Opinion| Towards Vindicating the Image of Muslims in Western Media

Marwa El- Shinawy
7 Min Read
Dr Marwa El-Shinawy

Former US President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, will participate in the production of an audio programme, to be broadcast next Ramadan in cooperation with Spotify. The programme hosts only Muslims, and is called “Tell Them, I Am”.

The programme aims to introduce Muslims attractively, by hosting a group of successful figures from the Muslim community, whether they are activists, artists, actors, or athletes.

Indeed, this programme is considered a glimmer of hope for Muslims in general and those residing in America in particular.

Muslims have been subjected to a systematic campaign to distort their image, impose specific stereotypes on them, and promote these distorted images through cinematic works even long before the events of 11 September 2001. Some have even lost their lives as a result of these campaigns that flagrantly target innocent Muslims.

Over the past decades, American cinema has played a major role in consolidating these stereotypes, as Hollywood has resorted to using rigid images and stereotypes, along with excessive propaganda.

This has been to influence minds and to promote biased ideas against different ethnicities, nationalities, and minorities, to serve political, social, or economic interests.

Racist American cinema, for example, has judged Africans as drug traffickers, backward, unfit for election or to hold government positions. Africans also plunged into a colossal set of negative stereotypes that described them as barbarians, primitive, and reactionary.

American films also targeted the Russians, who appeared in the image of a strong and intelligent enemy, who works according to specific strategies and plans, as shown by the comic film Ninochika, which was released in 1939.

As for the Chinese, they were a model of the sinister class devoid of human values ​​and principles, as shown in The Good Earth (1937).

These stereotypes extended to include many other races as well. Mexicans, for example, are prostitutes and maids, the Italians belong to mafia gangs, the Germans are Nazis and racists, the Cubans are communists and spies, and the Indians are barbarians.

Although American cinema deals with most of the ethnicities and nationalities, the image of Muslims and the Arab and Islamic society was most prominently featured in these American cinematic films.

In fact, the multiple distorted stereotypes of different races, societies, and identities began to fade and disappear with the change of American and Western policies, and began also to improve after a certain period.

However, this case does not apply to the image of the Arab Muslim, which has remained rooted until the present time. While there are films that present atypical images of Islam and Muslims, they remain ineffective compared to what is common, as Arabs usually appeared as barbarians, suicide bombers, and terrorists as they appeared in the American film True Lies (1994).

Muslim women also do not appear realistically, because women do not appear as successful mothers, doctors, writers, business owners, engineers, and neither are they shown as educated, intellectual, or religious preachers. On the contrary, they usually appear in negative and repulsive images.

In most American films, the woman is that weak creature covered in a black cloak, walking behind her husband silently and submissively. Her role is limited to housework and seeking to please her husband only, with no role in society, nor in political and cultural work. She is deprived of freedom in front of men, who monopolise sovereignty and leadership. 

This unrealistic image is not a new image of Arabs, or even the result of recent terrorist events, but it is an old image and a firm belief that the West always tries to stick to the Arabs. This was indicated by the American-Palestinian thinker and researcher, Edward Said, in his 1978 book Orientalism.

In the book, he shed light on the intention of Western discourse to attach certain characteristics to eastern society to show the differences between it and Western society, and treating them as “the other”.

Said says, “Arabs, for example, are described as people who ride camels, terrorists with hooked noses, and corrupt immoral people whose wealth is inconsistent with the foundations of true civilisation.”

He also writes, “The works of orientalists feed the widespread belief that the Western consumer, although he belongs to the lesser number, has the right to own the vast majority of the world’s resources or to consume them for his own purposes. This is because he is a person of flesh and blood, unlike the eastern one. “

Although the programme that the Obamas’ production company will introduce is a positive step, it is not sufficient to face decades of deliberate distortion of the image of Muslims. The correct image of Muslims and Islam will only be shown by Muslims themselves.

Therefore, the questions that are always on everyone’s mind are: Where is the Arab Muslim production? Where are the Arab Muslim journalists working in the Western media? Where are the children of Arabs and Muslims from the second and third generation working in the Western media? Or where is the Arab Islamic money from confirming its presence in the global media arena?

Dr Marwa El-Shinawy, PhD in American Theatre and member of the Higher Committee for the Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre (CIFCET)

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