It is difficult to find one religious group that is not stereotyped by the media. Although pop culture tends to be indiscriminate when satirizing religions, it appears as if the American media has been taking aim at Muslims. According to film historian Dr. Jack Shaheen, "Arabs are the most maligned group in Hollywood." With the influx of negative images of Arabs, it is imperative to have the ability to separate stereotype from reality.
Movies and television portray an array of antagonistic characters from varying cultures and religions, including Muslims. What separates the portrayal of Muslims from other groups is the lack of positive Muslim characters represented. Of the very few times a Muslim character is portrayed in the media, he is painted with an evil brush. All too often the Islamic character is a destructive terrorist, and it is nearly impossible to find a Muslim protagonist, or even a nonfringe representation of a Muslim.
Islam on the Small Screen
The emmy-winning television program "24" has Muslim characters committing heinous anti-American violence. Muslims are portrayed as robotic villains so much so that the show's star, Kiefer Sutherland, was forced to issue a public service announcement in 2005. From a creative standpoint, the producers and writers of programs such as "24" have the ability to present both positive and negative cultural representations to a widespread audience. Although television programs serve as entertainment, they also have the responsibility to prevent the spreading of stereotypes.
The Power of Media
It may be nearly impossible to accurately quantify the effect that television has on violent crimes, but there is a correlation between TV violence and real-life violence and desensitization. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, there have been more than 2,000 hate crimes against Muslim Americans. If the average viewer is being force-fed only the most extreme representations of Muslims, they are more apt to eventually believe the stereotypes. Television programs may be fictionalized but they reach a huge audience, thus having a pervasive effect. Producers and writers might benefit from training programs to eliminate false perceptions. The U.S. Department of Justice mandates that many of its public officials complete a training program to promote awareness of the Muslim culture and to eliminate stereotyping.
Balancing the Scales
Calling for only the most positive portrayals of any religion is a futile plea, but the media has the opportunity and privilege to counterbalance every vilified religious character. Eliminating all cultural or religious attributes from a TV show or movie is unrealistic; however, those responsible for the creation of these art forms must be aware of the power they possess, and the possibility that not all of their audience members are always compassionate or responsible enough to understand the nuances of these fictional characters. The media must not overload the audience with negative stereotypes, because this may catalyze violence or hatred.
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