Media Portrayals of Religion: Islam
The American-led ‘War on Terrorism’ led to an increase in Islamophobia (fear or hatred of Islam) across the globe. This increase in Islamophobia was in turn reflected in the way media outlets addressed and stereotyped Muslim populations. While some deliberately framed Islamic coverage positively in an attempt to counter Islamophobia, many of the portrayals of Muslims contributed to the formation of harmful Islamic media stereotypes .
The most prevalent Islamic stereotype is the radical Muslim insurgent, bent on waging jihad, or holy war, against the West. This stereotype usually represents violence as an inseparable part of being Muslim, as well as religion as justification for violent actions.
An example of this kind of stereotype can be seen in the character of Sayid Jarrah on ABC’s Lost. Jarrah, the only Muslim central character on the show, used to work for the Iraqi Republican Guard and is frequently shown using torture to extract information from prisoners. Care is taken to show that Jarrah is now a member of an anti-terrorism squad (and is thus not a terrorist himself), but his actions are repeatedly portrayed as inherently violent. For example, Jarrah uses torture to extract information from his fellow castaways during times of social conflict. These violent themes are re-asserted throughout the show’s six seasons, and Jarrah’s experiences are frequently framed in the context of his personal struggle between choosing violence and non-violence. Another example of the ‘radical Muslim’ stereotype can be seen in Canadian media coverage of the Toronto 18 terrorism case. After 18 men were arrested in connection with alleged terrorist activities, media reports were uniform in portraying the same themes: terrorism was a real threat, young Canadians were being converted into Islamic radicals via mosques and the Internet, and Canada’s police force had only barely averted a deadly terrorist attack .
Another Islamic media stereotype involves portrayals of Muslim women. Western Muslim women are often presented either as passive victims of male power imposed upon them, or as strong feminists who oppose this power by fighting it from a disadvantaged position. Media sometimes criticizes Islam for marginalizing women and for providing a disproportionate amount of power to men . Acceptance of Islam is equated with women giving up equality and women’s rights are represented as being incompatible with freedom of religion . As a result of these portrayals, the most common words used to describe Muslim women by journalists and politicians are ‘segregated’, ‘beaten’, ‘insults’, ‘veil’, ‘freedom’, ‘religion’, ‘hatred’, ‘human rights’ and ‘extremism’ . In crime dramas such as CSI or Criminal Minds, Muslim women are almost always represented as victims of male domestic violence; women’s appearances in police films or television shows are often cut short by a male who asserts that he is in charge .
In truth, while some Muslim women choose to observe traditional patriarchal hierarchies, many others selectively apply these teachings and live completely independently. The stereotype that assumes the marginalization of Muslim women neglects to consider the diversity of female Muslim experiences and places Western ideals of gender and power upon a non-Western religion.
Balanced representations of Islam do exist. Little Mosque on the Prairie’s portrayal of Islam, focused on a Muslim community in Saskatchewan, has received uniform praise from critics and has helped to dispel some of the common stereotypes facing the Islamic community. Another positive representation of Islam can be seen in the X-Men character Dust, a strong Muslim woman who practices Islam while fighting alongside her fellow X-Men.
Finally, since media representation of Islam has changed drastically within the past decade, it is necessary to see how these representations have shaped public opinion of Islam. While only a minority of children have been found to hold prejudiced or racist views regarding Islam, a majority perceive Muslims to be foreign and alien, fuelling the notion that Islam is a threat to Western culture and that Muslims are different from what members of Western society ‘should’ be .
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