only focus on Muslim specifically. This stereotype is also implemented on individuals in a Muslim majority country. If we consider Arab countries to be a big image of Muslim religion in this world then many populations also face this type of stereotypical issues by being a part of the religion. In a 2013 commercial by co-cola it has shown cowboys Vegas, show girls and an Arab man with a camel. In this small commercial, the Arab man has been portrayed as backward when it comes to compete with others for a giant bottle of coke in the desert. Even in the movies or series Arabs are shown as either villain or terrorist. In the year 1994 “True Lies” where Arnold Schwarzenegger acts as a spy of a secret government agency they showed a group of terrorist group in which the terrorist group they have represented the members of the group as Arabs. It’s not only in movies this type of stereotypes happens but it is also been shown in animated movies as well. Big characters of Disney like Aladdin have also portrayed such kind of stereotype in their theme song which was edited again when people raised their voice in the year 1992. Hollywood has failed to show the broad diversity found in Arab women, by only giving them roles such as veils, Hijabs and most commonly as belly dancers. Famous movies such as “Aladdin” (2019), “Arabian Nights” (1942), and “Ali Baba and the forty thieves” (1944) have also portrayed Arab women as obscure dancers.
If you consider the representation of Muslim group in the movie or TV show industry most of the time they are either considered a terrorist, half-witted foreigner or sometimes a troubled wife. Other than that, the worst judgement is relating Arabs and Muslims together. Muslims are a wide group of people who follow Islam as their religion while on the other hand Arabs are people from Middle Eastern nations who can choose their faith by their own. Even after so much controversy there are still some great movies which have inspired the world with a Muslim character in the films. If we take for an example Ali. This movie was about the boxer Muhamad Ali. In this movie it has shown that he had found difficulties trying to marry a person with different faith and the challenges of being famous by being the legendary boxer of all time. On a recent TV film Quantico which was portray of two Muslim girls have been taken place and was praised by many people. This has also changed people’s point of view with the representation of how a Muslim girl can also be smart, intelligent and competitive. Young Muslim girls like the way she carried the image and inspired people. Some of the historical movies also portrayed the Muslim character out of the common stereotypes. If we see the movie kingdom of heaven where the Muslim leader was brave and sympathetic. On the other hand movies like The Reluctant Fundamentalist have shown us how Muslim people were treated after the 9/11 tragedy. During this situation the character was abroad but as soon he returned to America; he did not find any whole-hearted welcome. After this he had to decide should he should change his next destination because of all the discrimination and hatred he faced. This was relatable to a lot of people during that time living in foreign land. Taking this into account many people faced a lot more than this during that time for being a Muslim.
After 9/11 representation of Muslim stereotype in film industry things has changed a lot. Riz Ahmed an actor and a rapper from a Muslim ethnicity has mentioned about how we can stop this in one of his speech at the UK’s House of Commons. In the month of March 2017. Sadia Habib and Shaf Choudry had come up with this solution known as Riz test. The test basically filters the TV show and movies and lets us see if there is any bad Muslim representation on those platforms. This will help movies to change the scene with some alternative to picture the story better rather than making it have a Muslim stereotype to hurt people from the Muslim ethnicity. This test is inspired from another test which is known by Bechdel test that basically challenges viewers to view how women are represented. Riz test is something similar by categorizing the test into five points. If the TV shows or movies fail one of the tests, we can know it is a bad representation of a Muslim stereotype.
On the other hand, recent activities have shown how Trump’s term gave Muslims some fresh content. Ramy Yousef who is an American comedian and an Egyptian immigrant has changed the stereotypical perception on Muslims a lot. He has also mentioned how suddenly Muslim have become cool in LA recently. His shows jokes about how he and his companions compare religion to a menu. He mentions how he doesn’t have drugs or alcohol, but he admits that sometimes he has premarital sex. He also tries to show that each person has their own way to deal with god. Muslim writers like Gardezi have changed a lot too with their work in the Hollywood industry.
All in all, the representation of Muslims has shifted from being regressive others to more aggressive and violent image who hate the western world. This representation has caused many Muslims to suffer and finding difficulty during activities such as travelling by air to a foreign country because of 9/11 and the stereotype movies have made. The group does not only suffer from misrepresentation but also because of very few good representations. This kind of issues is what have had a bad impression for the religion. This has made people from Muslim ethnicity to hide their religion in public to suffer less being the victim in which they were not part of. Muslim stereotyping in movies and post 9/11 events have represented the whole group into such situation that has been unbearable at some point. Big movies and their characters were also a part of this Muslim stereotyping in movies and tv shows. This has changed a lot with its ups and downs but now things are seen more positively rather than those negative impression due to certain representation of that ethnic group. Many big figures have also been a part of this revolutionary change in Muslim representation in movies and tv shows. Muslim personalities such as Riz Ahmed, Ramy Yousef, Sadia Habib and Shaf Choudry are trying to change this. The Riz Test makes it easy for us to know what movie is misrepresenting Muslims and Arabs while Ramy Yousef comedy has suddenly made Islam cool again.
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