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STEREOTYPES IN MASS MEDIA. Numerous Americans come to know approximately 250 million Arabs and more than one billion Muslims from mainstream mass media, in particular, television programs and motion pictures, which provide virtually most images citizens have of the peoples of the world.

Thorough examination of more than 500 feature films and hundreds of television programs, comic books and strips, music recordings, newspapers and magazines (complete with advertisements, crossword puzzles, and editorial cartoons), plus school textbooks, novels and reference works, computer and video games, and scores of graphic images emanating from other communication channels reveals stereotypical portraits of Arab Muslims. Although more than 15 million Arab Christians reside in the Middle East-ranging from Eastern Orthodox to Roman Catholic to Protestant-they are invisible in the media. Thus, the Arab-as-Muslim theme positions itself firmly in peoples’ psyches.

Seemingly mindlessly adopted and casually adapted, prominent images present the Muslim as the bogeyman, the quintessential Other. How else to explain the actions taken by a student at the University of Wisconsin who sent this message to an Iranian student: “Death to all Arabs, die, Islamic scumbags” (“College Debate: Free Speech versus Freedom from Bigotry,” Chicago Tribune, 8 March 1991, p. 2). Often, imagemakers lump together Arab, Iranian, or Turkish Muslims as dark-complexioned people, flaunting beards or moustaches.

Selective media framing makes belittling Islam feasible. Screen scenarios often reinforce audiences’ misperceptions by declaring that the Muslim man deceives, suppresses, and abuses white Western females. In Not without My Daughter (1990), for example, the Iranian protagonist treats his American wife like chattel; he slaps her face and keeps her prisoner in their home, boasting, “I’m a Muslim.” The film contends that Muslims are hypocrites; breaking his oath sworn on the Qur’an, the husband says, “Islam is the greatest gift I can give my daughter.” As his family leaves the mosque, posters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini are featured, suggesting Muslims and ayatollahs are one and the same.

Rigid and repetitive news images of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein blend with scores of fictional motion pictures and television programs featuring Muslim terrorists shouting, “Allah be praised,” while murdering innocents. Deceptive portraits are mainstays; skewed documentaries are tagged The Sword of Islam and The Islamic Bomb, books are labeled The Assassins: Holy Killers of Islam, The Dagger of Islam, The Fire of Islam, Holy Wars, Inflamed Islam, and Militant Islam, and magazine essays are stamped “The Roots of Muslim Rage” (Atlantic Monthly, 1991) and “The Muslims Are Coming, The Muslims Are Coming!” (National Review, 1991). As a result of these representations, the media’s Arab Muslim lacks a human face.

Demonized and delegitimized, the Muslim surfaces as different. In Under Siege (1986), a television movie written in part by Bob Woodward, Muslims hailing from Dearborn, Michigan, are presented as anti-American “religious fanatics” willingly sacrificing their lives in “holy wars” for “the cause.” They topple the dome of the U.S. Capitol building and kill scores of American civilians. The FBI director explains to his associate that “those people,” Arab/Iranian Muslims, are different. The writers and producers, unable to distinguish Arabs from Iranians, portray them as one ethnic group, in spite of the fact that each group has its own distinctive origin, ethnicity, language, and cultural heritage. Subsequently, throughout the film, “Arab” is used interchangablely with “Iranian.” Referring to atrocities being committed by Muslims in the United States, the FBI director tells his associate: “It’s a whole different ball game. I mean the East and the Middle East. They have their own notion of what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s worth living for and dying for. But we insist on dealing with them as if they’re the same as us. We’d better wake up!”

Stereotypical images and statements transmitted by media have a telling effect. In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, leading to the Gulf War. During this time, two prominent Americans, Senator J. J. Exon of Nebraska and former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Edward Peck offered comparable commentary about Arabs and Muslims. In remarks for which he later apologized (according to Casey Kasem), Exon said, “In the Arab world, life is not as important as in the non-Arab world” (Omaha World Herald, 3o August 1990, p. 3). Edward Peck stated on television, “We in the West tend to think of our New Testament heritage, where you turn the other cheek and you let bygones be bygones and forgive and forget. [But] the people of the Middle East are the people of the Old Testament. With Muslims there’s much more of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. You don’t forget and you don’t forgive; you carry on the vendetta and the struggle long after people in the West would be prepared to say it’s all right, it’s over, let’s not worry about it any longer” (NBC Nightly News, 16 January 1991).

To enhance the myth of Muslim otherness, imagemakers clothe him in foreign garb, such as strange “bedsheets.” Made up to have dark features, he is unattractive and in need of a shave. Speaking with a “foreign” accent, he poses an economic threat by using oil and/or terrorism as a weapon against developed societies. Most important, he is painted as worshiping a different deity and possessing an unprovoked hatred of “civilized” peoples, notably American Christians and Jews. “These bastards [Muslim hijackers] shot those people in cold blood. They think it’s open season on Americans,” explains a passenger in the television movie, Hostage Flight (1985). Journalist Edward R. Murrow said that what we do not see is as important, if not more important, than what we do see. Seldom do audiences see or read about a devout Muslim caring for his wife or children, writing poetry, or attending the sick.

Children’s cartoons, such as Inspector Gadget and Heathcliff, show Muslims glorifying not God, but idolizing Westerners. In an episode of Heathcliff, Egyptians, perceiving Heathcliff to be their ancient ruler, bow before the cat. When, in a Mr. Gadget episode, Gadget discovers an ancient relic, Arab hordes worship him. Falling to their knees, they mumble “the chosen one, the chosen one.”

Consider how the media paint two holy cities, Mecca and Jerusalem. In 1991, on CBS-TV’s top-rated 6o Minutes program, Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem, neglects to mention Jerusalem’s Muslim population, stating instead that Jerusalem is a city inhabited by “Christians, Jews, and Arabs.”

The city of Mecca is the birthplace of Muhammad and the site of the Grand Mosque, the most sacred place in the Islamic World. Yet, dream merchants transform Mecca into a corrupt town, where offensive antics govern the moment. In 1966, producers of the successful television series I Dream of Jeannie represented Mecca not as a holy city with devout worshipers, but as a topsy-turvy bazaar filled with thieves robbing Western tourists (episode no. 16). The plot focused on Jeannie, a two-thousand-year-old genie, who will soon die unless she visit’s Mecca’s “thieves market.” In the “First National Bank of Mecca,” Jeannie’s friend performs ridiculous rituals. To save her life, he must “raise his right arm, . . . face the minaret of the rising sun, and repeat the sacred words: `bottle to genie, genie to master, master to Mecca. Ronda!’ ”

The dialogue and imagery in I Dream of Jeannie is designed to amuse; instead, it narrows our vision and blurs reality. In 1987, Ishtar, a $5o-million comedy, starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman continued this trend. Riddled with anti-Arab sentiments-Arab culture is labeled “devious,” and Hoffman is told, “Go act like an Arab”-Ishtar also lampoons Mecca with “I Look to Mecca,” a song concerning a romantic rendezvous under a tree. Islam’s holiest city and the pilgrimage to Mecca, a sacred journey that Muslims look forward to making all their lives, are belittled by sexual innuendo. There is a dangerous and cumulative effect when imagemakers continually transmit rigid and repetitive pictures of Muslims. Such imagery does not exist in a vacuum. Teaching viewers and readers whom to fear and whom to hate, the Muslim stereotype affects perceptions and subsequently U.S. public opinion and policy decisions.

Some public figures are recognizing the differences between image and reality. On 8 March 1991, following the Gulf War, General Norman Schwarzkopf made these remarks to departing American troops in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia: “You are going to take back home the fact that `Islam’ is not a word to be feared, a religion to be feared. It’s a religion to be respected, just as we respect all other religions. That’s the American way.” Although the general’s comments appeared in the Washington Post, his statements about Islam were not widely circulated.

Even imagemakers are gradually addressing negative portraits of Muslims. In the 1990s, producers of documentaries and feature films, print journalists, and others are presenting more accurate and humane portraits. Islam: A Civilization and Its Art (1991), is an informative ninety-minute documentary focusing on Islamic civilization, culture, and art. Legacy (1992), a PBS television documentary series, points out that Islam is “the true basis” of our culture. Host Michael Wood reveals that “the West’s rediscovery of its ancient science and knowledge of the Italian Renaissance was indebted to the Muslims.” Revealing scenes of mosques, mosaics and calligraphy, and devout Muslims at prayer underscore his commentary: “When Europe was still in the dark ages, the fertile crescent entered another glorious phase of its culture. Here, in the universities and libraries of Baghdad, Babylonian astronomy, Hindu mathematics, Chinese science and technology were passed on by Arabs. It was one of the great multicultural epochs of all time. The triumph of the modern West was made possible by a flood of ancient learning and science from Islam.”

The feature film, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), introduces Azeem, a Moorish Muslim. He is devout, intelligent, innovative, and Robin’s equal, both as a combatant and as a humanist. With Robin in the English countryside, Azeem takes his prayer rug, faces Mecca, and prays. He refuses to drink alcohol, “I must decline, Allah forbids it,” and he is tolerant of other faiths, “it is vanity to force other men to our religion.” Also, Azeem embraces other races and colors: “Allah loves wondrous variety.” Equipped with scimitar, Arab headdress, and robe, he not only manages to deliver a breech baby, but to save Robin’s life and the day by introducing the telescope and gunpowder to the British Isles. Robin acknowledges the Moor’s humanity, saying, “You truly are a great one.”

In Chicago magazine, journalist Gretchen Reynolds describes a service at a mosque, calling it “a revelation. Canonical and dignified, moving even if you don’t know the language, it evokes deep visceral emotion in Muslims attending. Some of the women start to cry. The people attending stand and kneel, call back to the khatib leading them. Anyone looking to have western preconceptions of Arab religion confirmed would be disappointed: There is no fanaticism here, only faith” (April 1991, p. 26).

Mindful that American Muslims are either dehumanized or neglected in media, on 6 February 1992, for the first time, the U.S. Senate invited an imam, W. Deen Mohammed, to offer the opening prayer. As for the future, the ultimate result should be an image of the Muslim as neither saint nor devil, but as a fellow human being, with all the potentials and frailities that condition implies.

JACK G.SHAHEEN

Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/stereotypes-mass-media/
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  • writerPosted On: August 13, 2017
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