Arabs and Muslims in the Media by Evelyn Alsultany

Arabs and Muslims in the Media:Race and Representation after 9/11, by Evelyn Alsultany, catalogues the various ways in which media depictions post 9/11 have contributed to the othering of Muslims and Arabs even  when seemingly delivering pro-Muslim messages. Central to this book is analyzing the ways in which strategies to accommodate and celebrate Muslims have reinforced prejudicial attitudes or subordinated Muslim identities to nationalistic sentiments. The author begins her book with a transcript of an episode from 24, in which Jack Bauer is interrogating a Muslim terrorist who plans to detonate a bomb killing thousands of “innocent people.” Jack Bauer predictably saves the day and the Muslim terrorist fails in his objective of making America pay. While these black and white depictions of good versus evil, Christian versus Muslim, finally started to be rejected post 9/11, the simple changes that they made to continue typecasting Muslims as terrorist have gone celebrated or under analyzed.

Chapter one identifies seven frequent strategies of portrayal Alsultany labels as “simplified-complex representations.” She describes these depictions as ones that attempt to show the terrorists’ perspective, or the good Muslim, but still exclude coherent defenses of a terrorists motivations or overarching narratives associating Islam with terrorism. She argues the most frequent tactic to sell the multicultural dream is the patriotic Muslim. This character is frequently seen helping or acting as law enforcement to identify and eliminate the bad Muslim and fulfill their patriotic obligation. The problem with this is that representation dichotomizes Muslims into either terrorist, or actively supporting the American War on Terror. There is no space for Muslims to be critical of American intervention without being suspected of terrorism.

Chapter two describes how representations of resistance to prioritizing security over liberty have co-opted and pacified any of its material potential.  TV shows that engage in this subject often start with a Muslims rights being violated, them being targeted by a hateful white person and ultimately the racism is described as justified and temporary. Alsultany describes how many of the plots culminate in a “moment of mourning” for the lost civil liberties for Arab and Muslim Americans without any further action to challenge it. Racists are portrayed as justified and reasonable in response to a government constantly reminding its citizens that it’s at threat level Orange.

Chapter three describes the ways in which the plight of the Muslim women are deployed to justify American intervention. Preying on a one-dimensional generalization of Islam, celebrated native informants and unrestrained paternalism, media depictions obsess on the negative deployments of Islam against women. While it is verifiably true that some women are oppressed under the banner of Islam, the diversity of women’s experiences are never represented and rarely are the ways in which women utilize Islam to achieve freedom given any on air time.

Chapter four describes the ways in which the media excludes charitable or empathetic depictions of Muslim men. While viewers are allowed to sympathize with Muslim women, the terrorists are always categorically evil and unable to be reasoned with. This is coupled with a downplaying of the United States roles with groups such as the Mujahideen, and simplified version of history is sold to viewers that preclude the use of justified violence from the terrorist.

Chapter five describes the tension between US based Muslim rights groups engaged in public relations campaigns to make Americans more tolerant of Muslims and less prone to hate crimes while abroad US public diplomacy tries to sell a narrative of Muslim inclusion free from prosecution.  This supports her argument of a veneer of successful multiculturalism while ignoring material reality.

While the first five chapters are devoted to criticism, the epilogue gives the reader a better understanding of what is ideal in Muslim and Arab representations. Asultany offers up three shows that she believes contain positive depictions of Muslims and Arabs: Little Mosque, Community, and Whoopi. She argues that showing complex representations that have no relation to terrorism help to diversify the audiences interpretation of what a Muslim or Arab is and can be.

The interactions between these various representations are what sets Alsultany apart from other discussion of rhetoric related to terrorism. For example, the reader is left a more complete picture of how on one hand empathy is enabled for Muslim women through discourses surrounding human rights then that empathy is systematically denied to the Muslim terrorist (presumed male) enabling violent paternalistic interventions.

While the book does try to draw a more complete picture of Muslim representations, it does seem to lack methodological consideration for what shows and sources are chosen for analysis. There is no justification offered for why certain characters and depictions are chosen while others are not which indicts the representativeness of her sample. Additionally, very little quantitative data is explored in this book and it is almost entirely reliant on qualitative analysis despite many developments in entertainment education and critical media studies that have operationalized many of the concepts she discussed or the biases produced by the media.

The book is overall a thorough examination of how terrorism is portrayed in the media and how that implicates perceptions of Muslims and Arabs in the United States. Anyone looking for a source that interweaves multiple disciplinary ideas into a coherent whole should definitely read this book.


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