Are representations slowly improving for the MENA and Muslim populations in Western media? (Film and TV)

If you are to look at the authoritative figure on the topic, Jack Shaheen (2009), in his book Reel Bad Arabs, noted that ‘out of the 1000 films he quantified containing Arab and Muslim representations most characters studied were represented negatively with very few heroic characters’. Shaheen (2009) highlights further that there are ‘virtually no loving family members of Arab and Muslim backgrounds and neither is there a presence on screen for their intellectual progress towards humanity’. In his works, Shaheen discovered reoccurring themes within these stereotypes that included ‘villain/terrorist trope, the greedy sheikh and the handmaiden in need of rescue’ (2009). Edward Said first pointed these representations out in his book ‘orientalism’ stating that American media viewed Arabs and Muslims as ‘dishonest, bloodthirsty, overly lustful (including stupidity to this attribution) and barbaric’ (2003). 

My research

I found that these obsessive stereotypes were affirmed in my research and positive representations were often reduced to small snippets and not conducive to the overall picture of a film. The number of negative representations outnumbered the positive at 10 to 1 with 16 moments of positive representation, compared to 160 negative representations across the case study (see list of films at the bottom of the article). In these films, most Muslims and Arab people were displayed as angry, terrorists (this theme was present in 15 films), oppressed (women) by wearing Burqas and much more.  For my methodology, I used visual analysis to understand the impact of different camera angles on perhaps what artistic route the director was aiming for. Through this, I was able to examine that most directors loved to use a close-up shot to make the viewership feel uncomfortable of these people. They also used high and low angles to display this idea of there always being some over-arching power dynamic whether it be inferiority or superiority complex.

If we were to broaden this research out to not only Hollywood movies but also TV shows made in America and films made in other Western countries, there seems to have been a small growth in the trend of stories told through the perspective of Muslims and Arabs. This is certainly unprecedented, as even when Muslims and those from the MENA (Middle East and North African) region were represented positively it would be adding to the story of how it fits white America. Rather, we are now beginning to see the stories not only produced, directed, and told through the lens of Middle Eastern, North African and Muslims but we are seeing whole casts of people from these backgrounds, which is a monumental breakthrough in Western media.

Maytha Alhassen in her report ‘Haqq and Hollywood’ pinned this rise in shows about Muslims as a ‘reactionary cause of Trump’s campaigns which sought to demonise Muslims’ (2018) as enemies of the USA. Pew Research Centre reported that 127 cases of assault against Muslims occurred in 2016 compared to the previous high which was 93 in 2001. Thus, exemplifying the impact Trump’s hate speech had on Muslim livelihood in the United States. 

Unfortunately these stereotypes still exist in films and TV series such; as Beirut (2018), the rendition of Aladdin (2019), Bodyguard (2018) and Jarhead: Law of Return (2019) (which comically has come up with nothing other than stories about terrorism, Islam, and Arabs in four films of the instalment). Despite these gloomy representations, films like; Ali’s Wedding (2017) and The Swimmers (2022), alongside TV series such as; The Promise (2011), Ramy (2019), Mo (2022), Rise Of Empires: Ottomans (2020), East Of La Brea (2018) (this is on my to watch list) and soon to be released House Of Gods (2023) has given the Arab and Muslim community a glimmer of hope that we are starting to see stories told from our point of view. Maytha Alhassen as part of her report was also able to interview Ramy Youssef who spoke on his aims for Ramy (2019) and previous representation, “Usually we are portrayed as victims of hate crime, terrorists or very religious folks that just become the butt of all jokes” (2018). Ramy then goes on to say “The work I want to do is based in my point of view. I’m trying to make great things that are vulnerable and self-examining (…) the characters are doing what most people are doing—trying to be good’’.  

My Experience

For the next part of this article, I’d like to go into detail on some of my favourite parts of these films and TV series, how they’ve brought me great laughter, inspired me, and equally nearly brought me to tears in some very emotional scenes.

The first time I actually remember seeing a story that connects with Arabs completely was when I saw Channel 4’s ‘The Promise’ (2011) by Peter Kominsky.  It centres around Erin in the present day, who finds her grandad’s diary and begins to read how he was stationed in Palestine as a British soldier in the late 1940’s. Coinciding with this, she tags along with her friend Eliza to Israel, who is about to begin her military service for the IDF. Erin realises that where she has headed to is not a holiday and the ramifications of the Nakba in 1948 (which she reads through her grandad’s perspective) have laid the grounds for 75 years of hurting.

The pivotal nature of Peter Kominsky’s work here was that as Shaheen mentioned, all Hollywood films and TV in the West knew of Palestinians that they were terrorists. Let alone Hollywood, but the news and media showed Palestinians as such until Intifada protests in 1987. As characterised by Beverley Milton-Edwards and Peter Hinchcliffe (2002):

“The international media’s portrayal of women and children, the young and the old demonstrating with such passion went some considerable way in rehabilitating or altering the perception of Palestinians not as terrorists but as victims of a military occupation.”

Palestinians have a right to life, and the show did not shy away from portraying the brutal massacres in 1948 and people being forcibly kicked out of their homes. Before this show, there was not much that really represented the struggle and suffering of Arabs in Western film and TV which is what made The Promise (2011) so ground-breaking. 

Most importantly we got to see the kindness and hospitality for which Arabs are famous, displayed through Abu-Hassan Mohammad’s character (portrayed by the infamous Ali Sulieman); when he invites Len over for a huge meal and tea. Arabs are some of the most kind and loving people, the fact Hollywood failed to grab this in most of their films by only showing them as angry is only a testament to how ignorant the film industry was for so long to who these people are.

Ali’s Wedding (2017) is I think my favourite of the releases as a comedy, I think this is my bias of having an Iraqi background. Everything about this film is a comedy classic in my books, especially given the fact it is largely based on Osamah Sami’s life as an Iraqi living in Australia, making it more authentic. Ali is the son of an Imam and hopes to impress his dad by becoming a doctor despite it not being his dream, just wanting to make his father proud of who he is.

Ali finds himself in the position of being forced into an arranged marriage, despite being in love with someone else at his Mosque. One of the most hilarious scenes includes him attempting to sabotage his own wedding by acting obnoxious around his to-be wife’s parents and drinking the ceremonial tea before the father has permitted him to marry. Thinking that this sign of disrespect will save him and prevent the marriage it actually does the opposite as the father thinks he is so eager to marry, and therefore believes the wedding should occur as soon as possible. 

There’s also another moment in Ali’s Wedding (2017) that all Arabs and Muslims can relate to, which is the fear of being stopped at airports. This happens when Ali goes to America to perform a play conducted by his father with other members of the Mosque. Airport security finds text messages of Ali talking with his friend about an Australian AFL team called ‘The Bombers’, leading to the security mistaking them for terrorists and sending them back to Australia in a scene that truly makes you laugh from the pit of your stomach.

The Swimmers (2022) is a bit of a deeper dive into the serious nature of issues that have arisen in the Middle East, as two Syrian sisters Yusra and Sarah Mardini try to get across Europe as refugees and continue the dream of competing at the Olympics (you can read a more detailed analysis of The Swimmers here).

Ramy (2018) is a series that also creates amazing comedic effects to something Arabs and Muslims can relate to; I also like the element of Ramy being a flawed character as it’s something I think people can relate to more and keeps the audience invested. As an Egyptian-American he is trying to find out about himself and the meaning of life in Jersey, America. I also liked that they included the negative impact and insecurity 9/11 had on Arab and Muslim communities.

A great scene is when in series 3 the unbothered Ramy turns up to a dinner at a restaurant late and tries to pay for the bill. This creates an intense argument between him his dad and his uncle on who’s going to pay, and results in them all wrestling each other to run and pay the bill. Ramy’s uncle then proceeds to pull out a gun so he can pay in a hyperbolic moment, which is what makes it so good.

Ramy makes a multitude of mistakes without meaning to, often coming at the expense of those around him. He then comes to the realisation in both season 2 and season 3 finales that he can turn back to Islam and seek forgiveness. In one of the most perfectly crafted scenes of Ramy (in the latest episode to date), he breaks down in emotion by a beach and decides to pray as the waves crash in against him as he kneels before God in tears. It’s probably the most beautiful showings of prayer and Islam I think that’s been witnessed on Western screens.

Mo (2022) also brings such joy, made by Mohammad Amer (who is also in Ramy) and helped by his friend Ramy Youssef also, Mohammad tries to navigate life in Texas as a Palestinian refugee after having escaped from Kuwait due to the 1991 invasion from Iraq. He goes through struggles trying to get his American citizenship, but also makes humorous light of this along the way.

Something I found so relatable and funny was that there are many times in the show in which Mo is mistaken for being Mexican. It’s something that a lot of Middle Easterners can relate to looking so ethnically ambiguous, I could honestly make a game out of how many different nationalities people have thought my background is.  

Mo also displays the business savvy side of Middle Easterners, convincing an old man to buy a fake pair of Yeezy’s. You can’t stop laughing at the nature of which he haggles with his customer that he’s in fact giving him a good deal and that you can’t find this quality or that price anywhere else. Mo has an answer for everything comedically which makes everything about the show so great.

While there are some nice moments given to Salahuddin in the film Kingdom of Heaven (2005) it must be said, I always felt as if there was not enough screen time given to the wonderful actor Ghassan Massoud, who played one of the greatest Khalifa’s in Islam. Rise Of Empires: Ottomans (2020) in contrast dedicates a whole series to this part of Islamic history. Western audiences who largely follow Netflix have been given the chance to see and perhaps learn for the first time of Mehmed Al-Fatih (the conqueror) in his ambition to take Constantinople.

As it is a docudrama, I don’t want to spend too long writing on it, as you can find all the information for yourself either by watching it or going on Wikipedia and searching up Mehmed ii. But one thing I will say is I admired the fact that we were able to see an Islamic leader who gives inspiring speeches, is charismatic, intelligent, and brave. These characteristics are juxtaposed with a lot of the older Hollywood portrayals of Muslims in war being reduced to cowardice. 

[Revised] Conclusions, One Step Forward And Another Backwards

Revised on 26th December 2023

Throughout, I have stipulated that these films and TV shows haven’t necessarily erased all the negative representations that the Arab and Muslim world has been bombarded with, but rather it has given me hope that we can shift the paradigm towards more positive representations. The films and series I have gone into are all amazing and I recommend them highly, and there is certainly an opportunity for other creators to build off this progress, balancing the ideas of representation.

Since I wrote this article, it is undeniable that the Arab and Muslim world has been impacted by the plight of what’s going on in Palestine and the genocide that the IDF is committing. Hollywood has the opportunity to call for peace, but instead, they are firing actors for setting the right example. Mellissa Barrera and Susan Sarandon are amongst others who have been fired from their Hollywood labels for calling for peace and an end to the violence (see SBS News and BBC for more information). I thought Hollywood was supposed to represent American and Western ideals (what they won’t let you forget is all about FREEDOM, quite ironic if you ask me). Now, they feel the need to silence those who won’t agree to their criteria. How long will it take before Hollywood and Western media realise Arabs and Muslims are human too? When will they value these lives as the same? I’m seriously beginning to get tired of repeating myself.  

Just when there was some progression (albeit small) in representations, the nature of Western media’s inherent racism towards Arabs and Muslims has reared its ugly head once more. I can only hope that this does not impact creators such as Ramy Youssef, Mohammad Amer, Osamah Sami etc… In making more projects that represent the communities.

The twenty-six films I analysed to come to my research: The Four Feathers (2002), Iron Man (2008), Kingdom Of Heaven (2005), American Sniper (2014), 13 Hours: Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi (2016), The Dictator (2012), 300 (2006), Syriana (2005), Team America World Police (2004), Queen Of The Desert (2015), Green Zone (2010), Rendition (2007), London Has Fallen (2016), The Adventures Of Tintin (2011), The Nim’s Island (2008), Gi Joe Retaliation (2013), Lone Survivor (2013), Jarhead 3 (2016), Flightplan (2005), American Dreamz (2006), Pretty Persuasion (2005), You Don’t Mess With The Zohan (2008), The Kingdom (2007), Body Of Lies (2008), Argo (2012), Zero Dark Thirty (2012).

Honourable mentions

A Big thank you to my supervisor Matt Alford for helping to encourage me to pursue this topic and pointing me towards the existing research.

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