By Meagen Tajalle
In this essay, I provide a content analysis of commercially and critically successful films that perpetuate popularized Islamophobia, which is often masked as irreconcilable religious and cultural difference although it has in fact been consistently manufactured and weaponized throughout history in order to further Western empirical interests. Recycled tropes and stereotypes in cinematic depictions can be traced back to historical orientalism and political Islamophobia, both of which were instrumental in garnering support for the War on Terror. Specifically, I examine the racial, religious, and morality politics of The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, and American Sniper. Although my analysis primarily discusses these films within the context of twenty-first century Islamophobia, I also demonstrate how persistent negative stereotypes draw from centuries-old tropes, and how US foreign policy since the Eisenhower administration has been conditionally tolerant of Islam, contingent upon broader geopolitical imperial interests.
While the Bush administration manufactured Islamophobia, the Trump administration seeks to normalize it. Neoconservatives touted prejudiced ideologies in the wake of 9/11, prejudices which can be categorized as reactionary despite their roots in historical orientalism. This does not mean that the promotion of these ideologies in the 2000s was any less dangerous than what we see today; the purpose of my distinction between the Islamophobia of the Trump and Bush administrations is merely to demonstrate the urgent danger of normalizing Islamophobia. A 2018 CAIR New York study reported a dramatic rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes after Trump’s election, with most of the reports from 2016 occurring in November and December. In media, visual storytelling remains a powerful tool that can both humanize and dehumanize groups of people. Films can evoke profound empathy, but they can also serve to reify differences. Many films reinforce the racialization of Islam, even when portrayals are not explicitly linked to religion. Representation of Middle Eastern people has drawn on the same stereotypes for over a century. A 2000 study of over 1,000 films conducted by Jack Shaheen found that over 900 of them featured negative depictions of Arab and Muslim characters.
I examine four successful American films, all of which performed exceptionally well at the box office in the U.S. and around the world, and all of which were nominated for multiple Academy Awards. I demonstrate how the depiction of Muslims in these films aligns with the closed views of Islam outlined by Runnymede Trust: Islam is seen as monolithic, it is othered and treated as separate; Muslims are viewed as inferior, and thought to be violent; Islam is viewed as a political ideology that is at odds with Western cultural values. Finally, I consider the consequences of representation, and highlight progressive artists leading the way forward through humanistic representation in media.
Modern, Historical, and Applied Islamophobia
There are two approaches that scholars of Islamophobia have adopted, which can be labelled ‘personal’ and ‘structural’. In the personal approach, Islamophobia is understood largely as a phenomenon of individual psychology: it is driven by fear and hatred of cultural difference; it has been provoked by events such as 9/11; and it is associated cognitively with stereotyping. . . . In the structural approach, Islamophobia is a phenomenon that is: rooted in social processes; connected to, if not generated by, government policies; and tied to wider questions of political ideology and systems of power. (Kundnani, 36 – 37)
The depiction of Muslims in films and the perpetuation of damaging tropes and stereotypes relates to both “personal” and “structural” Islamophobia, as outlined by Kundnani, who goes on to note that despite the distinction, personal approaches are guided by socialization by way of structural factors (37). For this reason, it would be difficult to make a concrete argument for the origins of negative representations of Muslims in film as either personal or structural, but the effects of such representation is twofold: immediately, films have the power to influence the personal prejudices of audiences, and audiences in turn may be empowered to mobilize in support of policies or practices that contribute to structural Islamophobia. Guilia Evolvi, in a study published in 2018, demonstrated the correlation between personal and structural Islamophobia through a qualitative analysis of tweets in the aftermath of Brexit. Evolvi found that, “online Islamophobia largely enhances offline anti-Islam discourses, involving narratives that frame Muslims as violent, backward, and unable to adapt to Western values,” (1).
This relationship speaks directly to the stakes of Muslim representation in films. In 2000, Jack Shaheen conducted a study of over 1,000 films from the silent film era to the twenty-first century for the purpose of highlighting dangerous and damaging recycled tropes used to depict the Middle East and those from or living in Muslim-majority nations. He notes the success of Disney’s Aladdin (1992), which grossed over $1 billion worldwide, and “recycled every old degrading stereotype from Hollywood’s silent [film] and black and white past.” Aladdin explicitly calls the fictional Arabian land “barbaric” in its opening song. Throughout film history, Shaheen found that Arab people are portrayed as evil and inferior, exotic and dangerous, demonstrating what Maytha Alhassen refers to as “the axes of contempt and fascination, [which fetishize] an Orientalist perception of ‘the mystical Moor’ just as early America romanticized the Indian as a ‘noble savage,’” (13). Alhassen also argues that the success of Aladdin “demonstrates the staying power of Orientalist tropes and the impact they have not only on Arabs but on the imaginations of those who make and watch films like this,” (20).
In the report entitled Haqq and Hollywood: Illuminating 100 Years of Muslim Tropes and How to Transform Them, Alhassen points out that negative portrayals of Muslims are not only damaging, but ahistorical as well: “This imaginary ‘Orient’ also worked to eradicate a long history of Islamic contribution to Europe, concealing breakthroughs in science, medicine, literature, translation, and philosophy made by Moors,” (13). If media abandons history, then it embraces current events. The latter half of the twentieth century, and the twenty-first century, have seen an emphasis on the “contempt” part of the West’s cultural imagination of the Middle East in the wake of such events as the hostage crisis in Iran and 9/11. Particularly in a post-9/11 world, media portrayals of Muslims rely heavily upon centuries-old stereotypes. The perpetuation of these stereotypes is culturally damaging in that media wields a large amount of socialization power; by socialization power I am referring to the capacity for media to educate (and in turn misinform) audiences about groups of people they may have little or no contact with in real life.
Negative social and cultural consequences become more glaring when we take into consideration that these recycled stereotypes have historically been masked as Islamophobia in the name of supposed cultural and religious difference, but in fact the West has consistently manipulated the image of Muslims in the cultural imagination in order to further geopolitical interests, and more specifically, in America, to serve the US imperial agenda. These stereotypes are demonstrably traceable to Western reactions to perceived threats to empire.
The War on Terror was initially branded to represent defense against terrorism and protection for American citizens, rather than a villainization of Muslim people or direct conflict with a particular country (Mamdani; Green); however, Todd H. Green points out in The Fear of Islam that the Bush administration, in its attempt to garner support for the war, “relied on a ready-made, easily accessible explanation for the terrorist attacks: the clash of civilizations,” (122). The Bush administration sought counsel from Bernard Lewis, author of The Roots of Muslim Rage, which in its title alone perpetuates a closed view of Islam as monolithic, and also “reduced the conflict between al-Qaeda and the West to something inherent within Islam,” (Green 125). The War on Terror, and specifically the US invasion of Iraq, which was backed by the UN Security Council and NATO and was based on unfounded claims that Sadam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (Green 128), became increasingly unpopular.
This led to political Islamophobia engineered by the Bush administration as well as an attempt to rebrand the conflict as a war with humanitarian interests and three missions: defense against terrorism, nation-building consisting of democracy promotion, and women’s liberation (Green 128). These missions, in conjunction with political Islamophobia, imply that Islam is violent, inherently at odds with Western democratic ideals, and misogynistic. Dalia Mogahed debunked these stereotypes in a 2006 Gallup report, stating:
A recent in-depth Gallup survey in 10 predominantly Muslim countries, representing more than 80% of the global Muslim population, shows that when asked what they admire most about the West, Muslims frequently mention political freedom, liberty, fair judicial systems, and freedom of speech. When asked to critique their own societies, extremism and inadequate adherence to Islamic teachings were their top grievances. (1)
Despite this, the Bush administration continued to name Islam in its denouncements of terrorism, resulting in a lasting and deeply damaging link in the American cultural imagination (Green 130).
By situating Islam at the root of the threat of terrorism, Muslims, not terrorists, become the enemy. This results in a “good Muslim/bad Muslim” dichotomy imposed across the world, but perhaps most aggressively within the US where 43 percent of Americans harbor anti-Muslim prejudices (Mamdani; Gallup 2015). The problematization of Islam as a religion, rather than terrorism as an act, feeds the “clash of civilizations” narrative, which relies on closed views of Islam as monolithic, static and therefore anti-modern, and inherently at odds with Western ideals, including democracy (Mamdani; Runnymede). Mahmoud Mamdani asks, in “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror:”
If we can think of Christianity and Judaism as global religions— with Middle Eastern origins but a historical flow and a contemporary constellation that cannot be made sense of in terms of state boundaries— then why not try to understand Islam, too, in historical and extraterritorial terms?
The driving force of Islamophobia in the West has always been the extent to which institutions can materially benefit from prejudicial ideologies. As Mamdani goes on to demonstrate, the United States has not always been anti-Muslim, and the US government has not even always been anti-terrorism. After the Iranian Revolution, the US lost a critical Middle Eastern ally, and at the outset of the Reagan administration “CIA chief William Casey . . . [orchestrated] support for terrorist and prototerrorist movements around the world . . . The United States decided to harness, and even to cultivate, terrorism in the struggle against regimes it considered pro-Soviet,” (Mamdani 769). The enemy, therefore, cannot even historically be simplified to terrorism, but rather any person, group, or country that impedes American empirical interests.
In the interest of American empire, the Eisenhower Doctrine of 1957 reversed previously isolationist Middle Eastern foreign policy and jeopardized previously amicable relations with countries in the region. Intervention came in the form of financial and military aid with anti-communist aims (Green 115). Further contradicting notions of Islamophobia as natural and Islam as evil, America’s strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia is an example of “politicians [deciding] that Islam could be a powerful ideological weapon in the effort to curb Soviet influence in the Middle East,” (Green 115). The United States, as a direct result of its ability to empirically benefit from it, supported twentieth century Islamism (efforts to root socioeconomic and political systems in Islam). Political Islam later grew out of Western intervention when the 1970s saw economic turmoil sweep across the Middle East, and when the Iranian Revolution resulted in the loss of a strategically important ally to the US (Green 117-118). Subsequently, the US supported Afghanistan in the Soviet-Afghan war, which preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union, a move that demonstrates “another instance of the United States’ willingness to encourage Islamism when it suited its larger political goals,” (Green 120). Part of the resistant forces in Afghanistan eventually evolved into Al-Qaeda. (Mamdani; Green 121).
Rather than acknowledge the role of American intervention in the formation of modern terrorist groups, the US has continued to make policy decisions reflective of Islamophobia. Although the Obama administration orchestrated a shift to remote warfare, and despite a verbalized prioritization of closing black sites and discontinuing the use of secret prisons, Obama widely expanded the CIA’s targeted killing program resulting in more drone strikes during his first year in office than Bush’s entire second term (Gregory). In this instance, both the ideology behind the policy as well as the consequences of military missions are deeply Islamophobic. The use of algorithms to identify targets dehumanizes civilians in conflict zones because, as Derek Gregory points out, “The likelihood of civilian casualties increases when metadata are used to identify suspicious patterns of life and to link contacts in a network of presumed complicity (‘guilt by association’), [which] has become standard operating procedure,” (44). Louise Amoore, in “Algorithmic War: Everyday Geographies of the War on Terror,” similarly problematized how algorithmic threat assessment relies on visualization, producing “a screened geography of suspicion, on the basis of which ‘other’ people are intercepted, detained, stopped and searched,” (6).
Amoore outlines the process of othering that occurs when “[algorithmic warfare] functions through a war-like architecture . . . [it draws] the lines between self/other; us/them; safe/risky; inside/outside, that make going to war possible,” (4). This essentially results in conflict-driven categorization and the everyday implementation of militarized technology in order to assess potential and imagined threats. The use of this technology by the Obama administration signals a sanctioning of racial profiling and an acceptance of a process that is inherently dehumanizing.
Dehumanization coupled with civilians being designated as threats— and counted as militant kills under Obama’s authorized redefinition of “militant” to refer to any military-aged male— draws upon the two pillars of Islamophobia that regard Muslims as both dangerous and inferior. Just as Muslims around the world have been dehumanized through dominant cultural narratives, Muslim characters in films are seldom granted the dignity of authentic or even humanistic representation, resulting in a damaging and increasingly dangerous feedback loop. Since a 2018 report published by CAIR New York found a 74 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes since Trump’s election, it has become clear that while these stereotypes are not new, the stakes of representation have never been higher.
This case study includes The Hurt Locker, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, and American Sniper, all of which grossed tens to hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide, and all of which were nominated for Academy Awards. The commercial success and critical acclaim that these films received demonstrates that they were not only accepted upon their respective releases, but widely celebrated and more importantly, widely seen. The sheer size of Hollywood’s global audience speaks to the threat of normalizing anti-Muslim prejudice, and has the potential to further solidify the masking of Islamophobia as religious and cultural difference in order to persuade and mobilize people in support of ideologies that further empirical interests.
The American and the Other
Each film follows a mission-oriented protagonist working for either the military or the CIA. Each protagonist is characterized as a protector or savior, although Maya in Zero Dark Thirty and the character Chris Kyle in American Sniper are motivated by revenge as well as defense. American Sniper is based on the memoir of the same name by Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in American military history, and Zero Dark Thirty and Argo are both based on historical events, depicting the assassination of Osama bin Laden and the rescue of American embassy workers in Iran during the hostage crisis, respectively. The Hurt Locker depicts a bomb technician during the Iraq war, and draws from contemporary circumstances, but is not based on a true story. The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty were both directed by Kathryn Bigelow, and Argo and American Sniper were both distributed by Warner Brothers.
Both American Sniper and The Hurt Locker take place in Iraq and dangerously conflate civilians and terrorists resulting in a blanket demonization of Islam. The Hurt Locker does this in its opening scene, in which bomb technician Matt Thompson (predecessor to protagonist William James), while investigating a bomb, says he wants the onlooking civilians to know “if they leave a bomb on the side of the road for us, we’re just going to blow up their little fucking road.” In American Sniper, when Chris Kyle arrives in Iraq, a sergeant informs him and other soldiers that the city has been evacuated and “any military-age male who’s still here is here to kill you.” However, the film doesn’t restrict the threat to military-age males. During the film’s opening scene, while Kyle is surveilling a residence, a mother walks out of her house with her child toward a US military tank. She carries a grenade, and is shot by Kyle. Then her son picks up the grenade and charges toward the tank, and he is shot by Kyle. Later in the film, Kyle and his unit invade a home in order to carry out a surveillance operation. The father of the family that lives in the home invites the soldiers to share a meal with them. However, this hospitality and humanization is quickly undermined when it is revealed that the family has a massive stash of assault rifles and explosives.
Explicit negative representation is not the only problem, however, as all four films perpetuate the “Good Muslim/Bad Muslim” trope, which does not contradict, but rather contributes to the villainization of Islam. Each film features at least one well-intentioned or cooperative Muslim character. American Sniper features this character more briefly than the others, and the “Good Muslim” is represented by a Sheikh who has not evacuated the city and offers accurate intelligence that may lead to a terrorist targeted by Kyle’s unit. The Sheikh and his family are then brutally and publicly killed by the terrorists they attempted to give up. In The Hurt Locker, Sergeant James befriends a young boy named Beckham who sells DVDs on the army base. Beckham represents the “Good Muslim,” but is problematically characterized through assimilation and adultification. Beckham speaks foul-mouthed English, smokes cigarettes, and tries to sell James porn. Further, he is used as a plot device when James believes that Beckham was killed and used as a body bomb. The scene featuring a body bomb demonstrates the consistent depiction of “Bad Muslims” in war films as sadistic terrorists. This characterization is consistent in American Sniper, which shows the body of a man killed by terrorists hanging from a ceiling drained of blood in a room filled with body parts, including decapitated heads, stored on shelves. When describing his experience in Iraq to his wife, Kyle remarks that he has witnessed, “evil like [he’s] never seen before” and he refers to Iraqis consistently as “savages.”
Argo and Zero Dark Thirty avoid unnecessarily depicting civilians, and both feature cooperative Muslim characters including the Iranian housekeeper to the Canadian Ambassasdor in Argo. In Zero Dark Thirty, Hakim, a translator, is instrumental in the operation to capture and kill Bin Laden, and one of the higher-ups in the CIA is a practicing Muslim. In both of these films, the “Bad Muslims” are the terrorists and protestors. While hunting Bin Laden, Maya explicitly links Islam to terrorism when she speaks to her colleague Jessica and declares that Islamic terrorists can’t be bribed because they are motivated solely by religion. The film proves this later on, when Jessica seemingly successfully bribes an informant close to Bin Laden and pays with her life when the informant detonates a suicide bomb at their arranged meeting. Argo creates a visual dichotomy between the East and West in its opening scene, which cuts between embassy employees and violent protestors outside of the gate. Protesters throughout the film become increasingly violent, and the main character sees a body hanging from a construction crane shortly after arriving in Tehran. Argo also adultifies civilian children, and early on in the film the main character’s supervisor remarks, “[the] bastards are using sweatshop kids to glue together the pieces [of shredded documents].” During the film’s climax, we see children assembling images of the rescued embassy workers as they attempt to board their plane.
By making terrorists and civilians indistinguishable, The Hurt Locker and American Sniper employ stereotypes in order to perpetuate the closed view that Islam is inherently violent. The depiction of military conflicts dramatizes the “clash of civilizations” narrative by depicting Muslim characters as uncivilized as demonstrated by characters’ capacity for sadistic violence. These depictions simplify the “us versus them” perspective prescribed by the War on Terror in that religious difference is portrayed as the root of the conflict that defines Muslims as “the enemy.” By dehumanizing Muslim characters and adultifying children, these films implicitly justify Islamophobic US foreign policies, such as drone strikes and the redefinition of militant kills and civilian casualties. Therefore, these depictions support the geopolitical interests of the US government and ignore the full history of Islam and US foreign policy.
While Argo and Zero Dark Thirty don’t feature damaging stereotypes as prominently, the implications of how Muslim characters are represented in these two films has the potential to be of much greater consequence since each draws from and dramatizes historical events and incorporates creative liberties in the process. With a large global audience, these films contribute to the dangerous feedback loop of “personal” and “structural” Islamophobia. Each film depicts, and fails to denounce, structural Islamophobia and in doing so promotes and validates personal Islamophobia. Additionally, the hollow attempt at positive representation through the trope of “Good Muslims” remains counterproductive in that it fails to realize these characters as real people with dimension.
The US stands to benefit from negative representation, but Americans don’t. As hate crimes spike and every day brings the current president a new opportunity to enact prejudicial policies, it remains in the federal government’s best interest to simplify differences among Americans in order to mobilize support. It remains in the federal government’s best interest for films to perpetuate negative ahistorical representation, because if Islam is not evil then the Trump administration cannot justify the travel ban or continued intervention in the Middle East. If Islam is not evil, then the US must fess up to its imperial agenda and role in the creation of modern terrorist groups. If Islam is not evil, then the US has no ground upon which to stand as it continues to implement Islamophobic policies. But rather than operate with transparency, the current administration has made a mission out of normalizing Islamophobia in order to manufacture support from Americans who deserve better, who deserve transparency and truth in order to make decisions in their own best interest, not the government’s.
Looking Forward and Content to Look Forward To
The antidote to the normalization of Islamophobia is the humanization of Muslims on screen. Humanization involves authentic characterization ideally by way of Muslim writers. Representation in and of itself is an insufficient solution that often results in tokenism and further stereotyping, which is why the perpetuation of the “Good Muslim/Bad Muslim” stereotype remains problematic. The “goodness” of Muslim characters too often relies on signals of Western assimilation, whereas “evil” traits and acts are often linked to religion. Pakistani-British actor Riz Ahmed, in an article published by The Guardian in 2016, wrote about the problem with characterization relying solely upon visible salient identities. Ahmed stated that as a minority living in the West, “You are intermittently handed a necklace of labels to hang around your neck, neither of your choosing nor making, both constricting and decorative,” and this process is compounded for actors who must be judged and categorized in order to be employed. Ahmed also noted different stages of representation and the power of humanization:
Stage one [of representation] is the two-dimensional stereotype – the minicab driver/terrorist/corner shop owner. It tightens the necklace. Stage two is the subversive portrayal, taking place on “ethnic” terrain but aiming to challenge existing stereotypes. It loosens the necklace. And stage three is the Promised Land, where you play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race. There, I am not a terror suspect, nor a victim of forced marriage. There, my name might even be Dave. In this place, there is no necklace.
While American films continue to perpetuate Stage One representation, it is important to look to progressive examples of Stage Two in order to envision Stage Three.
Comedian, writer, and actor Ramy Youssef’s self-titled half-hour Hulu comedy returns on May 29 for a second season, following an initial ten-episode run that received rave reviews. Youssef stars as a fictional version of himself, a millennial Muslim character struggling with his faith and young adult life. While the show has the power to contradict popular stereotypes, Youssef doesn’t see that as its main purpose, and has said:
So many of the things that come out [of Hollywood] are trying to . . . go against this public bashing [of Muslims] that’s happening, and I don’t think this show is really interested in doing that as much as it is being like, “Hey, we struggle with the same values, with the same desires, with the same problems.”
Media should aim, then, for progressive representation rather than positive representation. Progressive representation neither emphasizes nor erases the racial and religious identity of a character, but instead includes it in authentic portrayals of characters that are fully-realized as three-dimensional human beings. In Ramy, it is not in spite of the specificities of the character’s experience as a Muslim-American, but because of them that universal truths arise and Ramy becomes relatable.
Positive representation, on the other hand, in its emphasis on identity becomes either shallow or patronizing in that it aims to be representative of an entire group. Blanket representation, through its eradication of specificity, relies on stereotypes and results in tokenism that fails both to serve and represent communities. If audiences can watch Ramy and find universal truths about the human condition then they can recognize that while characters may not share their racial or religious background, they share so much more. If audiences can recognize this (and the success of Ramy makes a strong case that they have) then audiences can be empowered to decline to ‘Other’ characters and actors of color. It is through this process that we may arrive at Stage Three, where actors of color are neither restrictively categorized nor whitewashed, where Riz Ahmed’s name might even be Dave.