By Jonathan Walsh
By Jonathan Walsh
Rabat – Last month, during his visit to a Baltimore mosque, United States President Barack Obama spoke about many issues concerning Islam and modern Western society. Perhaps his most interesting words were relating to the portrayal of Muslim characters in TV or film.
“Our television shows should have some Muslim characters that that are unrelated to national security; it’s not that hard to do,” he said.
“Most Americans don’t necessarily know — or at least don’t know that they know — a Muslim personally,” Obama said. “And as a result, many only hear about Muslims and Islam from the news after an act of terrorism, or in distorted media portrayals in TV or film, all of which gives this hugely distorted impression.”
As an Englishman living in an Islamic country, I have to wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. The media I was exposed to would, most of the time, present Islamic characters as being violent people who want our white, Western protagonist dead.
Of course, I think most people are capable of separating these racist stereotypes from reality. After all, it’s an incredibly straightforward choice for writers to have their antagonist as a Muslim, right? It simply reinforces the message spread on news sources, and plays on the very real fears that a lot of people have in the West nowadays because of terrorist groups like the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). This is, as Obama pointed out, incredibly lazy writing. There are other ways to present members of a religion that comprises 20 percent of the world’s population? Surely something else is happening in the lives of Muslims?
The issue is that these portrayals have a very real impact on the mindsets of the masses and how they treat people from Islamic backgrounds – we can see this everywhere. In 2014, for instance, a plane was delayed for two hours in England after a group of students saw a fellow passenger writing in what “appeared to be Arabic script”. In this situation, seeing the writing on a plane was enough to cause one of the young men to panic.
This was also something that struck me when I first visited Morocco. I couldn’t remember being shown Arabic in a context that wasn’t related to terrorism. It’s a strange situation, but even though I could identify it as being ridiculous, the negative media representations subconsciously build these racist connotations.
In 2003, Jack Sheehan wrote in his book ‘Reel Bad Arabs’ about the role of Muslims in many different media sources as a whole have the power to change people’s mindsets.
“Taken together, news and movie images wrench the truth out of shape,” he wrote, “to influence billions of people and regrettably, gross misperceptions abound.”
There is hope, though. Obama was quick to point out that lazy stereotypes in TV or film have always existed, and that things can develop.
“There was a time when there were no black people on television,” he said. “And you can tell good stories while still representing the reality of our communities.”
Over time, with pressures from communities and governments, television executives and film producers made changes to this. Now, though some issues remain, the situation is relatively much better in terms of black characters in film and TV.
These people hold a massive social responsibility to represent people of all backgrounds in a fair and balanced way, especially given the current pressures Islamic communities are under to prove themselves as anything other than evil. More needs to be done.
The real-world impacts are simply too high to ignore. It is false to insist that negative portrayals have no impact outside of cinema. People carry these prejudices with them and project them on innocent people based only on their Islamic faith.
© Morocco World News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten or redistributed without permission
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial policy