Hollywood Still Hasn't Figured Out How to Depict Muslims


Hollywood is nothing if not reactionary. Of course, all storytelling, no matter the medium, tends to be a reaction to experiences, a way of transforming the personal into the broadly intelligible. Yet Hollywood stands out from literature, music, and most television for its insistence on reacting to the same political and social stimuli for years, even decades. For all George Clooney’s myopic self-assurance that he works in a progressive business, women, African Americans, homosexuals, and other marginalized groups are often portrayed in major studio films as though the scripts were focus-grouped at the Republican National Convention. However, no group provides more fodder for Hollywood’s regressive stereotyping machine than Muslims, and this past year in cinema has shown that this is unlikely to change any time soon.

To wit: it has been nearly twelve years since 9/11 and more than thirty years since the Iranian hostage crisis, but two of the most lauded films from last year, Zero Dark Thirty and Argo — Best Picture finalist and Best Picture winner, respectively — displayed little, if any, new perspective on either event. Rather, both films explain the antagonism between the Western and Muslim world with the same unsophisticated finger-pointing popularized by George W. Bush: they hate our freedoms. 

While it may make for an easy catchphrase, it obviates the West’s history of imperialism, political subversion, and exploitation throughout the Middle East. In Zero Dark Thirty, for example, Muslim characters are presented as an undifferentiated mass of enemies, bearded or burqa’d objects to be mined — through torture — for information about Osama Bin Laden. Their reasons for fighting are unimportant; they have no agency. On the other hand, Argo delivers an initial, brief justification for the Iranian storming of the U.S. Embassy: revenge for America’s support of the tyrannical Shah. Then the film devolves into a deluge of images of Muslim men and women frothing for violence and hoisting AK-47s. Indeed, nearly every Muslim character either film lingers on for more than a frame not only hates America, but also hates it indiscriminately. This creates the impression that the entire Muslim world is barbaric, and is barbaric because of Islam.

Now, my purpose here is not to absolve Osama Bin Laden or the Ayatollah of their sins; certainly, unforgivable atrocities have been committed in the name of Allah, just as American forces have carried out unforgivable atrocities for “God and Country.” The difference that Hollywood often perpetuates is that the latter forces are working for a greater good, while the motivation of the entire Muslim world is both singular and totalitarian. Certain films, like the excellent Syriana, complicate this dichotomy and suggest that not only do progressive Muslims exist, but also that America’s justification for military intervention in the Middle East — “spreading democracy” — rings just as hollow as that “they hate our freedom” sound bite. Yet Syriana is the exception and not the rule (see also: the underrated Kingdom of Heaven delivers a fairly nuanced depiction of the Crusades, one of the least nuanced conflicts in human history.). 

In general, Muslims in Hollywood cinema exist as one-dimensional characters: ignorant menaces hell-bent on kidnapping or killing as many Westerners in service of their exotic, violent god. Edward Said famously coined the term “Orientalism” to describe the cultural practice of transforming those from eastern cultures — both Asian and Middle Eastern — into the Other. Orientalism in film presents exotic characters created from a Western political and social bias to simultaneously elicit a strong reaction against Eastern culture while reaffirming American and European values. Simply put: white hero defeats a nameless horde of copper-skinned bad guys, and white audience feels better about itself.

But what about the estimated 1.6 billion Muslims who might want to enjoy America’s most influential export — its popular culture? In recent years, the international box office has become increasingly crucial to a film’s success, reversing decades of conventional wisdom that a movie needed a strong domestic showing to be considered a box office success.  According to the MPAA, international audiences accounted for two-thirds of a movie’s overall business in 2012, continuing an upward growth trend that has existed for at least a decade. How will this same international audience react to Hollywood’s incessant conflation of Muslim with Arab, and Arab with terrorist? Indeed, Hollywood does nothing better than distill complex issues into their lowest common denominator, but its consistent treatment of the Muslim world as both a unified entity, and an entity unified against the West, has bordered on the pathological since 9/11.

The number of denominations and branches within Islam rivals Judaism and Christianity. “Muslim” is no more synonymous with “Arab” than “Christian” is with “American” or “Englishman:” devotees of Islam exist on every continent, and the majority of Muslims live in the Asia-Pacific region, not the Middle East. Indonesia, the country with the largest population of Muslims, is a constitutional republic. Muslims have given the world breathtaking architecture, delicious cuisine, and much to the chagrin of many schoolchildren, algebra. But how much of this complexity has found its way into the average movie script? How long until Muslims abroad grow tired of seeing crude, celluloid approximations of themselves transformed into cannon fodder for Liam Neeson and stop boosting box office takes?

More importantly, how long before Hollywood realizes it has a role to play in shaping public opinion, domestically and internationally? Certainly, awarding the 2013 Best Picture Oscar to a self-important film like Argo reveals how much Hollywood likes to pat itself on the back: “only the movie industry has the chutzpah to save the world!” Yet that same industry’s reliance on shallow, antagonistic portrayals of Muslims has only manifested more fervent Islamophobia in the West, and deeper mistrust of American intentions in the East. Until Hollywood figures out how to deliver a perspective on the Muslim world that heals wounds rather than keeps them open, its status as a “progressive” town will remain as real as the CGI aliens in James Cameron’s next film.

Movies have always been, and will always be, about wish fulfillment. The most successful movies transform our fears into fantasies, and remind us that at our best the human experience can be a collective one, unencumbered by nationality, ethnicity, politics or religion. But before a film can deliver that wish, it must be unencumbered by stereotype, Muslim or otherwise. Such a film must not react, but instead predict.