Stereotypes and Media Portrayals of Arabs and Muslims

Posted: September 25, 2011 in mia moody, stereotypes of arabs and muslims
Tags: , , , , , , ,
English: Poster for 1921 film "The Sheik&...

English: Poster for 1921 film “The Sheik” starring Rudolph Valentino Français : Affiche du film Le Cheik avec Rudolph Valentino (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Arabs and Muslims

Television shows and movies often portray Arabs and Muslims as evil and foolish. The stereotype of Arabs began with Rudolph Valentino in “The Sheik.” It has developed into the transnational villain of television and film and culture in general (Barsamian, 2001). Movies often cast them villains or financial backers of espionage plots as in “The Siege,” which depicts the U.S. military declaring martial law and imprisoning American Muslims and Arab Americans en masse following a series of terrorist bombings. In 1984, Shaheen argued that while the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s helped create more realistic television portrayals of African Americans and other ethnic minorities, the treatment of Arabs remained full of inaccurate myths and stereotypes.

Although anti-Muslim sentiments, in particular, seem to run throughout the United States more and more particularly since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, there is proof that the negative attitudes toward Muslims are rooted in a historical prejudice stemming from religious beliefs and practices of the Muslim culture. Islam is entrenched in Arab societies and has undoubtedly been one of the greatest dividers between the Christian West and the Middle East.

Portrayals of Arab and Muslim women are particularly negative. Historically, media have portrayed women in the Arab and Muslim worlds as either mysteriously exotic or oppressed and backward. Many images of Afghan women focus on the burqa, the traditional head to toe cover that shields women from public view. Stories depict them as “faceless and shapeless” (Palm Beach Post 2002), or stifled and restricted. Elantawy (2007) examined articles that “feed into the dominating yet distorted stereotype of the victimized and oppressed Muslim woman. She concluded that especially after 9/11, newspapers increased their photos of mostly Afghani women with their faces veiled to the outside world.

The frame of reference with which Americans perceive Middle Easterners today began forming in the mid-19th century when Western historians, geographers, ethnographers and Western Christian missionaries visited Palestine. They conveyed their impressions of the land and its peoples to readers and congregations in Europe and America (Christison, 1997). Arabs and Muslims first gained national attention in the late 1890s and early 1900s when immigrants began appearing in mainstream publications (Pulcini, 1993).

Initially characterized as peddlers and beggars, Arabs soon became the villains of choice for the motion picture industry (Shaheen, 1984). Historians speculate that the stereotype of Arabs that began with Rudolph Valentino in “The Sheik” has developed into the transnational villain of television and film and culture in general (Barsamian, 2001). Establishing such otherness has historically been a fluid undertaking applicable to any number of racialized groups (Ali, 2003). Although Americans probably did not have a clearly defined perception of Arabs, they used their exposure through the mass media to form a vague sense of Arabs as distasteful (Christison, 1997).

Akram (2002) attributes the demonization of Arabs/Muslims to “deliberate mythmaking by film and media” and purposeful stereotyping by government officials and independent polemicists who seek to justify the United States’ agenda abroad. She claims that these actions prey upon a vulnerable public, growing evermore fearful of the “unwelcome ‘other’ in our midst” (p. 61). When describing the media’s treatment of Arabs/Muslims in further detail, Akram explains how media never depict members of this group as “ordinary people, families with social interactions, or outstanding members of communities.” Instead, Arabs/Muslims conjure images of “holy war,” terrorism and oppressive patriarchy among the American public (p. 66).

Other studies explore how the media participates in the construction of “enemies” during times of crisis, such as the aftermath of Sept. 11. Bakalian and Bozorgmehr (2005) outline the phases of backlash faced by people of color who are of the same ethnicity or religion as the enemy group: first, the general public scapegoats the minority group; second, the media promotes existing hostile stereotypes, or creates new ones; finally, the government undertakes a systematic regime of “scrutiny and repression” (p. 7). In a related study, Merskin (2004) addressed how the spread of false information contributes to the process of “enemy image construction.” Like Akram, Merskin cites film and media, in addition to government authorities, as the parties responsible for the perpetuation of negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims among the public. She stipulates, as do the others, that these media behaviors function as a means of legitimizing and expanding political power (p. 158).

Suggested citation: Moody, M. (2011).  Stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims. Media Studies Overview. Accessed via

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s