Since the calamitous 9/11 terrorist attacks, American media has portrayed Arabs and Muslims as a group of people who are barbaric, violent, unforgiving, and horrid. Television shows, such as Homeland, and films, such as Argo and American Sniper, are culpable for depicting Arabs and Muslims as dangerous, furious, duplicitous, violent, and extremist. These dramas connect to war, international relations, and terrorism, subjects that the Western world often associates with both groups. According to cultivation theory, ideals broadcasted on screen are then deemed accurate; in this case, individuals who have no empirical knowledge of Muslims and Arabs are unable to refute the exaggerated and inaccurate portrayals they are fed from the media.
The primary stereotype of Arab and Muslims on screen post 9/11 is that they are terrorists (or connected to terrorism or terrorist sympathizers), oppressive to women, exorbitantly wealthy, or violent. A study conducted by Saifuddin Ahmed and Jörg Matthes that examined 345 studies published from 2000-2015 highlights that “Muslims were overwhelmingly portrayed in a negative manner and that furthermore, media discourse relied on Orientalist tropes to frame Muslims as the ‘Other’” (Kumaraea 2). A slew of American films and television programs have depicted Arabs and Muslim characters as extremists, barbaric, insidious, and untrustworthy such as Homeland, Argo, and American Sniper.
Perhaps one of the most noteworthy portrayals of Arabs and Muslims as terrorists is the television series Homeland, in which the primary antagonist of season one is Abu Nazir, a Palestinian terrorist and al-Qaeda commander who holds ex-Marine and prisoner of war Nicholas Brody captive, radicalizing him and convincing him to serve as a suicide bomber attempting to kill high ranking political figures. The largely one-dimensional and cliché characters portrayed in Homeland have been heavily criticized by Arab and Muslim communities who argue that the show’s damaging and unfair portrayals incite discrimination towards them. As articulated by Gemma Kumaraea, in “the first two seasons of the show, without exception, Arab Muslims are shown to be backward, violent, and uncivilized.” (There are also no Arab or Muslim characters who remain unaffiliated with extremism.) The opening scene accentuates cruelty committed by Muslims by displaying Claire Danes’s character Carrie Mathison trudging out of an Iraqi prison she was illegally visiting, juxtaposing her white skin with the “filthy hallway of an Iraqi prison by multiple Arab men dressed in Muslim garb” (Kumaraea 5). The scene represents Muslim men as grubby as well as harmful towards women, thus escalating stereotypes of Muslim men as violent and primal.
The show also employs stereotypes of Arabs as overly affluent and Muslim and Arab men as sexually motivated and generally violent. Homeland heightens the stereotype that all Muslims harbor pity or association with terrorism when a renowned and successful journalist, Roya Hammid, is in fact a terrorist sympathizer. Additionally, college professor Raqim Faisel, whose house features an American flag is an extremist as well, reinforcing the dangerous notion that regardless of how patriotic or conventional Arabs and Muslims may appear, their Americanism is a facade to distract from their terrorist affiliations. Thus, they should not be trusted, because they can never legitimately be American. Contrastingly, white characters such as Sergeant Nicholas Brody, a former al-Qaeda captive who had been radicalized and plotted a domestic terror attack to eventually assassinate the Vice President of the United States, are afforded a sympathetic portrayal, in Brody’s case the audience getting a glimpse into his fractured marriage and struggles converting to Islam. The Arab and Muslim bodies of these Homeland characters are showcased as throwaway and unimportant. For instance, when a report reveals that the CIA knowingly murdered over eighty Arab children, the scandal is considered a PR emergency rather than a humanitarian crisis. Ultimately, the show solidifies that the white, American, formerly Christian character of Nicholas Brody who collaborated with a terrorist and plotted to murder elected officials are approachable and worthy of empathy, while brown, Arab Muslims are not. Instead, they are considered expendable, disposable, and secondary (Kumaraea 6).
Alongside television shows like Homeland, the 2012 Oscars best picture winner, Argo, also demonstrates Muslims as violent harbors of anti-American and Western sentiment. The film details the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, particularly focusing on six American hostages who manage to escape to the Canadian embassy. The film begins with an account of the events that led up to the crisis, such as the U.S.’s overthrowing of Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh, the installation of the oppressive Shah of Iran, and the uprisings attempting to oust the Shah. While one might expect this depiction to be sympathetic given the injustices the Iranian people endured at the hands of Western intervention, the film instead opens with footage of Iranians protesting, burning flags, terrorizing Americans, and behaving barbarically. This image of enraged Iranians undermines any empathy an American may have harbored. It also fails to acknowledge that the West served as the primary source of the Iranian people’s exasperation, showcased in the film by involving themselves in Iranian politics by staging a coup in 1921, and a following coup in 1953 (Alsultany 1). Although the West’s intervention in Iran was the catalyst for the Iranian revolution, Americans are still portrayed as the victims in this narrative and, thus, displaying an incomplete account of history. Empathy for Iranians and American hostages are not mutually exclusive, and depicting Iranians as unhinged mobs as opposed to rightfully frustrated individuals is unfair and counterproductive.
In a similar vein, the 2014 Oscar-winning film American Sniper scathingly portrays Muslims as deceitful and two-faced. In one scene, an Iraqi civilian invites the men over to dinner for Eid Al Adha. The soldiers share a meal with the Iraqis, building communion. However, the main character, American soldier Chris Kyle, recognizes the Iraqi man as an enemy combatant, and any attempt at mutual understanding is shattered. This rendering bolsters the caricature that all Muslims are secret terrorists; thus, they should never be perceived as humane or rational because there is a high likelihood that they are extremists plotting an act of destruction. Ultimately, representations of Arabs and Muslims as terrorists, sleeper terrorists, intolerant, treacherous, or oppressive result in an acceleration of racism towards these groups.
Such damaging and stereotypical portrayals of Arabs and Muslims onscreen cause adverse real-world effects, such as the proliferation of hate crimes and intensified endorsements of measures that disproportionately impact these demographics. George Gerbner’s cultivation theory outlines a conceptual basis for the dangers of misleading stereotypes on an unassuming audience. Gerbner’s theory states that individuals internalize the media and television they consume, thereby interpreting the world’s actualities as mirroring what is depicted on screen, resulting in persistent repercussions on audiences. If Arabs and Muslims are primarily depicted as terrorists, and the “media both informs and is informed by the social perception of the world,” audiences who have had no real-life exposure to Muslims are likely to believe that these groups behave similarly to stereotypes showcased in media (Kumaraea 2). If the representations of these groups are dominated by uncivilized and fanatical depictions, then by application of the cultivation theory, viewers will harbor negative opinions about them, which bears real-life consequences for Arabs and Muslims.
Public opinion polls executed by the Pew Research Center demonstrate that non-Muslim viewpoints of Muslims generally align with the depictions of Muslims as violent, anti-American, and opposed to democracy. 63% of white Evangelicals and Republicans believe that Islam encourages violence more than other faiths; 56% of Republicans believe that Islam contains a fair number of extremist followers; 38% of white Evangelicals believe that Muslims are anti-American; and 72% of white Evangelicals believe that there is a fundamental incompatibility between Islam and democracy. These public opinion polls exhibit that media representations of Arabs and Muslims manifest into positions taken by white Evangelicals and Republicans (two groups that yield sizable political influence) who may have not experienced firsthand interactions with Muslims.
An especially egregious demonstration of villainous portrayals of Arabs and Muslims manifesting into racism is present in the correlation between American Sniper and the murder of three UNC Chapel Hill students. The sister of slain college student Deah Barakat has suggested that the film American Sniper contributed to the breeding of harmful opinions against Muslims, which ultimately led to the tragic murder. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), which records hate crimes committed against Arabs and Muslims, reported “an escalation in moviegoers’” threats and rhetoric against the Muslim and Arab communities three weeks prior to the murders. The victim’s sister, Suzanne Barakat, underscored movies such as American Sniper that dehumanized and antagonized Muslims. As this tragic event demonstrates, the relation between images of Arabs and Muslims as unmodern extremists who must be subdued by white patriots bears real-life consequences that severely and fatally affect Arabs and Muslims.
Despite the inauthentic and damaging stereotypes and resulting exacerbation of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism and hate crimes, there are prospects for improved representations. Following Executive Order 13769, commonly referred to as the Muslim Ban, five Hollywood showrunners met to discuss more genuine and three-dimensional depictions of Muslims onscreen. (The order barred the entry of travelers from seven Muslim majority countries and coincided with former President Donald Trump’s other anti-Muslim statements.) One of the meeting’s attendees showrunner was Howard Gordon, the executive product of Homeland. Following the immense backlash his show received, Gordon “engaged with Islamic community groups to broaden his understanding” (Ryzik 3). Gordon was cognizant of the implications Homeland had on Arabs and Muslims, and when asked if he believed that his shows contributed to the 67% increase from 2015 towards targeting Muslims, he responded, “absolutely, yes” (Ryzik 7).
Sue Obeidi, the director of the Hollywood Bureau of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, an organization that collaborates with networks to promote Muslim perspectives acknowledges the importance of valid representation, states that “it’s really popular culture that impacts how people feel about one other” (Ryzik 5). Thus, when non-Arabs or Muslims consume American film and television that portrays Muslims as not solely virtuous or solely villainous, they realize that Muslims are human beings, just like any other religious group, deserving of dignity and authentic representation.
A solution to the inaccurate and deleterious caricatures of Arabs and Muslims would be to have more Arab and Muslim voices in the writer’s room and on the production team. That way they can serve to vet representations, ensuring that more stereotypical images are not propagated. Some television shows that were guilty of disseminating barbaric and unfair representations of Muslims have contacted Muslims to alleviate their previously prejudiced portrayals. Homeland, for example, recruited Muslim lawyer, Ramzi Kassem, to act as their Muslim consultant. Kassem recognizes the importance of dismantling such tropes, arguing that viewers who have not had encounters with Arabs or Muslims often develop harmful biases based on the representations in the show. Thus, Kassem felt compelled to “correct the show’s portrayal of these issues that I care about, and to try to limit the damage that the show was doing in the real world as a result of those negative portrayals that I felt were unrealistic” (Woolf 9). Input from Muslims like Kassem make sure that pure intentions are not poorly executed, as was the case with Homeland, with Gordon revealing that the show’s objective was to “talk about the folly of government, of American policy, of misunderstanding, misapprehension” (Ryzik 10). While the goal of the showrunners is often harmless, the implementation of these goals can result in millions of uninformed viewers adopting harmful beliefs about Arabs and Muslims, which induces malignant real-world implications for those groups.
Alongside more Arab and Muslim writers, the television series Halal in the Family takes on what it is like to be an American Muslim. The series does this by discussing Islamophobia in a comedic context and depicting a Muslim family in a traditional sitcom format. This approach presents a drastically different perception of Muslims than shows such as Homeland, showcasing them as a conventional suburban family that are satisfied and engaged with their faith. Characters like Sayid in Superstore are fleshed-out, non-stereotypical, and likable characters that humanize Arabs and Muslims. Sayid is a Syrian refugee employed at a large superstore: he is dedicated to his job, open-minded to other people’s lifestyles, friendly, devout, and community-oriented. In one episode, he searches for a room to pray in, and the store’s managers and employees are accommodating and understanding towards him. This receptiveness of pious Muslims exposes viewers to an accepting environment and encourages other people to be sympathetic towards Muslims as well. Thus, more Arabs and Muslims in the writers’ room can help to deliver immediate perspectives, and create more balanced, sincere, and unique television shows. Their characters will yield a more positive impression of these demographics, and over time contribute to a decrease in discrimination towards Arabs and Muslims.
Due to a limited collection of authentic Muslim and Arab representation, viewers are often exposed to misleading portrayals that adversely influence how they interact with members of these respective groups, thereby reinforcing damaging tropes and worsening Islamophobic and anti-Arab sentiment. Arabs and Muslims have almost exclusively been depicted as barbarians, violent, untrustworthy, threatening, undemocratic, and narrow-minded individuals in American films and television shows. Various films such as Argo and American Sniper, as well as television shows such as Homeland, propagate harmful stereotypes and negatively impact the public perception of Muslims and Arabs as well as accelerate discrimination towards them. Despite the overwhelmingly negative displays of Arabs and Muslims, more Muslim or Arab writers and directors lead to improved representations of both groups. Characters in shows like Superstore offer positive renderings of these groups by presenting depictions that are an antithesis to portrayals of these groups in previous forms of media. Ultimately, authentic and nuanced Arab and Muslim representation benefits not only the affected communities by accurately illustrating them, but non-Arabs and Muslims who have access to genuine portrayals of them. Overall, thoughtful representations of Arabs and Muslims function as a reduction factor towards the racism endured by these groups, and as a tool to better educate the public, thereby resulting in a more equitable and empathetic America.
Ahmed S, Matthes J. “Media representation of Muslims and Islam from 2000 to 2015: A meta-analysis.” International Communication Gazette 79.3 (2017): 219-244.
Alsultany, Evelyn. “Argo Tries but Fails to Defuse Stereotypes.” The Islamic Monthly, 17 Nov. 2016, www.theislamicmonthly.com/argo-tries-but-fails-to-defuse-stereotypes.
Foody, Kathleen M. “Muslims in the American Media: From Texts to Affects.” Journal of Islamic Studies 29.2 (2018): 230–251.
Kumaraea, Gemma. “Homeland and Orientalism: An Examination of Arab Muslim Identity and US Nationalism.” Minnesota Undergraduate Research and Academic Journal 1.1 (4 May 2018).
Pew Research Center. “How the U.S. General Public Views Muslims and Islam.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, 30 May 2020, www.pewforum.org/2017/07/26/how-the-u-s-general public-views-muslims-and-islam.
Ryzik, Melena. “Can Television Be Fair to Muslims?” The New York Times, 30 Nov. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/11/30/arts/television/can-television-be-fair to-muslims.html.
Woolf , Christopher. “How a Muslim Lawyer and Critic of Showtime’s ‘Homeland’ Became a Consultant for the Show.” The World from PRX, 24 Mar. 2017, www.pri.org/stories/2017- 03-24/how-muslim-lawyer-and-critic-showtime-s-homeland-became-consultant-show.