Hollywood & The Muslim

By Senada Ramusevic, Matea Gelic, and Mayha Ghouri

Its not difficult to notice that in today’s media an overwhelming number of hollywood films and music videos showcase a negative image of Muslims and Islam. Mazin B. Qurnsiyeh, director of media relations for The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, in his report entitled ‘100 Years of Anti-Arab and Anti-Muslim Stereotyping’ admits that Muslims and Arabs have suffered from the ‘three B syndrome’ in which they’re either portrayed as billionaires, bombers, or bellydancers.

According to Qurnsiyeh, in the last 30 years alone, the most prevalent stereotype has been that of the “bomber” character. Similarly, Ashraf Khalil, a columnist for the LA Times states that after 9/11, Arab-American actors have found it more likely to be cast as a terrorist. Author of Reel Bad Arabs and a CBS News consultant on Middle East Affairs, Jack Shaheen, has said, in his book "The TV Arab",  that more than 21 major films have been released in the last 10 years which show US military killing Arabs whom were depicted as the bad guys and enemies of the United States. Shaheen goes as far to say that this type of portrayal has become apart of American Folklore.

Music videos do not seem to show any signs of progress either in their depictions of Muslims and Islam, as is evident in Katy Perry’s latest music video ‘Dark Horse’. The video portrays at the 1:15 mark, a man being burned while wearing a pendant forming the word for Allah, meaning God in Arabic. Needless to say, the depiction of the incinerated Allah pendant has offended Muslims and thus a petiton was launched asking YouTube to remove the video. The petition, which was ultimately successful in influencing the removal of the clip, has once again brought to the forefront the debate about free speech and self expression.

While it is true that artists like Katy Perry are entitled to self-expression, including work that is deemed controversial, the question remains if we should glorify and condone such works as fellow human beings? Or should we let artists know, through initiatives like petitions, that there is a line between controversy and disrespect that they should not cross even if they legally may do so? 

Now if we look to Katy Perry’s Dark Horse Video, can we clearly establish the intent behind the portrayal of a burning Allah pendant? Was her depiction of the incineration meant to instigate a thought provoking discussion on Islam or Muslims? Or more likely perhaps, is the conclusion that the depiction of the Islamic necklace was merely a distasteful marketing stunt by which Katy Perry and her team would generate controversy to gain more viewers. If the point is to be controversial then the artwork, or in this case the music video, should cause us to evaluate ourselves and our surroundings  in a meaningful and productive way. It is our duty, to voice our concern with videos like these so that we may yet spare ourselves and other religions or groups from having to endure such attacks on our beliefs and values.

Another recent portrayal of a suicidal, raspy voiced assassin on the CW show Arrow further ingrains the image of a barbaric Muslim in people’s minds. Around the midpoint of the episode entitled ‘Heir to the Demon’ a Persian Muslim is portrayed as a reckless assassin who takes a sip of poison and before his death, declares “la ilaha illa Allah”. Although recent negative portrayals of Muslims can be attributed to 9/11, the question begs why have Muslims been portrayed as the antagonist as early as the 1920s?  Films  like "The Sheik" (1921) and "The Son Of The Sheik" (1926) set the precedent for future films such as "Lawrence Of Arabia"(1962) which depicted both Arabs and Muslims as uncivilized people who lived in desert areas outside of Western civilization.  

Needless to say it is quite nice  to see the occasional positive portrayal of Muslims on television, like the Coca Cola commercial ‘It’s Beautiful” that aired during the 2014 Superbowl.

During one of the commercial breaks, a young, crystal clear voice sings “America the Beautiful.” the song switches to various languages at every line and shows people of all races smiling, playing and having a good time. Then, there you have it, there’s a hijabi, a Muslim woman in a headscarf. The first in a Superbowl commercial.

As American Muslim women who wear the hijab, we are often made to feel alienated for being Muslim. Growing up watching family shows and reading those required books in schools, rarely was there someone of the Muslim faith represented. If they were, then their characters were caricatures that played into stereotypes. To see a pretty, peaceful, smiling Muslim woman on my screen, if only for a brief second, fills us with joy. Not only are we finally being acknowledged, but we’re being considered American. This is a struggle that many Muslim Americans face daily and for Coca Cola to show that we are American is a step in the right direction.

However, undoubtedly, the negative response to this commercial were a symptom of a larger disease- Islamophobia. It’s not ignorance of Islam, although ignorance is a part of it, but a fear of Islam. A fear of this unknown, creeping power that is against freedom, justice and all things American. The Coke commercial was just one of the places where you can see the manifestation of this disease effects. It showed that we all hold a common thread, even in something such as a soft drink. It showed laughter, happiness and Coca Cola and that we are bound together by wanting the same things in life.

Senada Ramusevic, Matea Gelic, and Mayha Ghouri are interns at CAIR-NY.