London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Over the years, many critics have expressed their anger at the continuous “negative” stereotyping of Arab and Muslims in media, particularly on the news, in movies, in television series and other programs.
Many claim that the negative portrayal has become even more intense since the tragic events of 9/11 took place. Critics are particularly concerned with “western” reporters, filmmakers and researchers concentrating almost exclusively on the life, behaviour and the dialogue of extremists, members of terrorist groups and their supporters, who claim that they act in the name of Islam.
To support their claim, these critics often compare the space or “air-time” allocated by major “western” newspapers or television networks to “moderate” Muslims in comparison to that which is allotted to individuals such as Osama Bin Laden, Ayman Al Zawahiri and Abu Hamza, to whom British tabloids refer to as “the preacher of hate”. Such comparisons have been at the core of various forums, articles and studies.
Perhaps the most logical explanation to the media’s behaviour was given by Graham Dudman, Managing Editor of the British newspaper ‘The Sun’, often described as a right-wing tabloid. During a seminar on Muslims and their involvement in the media, which was organized by the Muslim Council of Britain last year, Dudman explained that regardless of religion, it is only logical that the media would be more interested in a fanatic who blows himself/herself up than an average person (of the same religion) who leads a normal life.
However, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Arabs and Muslims have been undertaking more prominent roles within the media. For instance, despite accusations from Muslims that The Sun newspaper has its own agenda against followers of Islam, it was in fact the first British national paper to employ a veiled Muslim as a columnist. Since 2004, Anila Baig, a British Muslim of Pakistani origin and a single-mother of two, has been writing various articles for The Sun that range from issues in her daily life and the way in which she is perceived in society to political commentary. She condemned the killing of international aid worker Margaret Hassan saying, “Our religion reveres mothers; in particular, it says that heaven lies under the feet of mothers. The killers of this great woman are not even worthy of cleaning her shoes”.
Furthermore, the aftermath of 9/11 also paved the way for the first Muslim “hero” on US television networks, at the end of 2005 when the series ‘Sleeper Cell’ was first broadcast. The “hero” of this series is a devout African-American Muslim called Darwyn al-Sayeed, who is an undercover FBI agent and who infiltrates a terrorist sleeper cell plotting to attack Los Angeles.
Sleeper Cell’s executive producers, Cyrus Voris and Ethan Reiff, told Asharq Al Awsat that the creation of Darwyn’s character was “an attempt to dramatize the fact that even though many Muslims around the world strongly disagree with US foreign policy, they do not actively support terrorism”. They added, “The creation of Darwyn’s character was also inspired by the fact that there are Muslim Americans in the US military and law enforcement who are faithful followers of their religion whilst being loyal, patriotic Americans”.
The two executive producers argue that Darwyn is very different to “all other Muslim American characters portrayed on American television or films simply because he is the protagonist. He is the central figure of the entire series and will remain so for as long as the series exists”.
“Speaking only for ourselves as creators of the show, it will be impossible to win the so-called “War On Terror” from the outside alone. The ongoing struggle within the Islamic world between those who believe that violent confrontation is the only way to deal with the West and those who believe in a more tolerant and modern Islam is the key front in this war,” the producers added.
Nevertheless, if Sleeper Cell could claim that it was the first show to assign the lead role to a Muslim character, it certainly is not the first show to portray Muslims as heroes. The multi-award winning show “24”, launched in November 2001, portrayed a Muslim agent working for the US “Counter Terrorist Unit”. In addition, the hit series ‘Lost,’ that was launched late 2004, featured a Muslim character called Sayid Jarrah, (played by British actor Naveen Andrews) who is a former member of the Iraqi Republican Guard. In the program, Sayid flees Iraq and is assigned by an Anti-Terrorism squad to penetrate a sleeper cell in Australia to prevent a terrorist attack on the country. After his mission is accomplished, Sayid boards a flight that crashes on a mysterious island. Sayid’s military and survival skills however prove essential for the “Lost” castaways.
Another example of what many would consider a “positive” character is superhero “Dust” from the comic book series, ‘X-Men’. The character of Dust (real name Sooraya Qadir) is a Muslim girl who possesses the power to turn herself into a sand-like substance.
Sooraya’s story dates back to the Taliban rule of Afghanistan, when she, like other Afghan women suffered under the Taliban reign. She was kidnapped from her home and was sold into slavery in India, where she was saved by two “good” Mutants, Wolverine and Fantomex. Sooraya soon joins the heroic X-men, however she refuses to wear the regular training uniform and chooses to continue to wear her traditional ‘niqab,’ which covers most of her body and face.
So are most portrayals of Arabs and Muslims on American television related to terrorism? Are all Muslim characters either terrorists or part of an anti-terrorism unit? If that is the case, what impact would this have on the perception of Muslims who play such limited roles?
Dr. Marwan M. Kraidy, an assistant professor at the faculty of International Communication at the School of International Service, American University (Washington, D.C) says, “Until we see regular Arab-American or Muslim-American or Arab or Muslim characters who are not linked to terrorism or conflict in any way, there will be no significant progress in perceptions”.
The only example of a positive Muslim character that Dr. Kraidy could remember was from a sitcom which was aired in 2003 starring Whoopi Goldberg and a positive Arab character. “Unfortunately, the sitcom was not very successful and was taken off air,” he adds. The show was called “Whoopi”, which was produced and broadcast between September 2003 and April 2004. The series focused on an owner of a small New York hotel (Whoopi Goldberg) and the Muslim character was a janitor of Persian origin.
However, Dr. Kraidi does not suggest that the new roles given to Muslim/Arab characters are completely negative. These positive Muslim or Arab characters play a dual role. On the one hand, they stem from the American suspicion of anyone with dual identity. These positive roles are an important development, but they also depict Arabs and Muslims who have crossed the divide to work with American authorities and society to defend against the danger of terrorism. This effectively sets up a dichotomy between “good Muslim/Arab” and “bad Muslim/Arab”, which at best shows that there is pluralism within the Muslim/Arab community, and at worst represents the notion of being either “with us or against us,” Dr Kraidi explained.
Laila Al-Qatami, Communications Director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), which was founded in 1980 to protect the civil rights of Arab Americans and promote the rich cultural heritage, agrees with Dr. Kraidi. “What we are beginning to see is Arabs or Muslims who are linked to terrorism in one way or another. They are either the terrorist or a government informant and this marks a change as the characters is portrayed as someone who is at least loyal to the US yet still tied to terrorism and viewed suspiciously by others,” she explains.
Al-Qatami says that these very concerns were addressed to the producers of Sleeper Cell when they sent a pilot copy of the series to ADC to review. “The pilot came to me without having to go the producers; they were aware of our work and wanted ADC’s input.”
For their part, the Sleeper Cell producers, Cyrus Voris and Ethan Reiff, said that the reaction that the show has received from the American-Muslim community “was mixed but the reaction to Darwyn’s character has been overwhelmingly positive”. They added, “The one qualifier to that is the fact that during the first season of the show, Darwyn engaged in sex outside of marriage, something obviously forbidden by the Muslim faith and in other organized religions. Our answer to those concerns is that we are writing a show about a human hero, not a superhero or a mythical hero. Darwyn is a man, not a saint, and he did not engage in these practices blindly but struggled with them during the course of the first season, as he will continue to do during the second season”.
As the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks passed recently, it is evident that the “negative” portrayal of Arabs and Muslims will continue in western, and particularly American, media. The horrific event of the September attack, as well as many other terrorist operations taking place all over the world have been plotted and executed by Arabs and Muslims. As long as this is the case, these extremists will continue to inspire reporters, writers and filmmakers.
It is worth mentioning that Arabs have not only been stereotyped as extremists in American productions. Over the years, the “Arab” has been depicted as a “desert thug,” and an “oil rich sheikh”, before being linked to terrorism as early as the 1970s. For example, “Black Sunday” (1977) featured Arabs plotting to blow up a stadium during the annual American “Superbowl,” and in 1982, “Wrong is Right” portrayed rich Arabs supplying terrorists with nuclear bombs to target New York and Tel Aviv.
There have also been positive portrayals of Arabs and Muslims such as the character of Saladdin’s in the 2005 film “Kingdom of Heaven,” and the character of Azeem in the 1991 production, “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”. However, the problem remains that the number of negative portrayals of Arabs and Muslims outnumbers by far those which are positive. According to ‘Reel Bad Arabs,’ a book by the internationally acclaimed author and media critic, Dr Jack Shaheen, out of 1000 films produced between 1896 and 2000 that feature Arab or Muslim characters, 12 depictions were positive, 52 delivered a neutral portrayal, and the remaining 900 or so were negative.
Laila Al-Qatami from ADC told Asharq Al Awsat that her committee was invited to preview a number of movies and comment on films such as Munich, Syriana, and Paradise Now to name but a few. “This continues to build on the outreach that we have been working on,” she says while adding that she is hopeful because there are so many young Arab Americans and Muslim Americans in Hollywood and this is slowly having an impact. “There is much more work to be done,” she concludes.