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Representation of Arabs and Muslims in Western Media

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 2206 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Throughout recent years, the world has witnessed an increase in interest in political Islam and jihadist violence. Despite the reality, Western media has linked contemporary groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to classical Islam. Intending to demonize Muslim culture, they attempt to draw a direct line from the prophet Muhammad to Osama bin Laden and Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Muslim culture is stereotyped with regard to gender roles and religious practices and is subject to drastic misrepresentation in film.

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 Western media depicts women in the Middle East as oppressed by their religion and the men in their society. Although this may be true for some women, it is not an accurate representation of the entire populous. Many people believe that gender inequality is faith-based; however, Islam promotes the equality of man and woman and there is evidence of this in multiple passages of the Qur’an. One Verse states, “O mankind! Fear your Lord Who (initiated) your creation from a single soul, then from it created its mate, and from these two spread (the creation of) countless men and women” (al-Qur’an, 4:1). This Verse elaborates on the idea that man and woman are “created from a single entity” and are equal genders (trans. ul-Islam and ul-Qadri). One gender is not superior to the other. Another Verse states, “And according to usage, women too have rights over men similar to the rights of men over women” (al-Qur’an, 2:228). This Verse delineates the principle that the “rights enjoyed by men are the duties of the women and the duties of the men are the rights of women” (trans. ul-Islam and ul-Qadri). Basically, it is saying that there is no right given to a man that a woman is deprived of based on her gender. However, the Qur’an does state that, “Men are guardians and managers over women” (al-Qur’an, 4:34). Man is responsible for the social and economic obligations and the maintenance of woman under the Islamic Law (trans. ul-Islam and ul-Qadri). This is similar to scripture in the Bible which articulates that, “For the husband is the head of the wife…” (Ephesians 5:23 ESV). Neither in the Qur’an nor the Bible, does it state that women are inferior to men. Respect is commanded from both parties. Men have more responsibilities than women, because they have to provide for their family. It is up to them to ensure their family’s financial stability and survival.

Media portrayal of Muslim women influences our mindset by creating a particular worldview that shows one side of women in the Middle East which happens to be the weak and oppressed image. This depiction of Muslim women is purposefully used to belittle Islam and the Middle Eastern culture. Due to media portrayal of Muslim women as passive and always veiled, many Americans assume that the severe conditions of Saudi Arabia—where women were only granted permission to drive this year— represents the norms for women throughout the Middle East and in the larger Muslim population. However, Saudi Arabia’s versions of Islam and sexism are unique in their severities. Several women have served as ministers in the Syrian, Jordanian, Egyptian, Iraqi, and Tunisian governments (AbuKhalil). Masoumeh Niloufar Ebtekar currently serves as Vice President of Women and Family Affairs in Iran. Also, women have gained many political rights in predominately Muslim countries. In Egypt, women were recently granted the right to divorce their husbands and in Tunisia, polygamy is prohibited (AbuKhalil). As mentioned previously, the Qur’an states that men and women are equal in the eyes of Allah. The Qur’an also “forbids female infanticide, instructs Muslims to educate their daughters as well as their sons, insists that women have the right to refuse a prospective husband, and gives women the right to own and inherit property” (TeachMideast). Gender inequality’s roots are purely non-religious. It disregards the Quranic rights and stems from political, economic, and socio-cultural norms. The United States is not helping Muslim women’s plight, either. No one can ignore the human rights atrocities committed by the Saudi royal family which has imposed one of the most oppressive regimes in the world on its people. Saudi Arabia’s government is based on “institutional sexism, misogyny, and intolerant religious exclusiveness” (AbuKhalil). Yet, America still continues to support a government that has violated multiple human rights and ignored the Saudi Arabian citizens pleas for reform. The struggle for gender equality for Muslim women is a Middle Eastern problem, but Western media, military, and economic support often mars the Muslim feminist efforts.

Western representation of Muslims is not a recent fabrication; it has been ingrained in Western characterization of Muslims since the first contact. Western media promotes the stereotype that Muslim’s are the alien “Other” or the “Enemy” (Ridouani). Over the past several years, specifically after 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the media has focused its attention on Islam. Consequently, the media has characterized it, analyzed it, and given instant courses on it. However, Western news coverage is misleading and based off of biased material which, in turn, has presented the so-called “Islamic challenge.” Numerous publications have appeared that bore dramatic titles such as “Sword of Islam”, “The Islamic Threat”, “The Roots of Muslim Rage”, “Islam’s New Battle Cry”, and “What Went Wrong with Islam?” (Khan). Their authors had a preconceived image of Islam that they wanted to convey to their readers. According to these articles, Islam is a “challenge to Western values as well as to [the] West’s economic and political interests” (Khan). The terms prescribed to Muslims have changed throughout time, and, not surprisingly, they converge in degradation. Muslims have been largely recognized in the West as “erotic,” “primitive,” “ignorant,” and “slave traders” (Ridouani). More recently, they have been branded with the terms “terrorist,” “fundamentalist,” and “blood-thirsty” (Ridouani). These fabricated stereotypes are omnipresent in Western media with the pure intent to distort the true meaning of Islam. Ironically, although Islam has always been associated with war, the Arabic word “salaam,” which means “peace,” shares the root word, silm, with Islam. Many followers of Islam believe peace is essential to maintain a harmonious relationship with non-Muslims. On this notion, the term jihad becomes an alternative when peace is not honored. Unfortunately, Western media neglects to acknowledge this idea, stripping it of its religious and spiritual connotation and reducing the jihadi concept to a mere act of terrorism. The term “jihad” is not restricted to violent acts and war in the name of Islam; it can be applicable to many different things. For example, it can be applied to “an individual ‘refraining from wrongdoing,’ a ‘woman agonizing in child-birth,’ and a ‘man struggling and endeavoring to up-bring his family’” (Ridouani). Admittedly, “jihad” also means “holy war,” but it is a means of defense not attack. Many of these other definitions are overlooked by the American population because Western media, and its boundless ignorance, are warping Islamic principles. However, the Islamic faith is also misrepresented by extremist groups and Western media fuels the Islamophobia fire by reporting fabricated or embellished information.

Extremists rhetoric promotes martyrdom with the promise of a better afterlife. Anyone who joins the cause is guaranteed a “ticket to paradise bestowing purification, redemption and atonement, and an end to shame and self-disgust” (Al Olaimy). Presented with an opportunity to attain glory rather than be written off as irrelevant, it is not hard to see why people, especially teenagers and young adults, are seduced by the prospect of self-validation. One can turn a miserable and conflicted existence into a meaningful martyr’s badge of honor, but what no one ever tells the new recruits is rarely, if ever, do the martyr’s matter to mainstream society. The extremism does not stop in news media but carries over to popular culture which further taints the reputation of non-extremists.

Film creators have always prioritized appealing to the masses which results in pre and post 9/11 plotlines being subject to American heroes and Middle Eastern Muslim villains. Hollywood films such as, Rambo III (1988), True Lies (1994), and The Siege (1998), unfairly portray Muslims by linking their religious practices to terrorism. The film Syriana (2005) provides a much more complex version of Islam: good Muslims versus bad Muslims. One of the main problems with how this is presented is the definition of good and bad. Most likely, the definitions will vary depending on who is being asked. When watching these movies, viewers are left with “an inadequate analysis that produces an ill-informed conception and a self-perpetuating cycle of misunderstanding and resentment towards the multiple realities of Muslims” (Halim). Jack Shaheen, an American scholar who worked to dismantle Arab stereotypes in media, stated that Arabs have “consistently appeared in American popular culture as billionaires, bombers, and belly dancers.” These are known as the 3 B’s for a typical Arab character in a Hollywood film. What many people seem to forget is that “Muslim” is no more synonymous with “Arab” than “Christian” is with “American.” In fact, only fifteen percent of the Muslim population is Arab (Huda). Many Hollywood movies use the terms Arab and Muslim interchangeably, but movie personnel forget, or either blatantly ignore, that Arab is an ethnic group and Muslims are followers of the Islamic religion. Many Muslims are portrayed as misogynistic and violent, and some movies even go so far as to dehumanize them. Such representations have led to negative repercussions for Muslim’s who live in America. Unfortunately, in 2015 and 2016, there was a spike in the number of hate crimes committed against Muslims stemmed from inaccurate information gathered through mass media. Misrepresentation of Muslim culture dates back to 1921 with the release of The Sheik and continues to persist today.

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Although, the Islamic culture is doctrinally a peaceful religion, Western media not only creates a crooked image of gender inequality but also paints the majority of Muslim characters as radical in film. Western journalism tends to see the Islamic faith through a narrow lens, characterizing them only as extremists when the reality is a much more peaceful one. In order to dissipate the stigma surrounding Muslims in mass media, Western media needs to focus on the positive, universal, human traits that unite the world rather than divide it. If we can accomplish this, we are one step closer to a more unified and peaceful future.

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