Hollywood media is one of the driving forces of American culture. Everything from what we wear, to how we vote, to what we believe is heavily influenced by the music and films produced in Hollywood.
“Movies help individuals articulate their feelings and moods that ultimately shape their behavior”
– Teaching Against Islamophobia: “Islamaphobia: The Viewed and the Viewers”
In the clip from Reel Bad Arabs, Jack Shaheen explains how media has made “Islamophobia now is part of our psyche. Words such as Arab and Muslim are perceived as threatening words”:
“Stereotypes take a long time to wither away, and for many of us, we’re comfortable with our prejudices” – Jack Shaheen
Islamophobia is alive and well in Hollywood. Although nearly one quarter of the world’s population is Muslim, Hollywood categorically stereotypes and vilifies Arabs and Islam. Over years Hollywood movies have instilled in the American psyche a fear of Islam, promoting it to be tantamount to terrorism.
Tvtropes.org, a tracking website for trends in movies and television notes that “‘Allāhu Akbar’ is a common Arabic phrase meaning ‘The God is greater’. The Western world tends to associate it with terrorists about to blow people up”
Muslims are often portrayed as rich oil barons, clandestine terrorists, or brutish wife-beaters. How can such treatment not lead to prejudice and irrational fear when in a country where movies can have widespread influence beyond that of ideological or political leaders?
ext we look at two particular cases of Muslim stereotypes shown in Hollywood films:
In perhaps the most egregious display of Islamophobia in Hollywood, Zero Dark Thirty tells the story of the hunt and capture of Osama Bin Laden.
Muslims are portrayed as pathologically evil terrorists intent on destroying America and hiding Bin Laden while . The only suitable outcome of course, is that Muslims be tortured into submission by the patriotic American soldiers.
But it’s not the dramatization of terrorists or the glorification of torture and its efficacy (which by the way angered Republicans and Democrats alike) but rather the contribution towards the public opinion of Islam and Arabs in general. The tweets in the screenshot on the left depict some of the reactions to watching Zero Dark Thirty. Perhaps the movie crossed the line, or more likely the decades of vilification by Hollywood has culminated in such ridiculous levels ignorance that public bigotry has become the norm.
The most important takeaway from this film might be just how ingrained Islamophobia has become in American society, in no small part due to Hollywood. Hatred of Muslims torture, or the Navy SEAL’s action of bursting Bin Laden’s hiding place and murdering absolutely everything in sight is not only normal but also worthy of glorification.
Even before the war on terror, muslims were portrayed as sinister and exotic brutes incompatible with American civility. These lyrics were featured in the first minute of the children’s film:
I come from a land,
From a faraway place,
Where the caravan camels roam.
Where they cut off your ear
If they don’t like your face.
It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.
Though Aladdin may not instill the hate for Muslims that Zero Dark Thirty evoked, it is just as culpable as a pulpit for the promotion of stereotypes of Arabs that enables what we see as Islamophobia today. When was the last time there was an Arab hero in a Hollywood movie? Too often they are seen as angry mobs of religious fanatics and that just doesn’t reflect the truth for over 1.6 billions Arab and non-Arab Muslims in the world today.
This is just a small slice of the countless examples of stereotyping in Hollywood films and television collected in Teaching Against Islamophobia: “Islamaphobia: The Viewed and the Viewers”. Stereotypes matter because they aren’t just simply vehicles of slander; stereotypes make it easy for the audience to discriminate against an entire population based on the actions of a minority.
“The stereotype works because when viewers encounter one, they associate a great deal more with it than the simple depiction itself offers”
– Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy: “Stereotyping Muslims and Establishing the American Norm”