Arab Culture and Muslim Stereotypes

By Emery, James | The World and I, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Arab Culture and Muslim Stereotypes


Emery, James, The World and I


As a professor of anthropology, I often begin my college lectures on Islamic culture by asking students to write three adjectives to describe Arabs. Most responses include the word terrorists, an association they see and hear in the media. News stories, television shows, and movies rarely show Arabs, Iranians, or other Muslims in a positive light.

From Hollywood's perspective, casting individuals associated with specific negative stereotypes requires less character development because the audience spontaneously associates the actor with their alleged traits. But Hollywood's repetitious use of typecasting reinforces stereotypes, feeding an endless cycle of distortions.

This is nothing new for Hollywood; they've always relied on negative portrayals of minorities and other groups. As early as the silent movie era, Mexicans were Greasers (from the tallow in the hides they handled), Asians were exotic and devious, blacks were comical or criminal, and Southern whites were stupid bigots. If Hollywood wanted to portray white racists, they would set the story in Mississippi, not Massachusetts, even though Boston has a long history of racial strife dating to the 19th century, when blacks from the South were brought in to break the labor organizing efforts of the Irish.

The press rarely reports stories about "Christian" extremists, "Catholic" terrorists, or "Protestant" fanatics, but regularly use the terms "Islamic" or "Muslim" as adjectives for terrorists. It's doubtful that many people in the United States know that Timothy McVeigh, the terrorist who blew up the Alfred P. Murrow Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, was Baptist. The explosion killed 168 people, but none of the news stories said "Baptist Bomber" Timothy McVeigh, perhaps because his faith was not a factor in the attack. Regardless of motives, had he been a Muslim, everyone would have known, because it would have received extensive coverage in the print and electronic media.

The mere mention of Islam tends to generate an immediate negative reaction from most people in the West who associate it with terrorism, hostages, and the explosive situation in the Middle East. The attack on the World Trade Center and the ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Palestinian Territories tend to confirm our suspicions. The image is clear, and so are the prejudices.

There are over one billion Muslims throughout the world who are not terrorists, stretching from Singapore to Nigeria and from the United States to the Central Asian Republics. Radical terrorist groups may be of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu persuasion. Their religion is irrelevant: first and foremost they are terrorists who often cloak their actions in a cause, sometimes adding the veil of nationalism or religion to justify their crimes. Most terrorists are self-serving thugs, more concerned about gaining power and influence then in helping the people or the cause they supposedly represent.

Osama bin Laden and the late Saddam Hussein would occasionally link their barbaric behavior to the Palestinian cause in an effort to rally support among Muslims and give after-the-fact legitimacy to wanton acts of violence. In reality, neither of them cared about the Palestinian people, who were merely convenient pawns to be used in the chess game of public opinion.

The "pious" Taliban have made over a billion dollars from the drug trade, addicting ten million Muslims in the process. Al-Qaeda members murder scores of innocent civilians to feed their insatiable appetite for attention. Osama bin Laden, who is neither a Mullah nor an Imam, issued illegitimate fatwas against the West, the content of which are against the core principles of Islam and the teachings of Muhammad. In religious terms, bin Laden has about as much right to issue decrees as a street sweeper has to dictate foreign policy.

Bin Laden, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and similar rogues are bad Muslims, but Islam should not be tarnished by their misdeeds any more than Catholics should be associated with past terrorist acts of the Irish Republican Army. …

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