The Challenge of Representing Muslims in American Film and Television

by Kira Capaldi

The problem of representation in American media is a loaded one in all manner of discourse, from the social and political to the intellectual and artistic. In such an environment, those who work in media are necessarily deliberate in their techniques for including characters of certain backgrounds and identities. In this post, we will focus on the difficulties of including fair (that is to say, well rounded and fully human) portrayals of Muslim characters in popular American films and TV, specifically post 9/11. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, many films and television series included storylines with sympathetic Muslim characters and anti-bigotry messages, such as in one episode of 7th Heaven when the Camden family’s neighborhood overcomes their Islamophobia to welcome their new Muslim neighbors (Asultany, 3). The anti-bigotry plotlines did not last as the sole sympathetic mode of representation, but the effort to include good Muslim characters is something that many American directors, filmmakers, and producers have sustained ever since.

We can see this effort and desire as a step forward toward a more accepting, open-minded society, but we may notice some problematic aspects in these newer, positive representations when we look closer. Furthermore, many of the root causes of these problematic aspects are long established historical and socialized perspectives and priorities that are incredibly difficult to escape from. Yet if they can be identified, they can certainly be overcome.

In Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11, Evelyn Asultany examines the ways in which American creators (from hereon we’ll use creators to refer to those who make fictional films and TV for entertainment purposes) use what she refers to as “simplified complex representations.” This is a “representational mode that has become standard since 9/11” and “seeks to balance a negative representation with a positive one,” (14). On the surface, this allows recourse for creators to defend themselves if accused of vilifying a minority religious and/or racial population.

We should remember that the film and television industries are industries and the main goal is to make money, which means creators prioritize appealing to wide audiences. For example, the anti-bigoty, pro-diversity plotlines immediately following 9/11 were soon joined and mostly overcome by films and television dramas that featured American heroes up against stereotypical Arab and/or Middle Eastern Muslim villains (Alalawi, 58). There was and still is a large audience for such a set up. That said, the progressive efforts of the last six decades have brought us to a place where creators must walk a fine line to appeal to both those who despise PC culture and those who desire more positive representations of minorities (Asultany, 12). Thus, the usefulness of simplified complex representations. Walking a fine identity politics line is perhaps an art that hinders the truly fair portrayals of Muslim characters on American screens.

It may be unclear until further in the paper, but observations of the previous paragraph lead in to our discussion about the implications and fallacies of the simplified complex representations. Asultany regards simplified complex representations as “strategies used by television [or film] producers, writers, and directors to give the impression that the representations they are producing are complex,” (21). However, these impressions, while on the surface may seem complex, “do not effectively challenge the stereotypical representations of Arabs and Muslims,” (27). One of the main reasons for this is that films and shows featuring important Muslim characters almost always deal with terrorism, bigotry or religion as a theme – in some cases, like Degrassi, a hijabi character appears for a single episode and the plot revolves around someone tearing off her hijab. Consequently, Muslim characters are usually positioned in relation to a certain set of topics – good or bad, their roles are still narrow. In addition, the set of topics they are usually positioned in relation to are ones that exaggerate, and therefore strengthen the perception of, otherness and difference.

Asultany breaks down various techniques that creators use to create the impression of complex Muslim characters and explains how they fail to truly be anything more than impressions. She does an excellent job of demonstrating how many techniques and good Muslim typologies (such as the patriot and the innocent victim) reinforce stereotypes and false beliefs concerning race and religion in modern American society. For our purposes, let us note that portrayals of foreign countries continue to be exoticized and generalized, there is a lack of understandable, legitimate motivations behind the actions of “evil” (usually Arab) Muslims, and in contrast, the actions of the U.S. government and people are portrayed as legitimate and justifiable (even when these actions include firing into a crowd as in Rules of Engagement or torture as in 24). When we consider these things and the way that individual Muslim characters are othered in film and television, it strikes us that these representational habits reflect deeply embedded colonial and cultural tendencies that will be difficult to escape from because of their seeming naturalness.

Among these are the tendencies to imagine the existence of a Muslim World and a Western World and to perceive Muslims in racialized ways (connecting Islam with Arab-ness). Popular also is the belief that these imagined worlds necessarily clash, are natural enemies. In The Idea of the Muslim World, Cemil Aydin explores the historical rise of the perceived Muslim World and the suspicion with which it is regarded by many in the West. He connects its rise to the gradual decline of the well-balanced imperial system and the scientific construction of hierarchical divisions concerning race, religion, and culture that began to gain ground in the second half of the 19th century. Aydin writes, “Imperial universalism resisted the logic of racial separation and hierarchy, yet imperial elites became invested in the discourse of innate difference. To do so was not only expedient – difference and solidarity were useful tools in domestic and foreign policy, in securing legitimacy and building alliances – but also in keeping with new liberal values that would sacrifice the old system of empires in the name of humanity and civilization,” (40). For the first half of the 19th century, it was an expectation (albeit one that remained unmet) that empires treat each other and their Muslim and Christian subjects equally (Aydin, 38). It was after the theorization and subsequent identification of presumably innate differences between Muslims and Christians, races, and cultures that the idea of a Muslim World came into being.

We are not going to delve any deeper into the exact historical happenings that lead to the Muslim World forming as a shared fantasy but let us acknowledge that the discourse of innate difference divided. It also operated as a useful tool for the “European colonial project,” which asserted “control over not only material but also symbolic, cultural, and religious resources,” (Chidester, 1855). In a religious studies essay, Colonialism and Postcolonialism, David Chidester reveals how colonizers studied and effected the religious beliefs of the colonized. For the European colonizers “the primary categories of the study of religion – ‘religion’ and ‘religions’ – emerged as potent signs of identity and difference,” (1855).

The potency of these signs wasn’t limited to only religious identity and difference but became associated with racial and cultural identities and differences as well. Thus, being a certain religion or race indicated that one belonged to this or that culture or religion. This is a part of the racialization of Muslims (or of any group, really) and it is an irony that a discourse of division inspired (and inspires) so much generalization of large swathes of people.  The assumption that Muslims from all over the world shared political and cultural values became a scary thought for the British Empire, considering the huge number of Muslims worldwide even at that time. When Muslims attempted to soothe European anxieties about them, the attempts often further “fostered European paranoia about the clash of Islam and the West,” (Aydin, 69). Muslims were seen by many Europeans as being racially and culturally inferior but also incredibly threatening, a force to be reckoned with. They were a threat to the European way of life. The threat they posed was racial and religious but at the core it was cultural.

Modern day American films and television shows unfortunately perpetuate these types of concern, even when the representations of Muslims are meant to be good. In Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses the moral danger of failing to recognize the human (the good, benevolence) and the inhuman (the bad, cruelty) in every person. He writes, “…an ethics of recognition says the other is both human and inhuman, as are we. When we recognize our capacity to do harm, we can reconcile with others who we feel have hurt us,” (73). If we were to apply this to film, we would see that Nguyen is advocating for every character to have full subjectivity. A character with full subjectivity would have a full range of emotion and a full range of motives as well. Furthermore, they wouldn’t be tied to only one aspect of their identity – like, per say, their race or religion.

Scene from Argo.

Nguyen, however, writes this in a chapter of his book in which he criticizes the tendency of films about Vietnam to either deny humanity to the Vietnamese and deny inhumanity to American soldiers or vice versa. For a true way forward to be invited from a film about a conflict, both sides of the conflict must be shown as human and inhuman – full subjects (Nguyen, 73). Many films and television shows that include Muslim characters struggle with this, especially ones that are based on true stories. American films that feature Muslim countries or characters and are based on true stories often disregard important history or contexts around the event portrayed. A good example would be Argo in which a CIA team sneaks into Tehran to rescue six Americans during the 1979 American Hostage Crisis. In reality, the Iranian activists that attacked the U.S. embassy held legitimate grievances against the U.S., but none of these grievances were thoroughly explored in the film. Instead, the activists (and those who support them) in the film seemingly act out of random and unwarranted hatred.

By ignoring the context of this event, the creators of Argo do not portray the rage of the activists as legitimate nor does it question the legitimacy of the American characters’ actions in Iran. When we do not know why a Muslim character does something objectionable it can reinforce the stereotype of them being inherently and unreasonably “violent and extremist” (Alalawi, 59). In films where this happens, the hero is often an American government agent or soldier of some sort and it is patriotic in nature. If the hero does something immoral – tortures a suspect, for example – his action is legitimized and considered necessary.

These straightforward good vs. bad films, in which the good is American and the bad is Islamic, encourage patriotism by invoking the latent assumption of American culture’s superiority over what is generalized as being Muslim culture. This clearly ties back to what we have previously discussed about the concern of an inevitable clash of civilizations in which one of the civilizations is clearly superior to the other, but the other is still a formidable enough threat to be concerning. This is only one obvious example of how perceptions formed in the past continue to influence us today – even if we don’t identify them as historical or socialized influences – and manifest in films and television. Many other examples can be offered, but we will stop at this one.

On an ending note, as Jack G. Shaheen acknowledges with relief, “Hollywood is not a monolithic place; it’s a diverse community with lots of people and politics running in different directions.” Problematic representations of Muslims are not necessarily intentional, especially when they are meant to be good characters. To find a way to represent Muslims fairly, we need to examine how perceptions from and justifications for past actions influence our experience of the present, especially when it comes to people we think of as other, even when they are our fellow human beings. It’s not an easy thing, but it can be done. The positive representations of Muslims in film and television today are flawed, but they are a step forward. We can keep moving.



Alalawi, Noura. “How Does Hollywood Movies Portray Muslims and Arabs After 9/11? ‘Content Analysis of The Kingdom and Rendition Movies.’” Cross-Cultural Communication, Vol. 11, No. 11, 2015. 57-62. 8 March 2018.

Alsultany, Evelyn. Arabs and Muslims in the media: race and representation after 9/11. New York: New York University Press, 2012.

Aydin, Cemil. The idea of the Muslim world: a global intellectual history. Cambridge (Mass.):Harvard University Press, 2017.

Chidester, David “Colonialism and Postcolonialism.” Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 3. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 1853-1860. Gale Virtual Reference Library.

Hero of Argo in a crowd of Iranians. Digital image. Jacked-In. January 14, 2014. Accessed April 27, 2018.

Nguyen, Viet Thanh, and Viet Thanh Nguyen. “On the Inhumanities.” In Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, 71-97. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Shaheen, G. Jack. Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict On Muslims Post 9/11. New York: Olive Branch Press, Dec 28, 2012.

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