The British Media and Muslim Representation: The Ideology of Demonisation

The British Media and Muslim Representation: The Ideology of Demonisation

Abstract: Extracts from a study by the Islamic Human Rights Commission into the representation of Muslims in the media that reflect the intersection of ideas of Palestine and Muslims and Islam in the British media. These particular extracts look at the portrayal of Palestine in some Hollywood movies and suggest that the impact of these types of images and ideas are of huge significance in shaping public opinion against Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims.

By way of explanation…

The following extracts highlight parts of this study that reflect the intersection of ideas of Palestine and Muslims and Islam in the British media. The extracts look at the portrayal of Palestine in some Hollywood movies and suggest that the impact of these types of images and ideas are of huge significance.

The research was published in January 2007 and can be downloaded from the IHRC website:

Hard copies can be purchased from the IHRC website

Extract from Introduction to report…

The specific issue for this research then is to identify the language and discourse relating to Islam and Muslims that is prevalent in television news programmes, literature (both classic and popular) and mainstream cinema films. The reasons these types of media have been selected will be discussed below.

The questions being asked in this study are:

  • How has the Western media generally covered Islam and Muslims?
  • What are the prevailing discourses about Islam and Muslims that can be identified in selected forms of media?
  • What are the concerns about media reporting and why does representation matter?
  • What action can Muslims expect the government to take to remedy any unfairness?

Ultimately, the objective of analysing ‘representation’ is to understand how it can influence public understanding and viewpoints. Through the subtle (and sometimes blatant) propagation of the hegemonic ideological stance, the media can influence and adapt our ideas about one group in society and this in turn can impact on their position through prejudice, discrimination and marginalisation. The ability of powerful groups to ‘represent’ others in certain, stereotypical ways, emphasising their difference, is what Hall (1997) defines as symbolic power – the power to mark, assign and classify. By not employing older forms of vulgar, biological racist discourses, the ‘new’ racisms are more insidious in their nature, depicting minorities as inferior through their ‘differences’ – ‘they’ are different because they have a different culture and different values from ‘us’ (Mistry, 1999).

These ‘common sense’ notions about race and minority groups are gradually normalised and the media continues to reinforce them by confining debate to a set of narrow thematic structures. In talking about the ‘discursive reproduction of racism’, van Dijk (2000) observes that, “the beliefs and ‘social representation’many members of the dominant (white) in-group have about immigrants and minorities are largely derived from discourse. That is, discourse as a social practice of racism is at the same time the main source of people’s racist beliefs” (p. 36). Thus the necessity to understand representations as reflecting dominant ideologies is the rationale for this research and it is by analysing the way people see Islam and Muslims throughthe media that we can begin to understand one of the factors potentially contributing to social discrimination and disadvantage amongst Muslim minorities.


From THE BIG SCREEN – Muslim representation in cinema

Pp35 – 41

This section looks at the role of cinema in representations of Islam, Muslims and Arabs by examining a selection of films.

Whilst news media can be clearly identified as representing ‘reality’, the big screen occupies a more ambiguous position as source of ‘truth’. Film and cinema is a great source of cultural awareness and information but whilst it is mainly, and quite obviously, fictional, the impact of film discourse cannot be underestimated. This is particularly the case when storylines and genres relate to actual events or are set in frameworks of understanding that have relevance to real life. So for example, when films refer to actual events or engage in existing political debates, their role as social and cultural critic begins to develop.

For this analysis, a range of film genres were examined, including action thrillers (The Siege: 1998, Executive Decision: 1996), drama (House of Sand and Fog: 2003, East is East: 1999) and children’s cartoons (Aladdin: 1992), and the representation of Islam, Muslims and Arabs. It was evident from all genres that they contained negative stereotypes about Islam and Muslims/ Arabs. The thrust of these differed as did the actual manifestation, nevertheless, they all exhibited examples of Islamophobic discourses. Thus a broad spectrum including Hollywood action blockbusters, cartoons and British artistic movies are all means through which either crude or exaggerated stereotypes are reinforced or otherwise more subtle disdain of Islam is obtained.

Cinematic Islamophobia

The action movie genre is more overtly – and perhaps more easily – able to focus on topics such as threat, violence, fear and terrorism and this was the case in both The Siege (1998) and Executive Decision (1994). Here, there is greater opportunity to represent conflict, tension, physical combat and so on and there appeared to be less need to use subtle discourses and references. Both of these films were criticised by the Muslim community for the stereotypical ‘clash of civilisations’ theory and negative portrayal of Islam and Muslims / Arabs depicting them as the enemy. This enemy constituted not only a foreign threat but was also illustrated as the ‘enemy within’ – Arab American citizens. In the case of less apparent Islamophobia in films, whilst they may appear innocent or harmless, they may in fact have a more detrimental effect on people’s perceptions of Islam and Muslims because they function to reinforce ‘acceptable’ prejudice of another religion or culture (Hall, 1993).

Film: The Siege

Year: 1998

Genre: Action

Director: Zwick, Edward

Screenwriter: Lawrence Wright

Main Actors: Tony Shalboub, Annette Bening, Denzel Washington and Bruce Willis

Brief Summary: As a response to an Islamic religious leader’s abduction by the US military, New York City experiences an increase in terrorist attacks. Anthony Hubbard, the head of the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Task Force teams up with CIA operative Elise Kraft to hunt for those responsible for the attacks, only to find that Elise’s partner, the last terrorist cell, is planning to suicide bomb a protest demanding equality for Arabs. Meanwhile, when the President declares martial law, General William Devereaux arrests Arab-American males, imprisons them in an open air stadium and makes plans to torture and kill them.

Main Characters

Denzel Washington – Anthony ‘Hub’ Hubbard

Annette Bening – Elise Kraft/Sharon Bridger

Bruce Willis – Major General William Devereaux

Tony Shalhoub – Agent Frank Haddad

The Siege, as its title suggests, centres on the ‘invasion’ of New York City by Palestinian terrorists. Released three years prior to the bombing of the twin towers, the film sets out an expectation of Muslim perpetrated terrorism on the streets of New York. The terrorists randomly target innocent New Yorkers, on buses, in schools, on the street, in order to cause mayhem and strike fear in the hearts of the public and administration alike, and are all human / suicide bombers. Set as this was at a time when no human / suicide bombings had been perpetrated in a Western country, the impact of this representation is important in quelling suggestions that Islamophobic or prejudicial representation of Muslims as terrorists and potential suicide bombers is a ‘natural’ result of atrocities like the Madrid and London bombings, and one that negates the rights of Muslims to complain.

In the film, Arab immigrants as well as Arab Americans are shown to be amongst the network of cells of terrorists, implying that the threat is global but with ‘home’ links. This kind of theme has profound implications for the status and position of Arab American citizens in the eyes of their fellow Americans as well as having an impact on the way Muslims and Arabs worldwide are viewed. The overseas element of the network – Palestine – is not portrayed in its fuller context, though mention is made of ‘tensions’ in the ‘Middle East’ and Iraq is referred to on several occasions.

The close relationship between reality and film stories (Andrew, 1984) is apparent in The Siege on a number of occasions. Use of stock (real life) footage of burning buildings and responses from the White House are intertwined with the story, so whilst showing a real fire in Lebanon, we are told that ‘terrorists’ attacked a US army barracks. Also when referring to another attack in the film, news reporters tell us that ‘this is the worst attack on US soil since the Oklahoma City bomb’ – blurring fiction with factual incidents that had a very particular impact on the USA.

This is perhaps one of the greatest concerns for such movies as they portray everyday scenes familiar to audiences – New York sidewalks, neighbourhoods, the skyline, taxis, Broadway, etc – and then transpose upon them potential terrorist attacks, untrustworthy Arabs, dangerous foreign immigrants and so on. The film brings into focus some of the worst American fears, that is, Muslims or Arabs attacking the country; murdering men, women and children; causing wanton destruction; wreaking havoc to the peaceful and systematic lives of citizens; and, ‘attacking our way of life’ (as a US chief of staff is quoted as saying in the film). Demonisation in this film has clearly preceded real life events, but key elements make the film’s representation even more alarming.

Apart from the monolithic stereotype of the Arab/Palestinian/Muslim being violent and ready to be martyred for their cause (a ‘cause’ which is never given any context and seems puzzling to the average American), a considerable number of other stereotypes about the Muslim/Arab culture and religion were presented in the film. Muslim men are shown praying in a mosque, a call to prayer is made from a New York mosque minaret, recitation of the Quran or prayers are said in Arabic and one of the ‘mastermind’ terrorists is shown using a rosary. All of these scenes are dotted about in the film between acts of violence, bombs exploding and indiscriminate killing, and more often than not they have no direct connection to the overall storyline. Thus Islamic ritual practices are shown in close succession with scenes of unacceptable behaviour and locate Muslims in the broader context of violence, disloyalty and untrustworthiness implying that terrorist acts are intrinsic to Islamic belief and practice.

Controversy before the film was released centred on the movie trailer aired in cinemas, where the inter-cutting of Islamic ritual and terroristic violence featured heavily. The film’s star Denzel Washington also came out to criticise the trailer in that it ‘misrepresented’ what the film was talking about. Supporters of the film suggested that it intended (with some justification) to relate the possibilities of military extremism (internment, torture and murder of suspects etc.) on American soil in the face of a terrorist threat which would ultimately negate the civil liberties that ‘America stands for’. Much mention is made in the film of American complicity in setting up and assisting ‘extremist’ groups in the Middle East – a concern that has featured in the writings of many (American) left-wing writers e.g. Noam Chomsky, and which is an unusual source for the Hollywood mainstream. Indeed one of the main characters ‘Sharon’ becomes involved in the investigation as a way of expiating her guilt in this process of ‘teaching’ cells in the Middle East, the tricks of the trade. She also tries to help investigators differentiate between ‘good’ Muslims / Arabs – those who may be politically militant but are ultimately secularised and pose no terrorist threat e.g. her boyfriend, a Palestinian lecturer who holds and passes key information on ‘extremists’ to the authorities.

The argument that this film is a rallying cry for societal unity in the face of dual threats of military extremism and international Islamist terrorism is strengthened both by the subtle but essentially unsympathetic portrayal of General Devereaux (Bruce Willis) whose implication in the abduction of an Arab cleric who is also a militant leader, spurs the chain of events that lead his supporters to commit acts of terrorism in the USA. Devereaux not only denies the abduction and is seen to have the cleric in custody, he also manipulates the acts of terrorism to have military law imposed on New York. He is shown as a torturer, and ultimately, murderer who justifies his actions on the extremes of the situation. He is eventually seen to be arrested by Hub (Washington) and military law lifted.

The end of the film depicts Muslims / Arabs and non-Muslims walking off into the distance as one community, once military law is lifted, and follows a long denouement which involves the uncovering of the final terrorist plot to blow up a civil rights rally of Muslims and non-Muslims protesting at internment. The films heroes Hub and Sharon uncover this plot and are assisted by Sharon’s boyfriend who states he will help them find the last bomber about whom he has information and will even help to mediate between him and them in an attempt to avert the tragedy. This ‘differentiation’ between good and bad Muslim, secular and Islamic, educated and rural, activist and terrorist is the enduring narrative and reinforces an ethnocentric discourse of us and them as well as defining the level of accessibility of what constitutes a good Muslim / Arab American. This is itself is unsubtle, stereotypical and demonising and implies that religiosity and anything more than a cultural or formalistic attachment to specifically the Islamic faith is dangerous and subversive to ‘American’ values, reemphasising the theories of domination – Islam is backward, illiberal and dangerous and so by dint, confessing Muslims must be so too.

Beyond this however is a further act of demonisation that undermines the film’s claims to set out a broadly liberal stall, and that is the betrayal of Samir, Sharon’s boyfriend, the secular Palestinian activist and informant. Creating a diversion where Hub gets lost he takes Sharon to an empty Turkish baths where Sharon is expecting a meeting with the final suicide bomber. As her boyfriend starts taking ritual ablution, Sharon realises to her horror that her boyfriend is in fact the last bomber and that all along he has been using her. His invective at this point imbues all the lack of sophistication of a Bond villain monologue, where he announces his enmity to the USA based on their betrayal of the cause they helped fund and create (implicitly a vague pan-Palestinian, Iraqi Islamic militancy). In his eyes the final insult was the kidnapping of a cleric ‘a holy man’ as he states, a crime for which innocent Americans must pay. Hub is able to locate the pair and due to Sharon’s heroism and self-sacrifice the bombing is stopped (Sharon is killed in the process). Effectively even a ‘good’ Muslim in this context could well be a ‘religious, irrational, terrorist’ in disguise, and this final scene exemplifies all that is bad about the Muslim / Arab – he is promiscuous, treacherous, untrustworthy, violent, cold-blooded, has contempt for his victims, ruthless and yet willing to give his own life. Ultimately Samir’s secular anger at America hitherto represented as acceptable dissent was a signifier of potential danger. As the only voice of dissent that was not initially represented as terroristic, his ultimate portrayal undermines the plurality of voices in the film.

Sharon’s complexity, education and loyalty are posited in sharp contrast to another easily identifiable cultural stereotype i.e. the veiled women who permeate the film as wives of key characters devoid of any character or background figures that form part of the landscape of an Arabised Brooklyn. There is some ambiguous suggestion at the end of the film that Sharon may herself have been a secret Muslim, as Hub attempts to give her the last rites as she lies dying, the last words she says as he dies are in Arabic and refer to ‘Allah’. Yet again, however this posits Sharon in the role of (possible) ‘good’ Muslim – one who is not only unveiled but scantily clad, appears in a nude scene, is in an extramarital relationship and is ultimately ready to sacrifice herself for America against a(nother) Muslim. The film is replete with characters that portray ‘Muslim citizenship’ in a western context as conditional upon ‘extra’ and unquestioning loyalty to the state, even when that state is supposed to imbue the value of dissent and pluralism. This is a concern that is mirrored in the real life understandings of Muslims as regards public discourse on Muslims and citizenship (Ameli et al 2004a, 2004b, and 2006b) and its prevalence in fictional representation cannot be underestimated.

Other stereotypes include men with beards, men wearing Arab dress, food shops and stalls and Arabic posters were all depicted in a Brooklyn neighbourhood. Arabic is spoken on several occasions and Arab music also plays in the background in several scenes. At one point when martial law is declared in Brooklyn (an odd notion in itself but perhaps not considered impossible by some members of the audience) all Arab and Middle Eastern men are rounded up and interned in a sports stadium. Here many are shown as having dark complexions, often unshaven, wearing traditional Arab hats and clothes and wandering around in groups. As Said (1996) states, the Arab is often shown in a mass – nameless, faceless, stripped of any individuality that would enable the viewer to make that human connection with him as a person with experiences similar to anyone else. Similarly the female members of the families of these men are shown as crowds waiting for the release of their fathers, brothers or sons.

To gain a better understanding of the international context that the film is trying to portray, it is useful to simply list all the countries mentioned and ‘implicated’ in the network of nations bent on organising terror against the USA. Palestine (the Intifada), Israel, Iraq (Gulf War), Lebanon (Beirut), Saudi Arabia, ‘The Middle East’, Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and somewhat surprisingly Russia and Haiti. The terrorists are mentioned as having already attacked Israel, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia before moving on to the USA. The spectre of foreign terrorism is described as coming to US soil – a fear which no doubt exists in the minds of American people in reality. “Beirut came to Brooklyn today” quips one of the newsreaders as scenes of a blown up bus are shown on news reports across the country. Furthermore the threat of ‘foreign’ terrorism is played out in two ways – immigration and Arab Americans. The former is referred to through references to INS, immigration control, unknown numbers of Arabs and people from the Middle East entering the USA and the usual ‘we are being swamped’ scenarios which are not unfamiliar in the UK. More worrying is the implication that the latter, Arab American citizens, are too part of this conspiracy to bring the country to its knees, simply by virtue of their inherent ‘otherness’. Again this is not an unfamiliar trope used against Muslims in Britain or the West in general. Regardless of legal status and citizenship, and perhaps having lived in the country for over half a century, the otherness of Muslims is still evident. From Brooklyn car mechanics to college lecturers and all Arab immigrants, the monolithic portrayal of Arabs as terrorists vilified a whole culture and people, adding to the already existing negativity and hostility faced by Muslims.

Arab and Islam as a symbol of violence

Film: Executive Decision

Year: 1996

Genre: Action/ Thriller

Director: Baird, Stuart

Screenwriter: Thomas, Jim & Thomas, John

Main Actors:

Kurt Russell

Steven Seagal

Halle Berry

Brief Summary: When a Boeing 747 is hijacked by terrorists, an American intelligence expert believes that their plan is to launch a nerve gas attack on Washington DC rather than air piracy. The US government, ignoring the agent’s nerve gas theory is left with two choices; to shoot down the plan killing all 400 passengers or to let it land. However Colonel Travis and his counter terrorism team decide to board the plane using a special aircraft to save the day.

Main Characters

Kurt Russell – Dr. Phil. David Grant

Steven Seagal – Lt. Colonel Austin Travis

Halle Berry – Jean, Flight Attendant

Similarly in Executive Decision the audience is confronted with yet another set of Palestinian terrorists. Having hijacked a Boeing 747, they proceed to beat and kill innocent people, including an air hostess and a US senator (who was about to enter into negotiations for them), en-route to blowing up Washington, DC and the Eastern Seaboard of the USA with barrels of a nerve gas (DZ-5). In the opening scene, US soldiers raid a house where the DZ-5 is thought to have been kept after having been stolen by Chechens. Later, a well-known terrorist, Jaffa El-Sayed, is hijacked and then handed to the US so that he can be used as a bargaining chip by his own second in command, Nagi Hassan, played by David Suchet.

Nagi, sporting an Arab accent, on several occasions prays or makes reference to Allah or Islam, even saying Allahu Akbar with his last breath as he is shot dead aboard the plane. His conversation with Jaffa captures some of the most inaccurate and damaging associations made with Islam and Muslims:

“Rejoice in your freedom, Allah has blessed us. A great destiny awaits us both, All of Islam will embrace you as its leader. I am your flame, The sword of Allah, And with it I will strike deep into the heart of the infidel”.

On hearing of Jaffa’s release the other hijackers cheer – shouting Allahu Akbar as they think their mission has been successful, unaware that Nagi’s grand plan is to blow up the USA and not secure the release of Jaffa. When Nagi’s co-hijacker asks Nagi why they are not rerouting to Algeria as was the original plan, he continues:

“Allah has chosen for us a task greater than Jaffa’s freedom. We are the true soldiers of Islam. Our destiny is to deliver the vengeance of Allah into the belly of the infidel”.

His comrade responds, “This is not Allah’s will” and is swiftly shot dead for expressing his descent and daring to undermine the grand plan. The others are subdued and return to their positions.

Similar to The Siege, Executive Decision, plays on the worst fears of Americans (and indeed other Westerners to a degree) about suicide bombers, hatred towards the USA (though this is always presented as a jealously or unfounded hatred rather than contextualised in the wider debates of global politics), about a potential terrorist lurking in every Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim looking person, and the incompatibility of Islamic and Western values and cultures. The terrorists in both films show a blatant disregard for innocent lives, not flinching whilst killing men, women, children, elderly or vulnerable people – indeed this is one of the most malicious and virulent stereotypes of Muslims (Shaheen, 2003). The terrorists in both films are shown as partaking in religious rituals, particularly reciting prayers and reading or referring to the Quran – even erroneously defending their actions by it. In the case of Nagi, he makes a point of praying/reciting before and after killing someone. Therefore equating Islamic practices with acts of terrorism, indeed almost defining ‘terrorism’ as an Islamic ritual is evident. This is indeed a false and dangerous assumption. Further fear and hostility towards the Middle East and Muslims is emphasised by referring to a number of countries including Palestine, Iraq, Chechnya, Algeria and also the Gulf War.

Various commentators have expressed concern that Hollywood villains are frequently turning out to be Palestinians (see Shaheen, 2003). No real context is presented to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the generally negative views towards Arabs and Islam in the USA are further reinforced through cinematic propaganda. Shaheen (2003) notes that this is especially the case when producers have a ‘political agenda’ and when many of the films are ‘made-in-Israel’. “Dictating numerous Palestinian-as-terrorist scenarios is the Israeli connection. More than half (28) of the Palestinian movies were filmed in Israel. Nearly all of the made-in-Israel films, especially the Cannon movies, display violent, sex-crazed Palestinian ‘bastards and animals’ contesting Westerners, Israelis and fellow Arabs. I believe Cannon’s poisonous scenarios are not accidental, but rather propaganda disguised as entertainment” (p 27).

It is important therefore to stress the potential that films have of propagating particular ideological discourses and representing political ideas to mass audiences. The power of the big screen is not just exercised to audiences in the USA, indeed one of the biggest exports of the country is perhaps Hollywood ‘entertainment’. The question that is asked time and again is whether such disparaging ideas would be acceptable of any other ethnic or religious group.


From pp46-47

Hollywood’s’ influence cannot be underestimated. After the initial screening at the cinema, these films are reproduced in various forms and circulate around the globe, reaching worldwide audiences in more than 100 countries. As Shaheen (2003) notes, “Islam, particularly, comes in for unjust treatment. Today’s image-makers regularly link the Islamic faith with male supremacy, holy war and acts of terror, depicting Arab Muslims as hostile alien intruders, and as lecherous, oily sheikhs intent on using nuclear weapons. When mosques are displayed on screen, the camera inevitably cuts to Arabs praying, and then gunning down civilians. Such scenarios are common fare.” (p9). It would seem that nothing has changed since Said (1981) described prevalent images of Arabs in almost the same words.

Similar to television news images and representations of Muslims and Islam, Shaheen (2003) is in no doubt that the caricatures of the Arab in film have a considerable affect on all people, even influencing world public opinion and policy. “Not only do violent news images of extremists reinforce and exacerbate already prevalent stereotypes, but they serve as both a source and an excuse for continued Arab-bashing by those filmmakers eager to exploit the issue… Taken together, news and movie images wrench the truth out of shape to influence billions of people and regrettably, gross misperceptions abound” (p 29).

With the resurgence of cinema in the 1990s, cinematic representation is of great importance in its impact on social psyche(s). The films discussed predate the terrorist attacks on America, Madrid and London, and if anything set up the expectation of such events many years in advance. They also emphasise, or arguably, cultivated, specific prejudices which have found open expression both in ‘factual’ media discourse and societal events (backlash violence and discrimination etc.) Muslim respondents in this project found a direct correlation between media portrayal and their social experiences of exclusion, hatred, discrimination and violence. Perhaps the most significant finding of the effect of the media, as perceived by Muslims, on the structural experience of Islamophobia by Muslims came from responses regarding education (see Ameli et al, 2005). Muslim school children, who had recounted in some detail the effects of alienation they felt from peers, teachers and a sense of marginalisation (not just by open hostility but through subtle means such as marginalisation from the curriculum and unintentional though prevalent Islamophobia) stated that they expected the government to tackle the media. This response was almost universal and came in the context of the question, what do they expect from the British government to make their school life better?

Effectively then, what the public understand about Muslims in general and British Muslims in particular is understood to deeply related to ‘British Muslim representation’ not only in the media but also in the whole social systems of the West. Representation is not only about perception, the position of the reader and audience is very critical. That is why non-British Muslims and British Muslims do not have a similar understanding of Muslim representation in the media (Hill, 1981, Fregoso, 1993 and Hall, 1997).

Extracts from the report The British Media and Muslim Representation: The Ideology of Demonisation by Saied R. Ameli, Syed Mohammed Marandi, Sameera Ahmed, Seyfeddin Kara and Arzu Merali

Publication date: 26th January 2007, ISBN 978-1-903718-31-5 (ISBN-10: 1-903718-31-7), £8.50 (incl p&p), pp 117

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