Scholar Rebuts Stereotypical Portrayals of the Middle East in U.S. Mainstream Media

Elias Kamal Jabbe

Award winning professor and author Dr. Evelyn Alsultany shared an audiovisual history of the racially insensitive and incorrect portrayals of Arabs and Muslims in a guest lecture on October 18 at the University of Southern California. Alsultany hails from Detroit, where the suburb of Dearborn—home to the largest Arab-American community in the nation—is also located. She was invited to speak as part of the American Studies & Ethnicity Department’s Series on Race, Power, and Critical Thought.

The University of Michigan professor addressed several ways in which American mainstream media misrepresents Islamic and Arab culture, including by treating the two as synonymous despite the significant number of Arab Christians and Arab Jews living in United States and around the world.

Over the past decade, Alsultany explained, characterizations in movies and television shows of Arabs and Muslims as either terrorists or victims of discrimination have been part of a general effort to simplistically portray “bad” and “good” characters during an era of several American wars in Arab and Muslim countries. As audiences often interpret events on screen as direct reflections of reality, these limited representations lead many Americans to see their Arab and Muslim peers only in these particular roles, instead of as contributors to various sectors of American civil society.

“It is no longer the case that ‘the other’ is exclusively demonized to justify war or injustice. Now, the other is portrayed sympathetically in order to project the United States as an enlightened country that has entered a ‘post-race’ territory,” said  Alsultany, who explores this positive-negative dichotomy in her 2012 book Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11.

Positive representation, however, is not enough to abrogate the damage done by consistent onscreen portrayals of Arabs and Muslims as extremists and terrorists. Most Americans have never visited an Arab or predominantly Muslim country; in fact, only 33 percent of Americans even own a passport. The average American, meanwhile, watches 33 hours of television per week. For every multicultural city like Los Angeles or New York, there are thousands of other American cities where cultural diversity is hard to find and negative media representations of Arabs and Muslims are left to fill in the gaps.

In her presentation, Alsultany described examples of severe backlash against these groups as a result of their misrepresentation. In the past decade, hate crimes, workplace discrimination, assaults, and air travel incidents targeted against Arabs and Muslims have increased exponentially in the United States.

“In just the first weeks and months after 9/11, Amnesty International, The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and other organizations documented hundreds of violent incidents experienced by Arab and Muslim Americans and people mistaken to be Arab or Muslim, including several murders,” she said.

Alsultany also offered examples of how negativity extends to American perceptions of Arab and Islamic culture. For example, women within these groups are consistently portrayed by mainstream media as oppressed. Signs of women’s progress, such as women entrepreneurs within these demographics, are almost never given the spotlight.

Alsultany supplemented her speech with a presentation of Palestinian-American filmmaker Jackie Reem Salloum’s Planet of the Arabs, a survey of negative onscreen portrayals of Arabic Muslims from 1960 to 2004. The short, which was an official selection in the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, was inspired by a book called Bad Reel Arabs that was published by Lebanese-American author Jack Shaheen.

Alsultany’s sentiments were also echoed by many others in attendance.

USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism professor Sarah Banet-Weiser, who acted as a respondent to Alsultany, said the deluge of stereotypical Arab and Muslim representations allow people to “forget that there was a 1600 percent increase of hate crimes carried out against American Muslims directly after 9/11.”

ASE PhD student Maytha Alhassen commented on how the trend of media stereotyping affects decision-making in the entertainment industry, with Arab-American actors often being restricted to playing terrorist roles.

Fellow student Anjali Nath pointed out that Hollywood’s oversimplified representations of foreigners create extreme boundaries between cultures.

“The racial and/or cultural ‘other’ in literature and cinema is marked by such absolute difference that he or she may be subjected to violence and subordinated in order to maintain the social order,” she said.

Alsultany ended her presentation by challenging students to follow in the footsteps of Alhassen and Nath—to discover the reality of Arabs and Muslims during an era of misrepresentation and to think twice about what they see on the screen.

“I ask students to analyze the images that are being produced.”

Complete video footage of this event provided courtesy of Corey Clark of the University of Southern California Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

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