Film and Television

In his comprehensive surveys of Hollywood’s portrayal of Muslims, Jack Shaheen has identified more than 1300 films that date back to the silent cinema era. The majority of the films present a stereotypical imagery that does not account for the complexity of the Muslim world. In most of the works produced prior to the 1970s, Muslims were projected as primitive people living in tents in between sand dunes, or in underdeveloped cities full of dirt and chaos. Backwardness and violence were imagined to be their innate characteristics. Muslim women were often perceived as submissive, covered from top to toe and have no choice but to abide by certain patriarchal rules. At other times, they were viewed within the lenses of sensuality; they were either belly dancing seductively with their semi-naked bodies, or bathing in groups in the harems. In the post-1970s, the majority of the cinema’s works feature a one-dimensional reading of Muslims (including American Muslims) that constantly marks them as the cultural Other by portraying them through the lenses of terrorism.

The following is a selected number of publications that offer an insight into relevant issues of representation both in film and television:

  • Alsultany, Evelyn. Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11. New York: New York University Press, 2012.
  • Bernstein, Matthew, and Gaylyn Studlar, eds. Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997.
  • Hajji, Abdelmajid. Arabs in American Cinema (1894-1930): Flappers Meet Sheikhs in New Movie Genre. United States: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.
  • Khatib, Lina. Filming the Modern Middle East: Politics in the Cinemas of Hollywood and the Arab World. London: I. B. Tauris, 2006.
  • Semmerling, Tim John. ‘Evil’ Arabs in American Popular Film: Orientalist Fear. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.
  • Shaheen, Jack G. Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11. New York: Olive Branch Press, 2008.
  • Shaheen, Jack G. Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. New York: Olive Branch Press, 2001.

For more scholarship, refer to “Arabs in Film and Television: A Bibliography of Materials in the UC Berkeley Library

The following films and television series are carefully selected to reflect a multitude of issues of concern to the American Muslim community. While the question of stereotype is dominant in most of these works, it is critical to pay attention to other layers of meaning that include but are not limited to identity, belonging, geopolitics, and history.

Feature Films

The Message (1977)
The Message is directed by the American Muslim, Moustapha Akkad, who is recognized for producing the Halloween series. It is an epic surrounding the birth of Islam during the 7th century. Akkad invested in this work in an attempt to bridge the gap between the Western and Muslim worlds. Being a Muslim living in the West, he once emphasized, “I felt that it was my obligation my duty to tell the truth about Islam.” The work is celebrated for the depth of its narration.
#WhoAre? #Global 

Malcolm X (1992)
Malcolm X offers a biographical reading of the African American Muslim activist, Malcom X. It provides an insight into the struggle for black liberation during the 1950s and 1960s. Director Spike Lee is careful in capturing the role of Islam in driving Malcom’s passion for agency from prison coercion to empowering leadership. References to Malcolm’s struggle to define his own religiosity between Nation of Islam and the orthodoxy of Sunni Islam offer a nuanced reading into the relationship between religion, power, and identity.
#AfAmExp #WhoAre? #Politics

Paradise Now (2005)
Arab American director Hany Abu-Assad breaks away from Hollywood’s stereotypical projections of terrorism. Rather than subscribing to the industry’s usual conflation of Islam with violence, the film offers a refreshing portrayal of the complexity surrounding the conditions that produce radical thinking. The story is set in Israel, where two Palestinian friends navigate their personal, social, economic, and political circumstances as they contemplate a suicide mission.
#WarOnTerror #Global #Politics

Rendition (2007)
Playing the role of Anwar el-Ibrahimi, a Chicago-based Egyptian American chemical engineer subjected to a CIA-sanctioned rendition program, actor Omar Metwally emerges in this film as a powerful voice mediating to the American audiences a blind spot in the U.S. war on terror. Upon returning from a conference trip to South Africa, Anwar is detained by U.S. officials and renditioned to an undisclosed location in North Africa. Anwar’s family move heaven and earth to locate him in a system classifying the case as confidential. The story somehow resembles that of the Syrian Canadian Maher Arar, a telecommunication engineer fallen victim to “extraordinary rendition” in 2002.
#WarOnTerror #Global #ImmigrantExp #Politics

Traitor (2008)
In Traitor, Samir Horn (Don Cheadle) is a Sudanese American struggling to retain his agency in the U.S. post-9/11 citizen-traitor paradigm, which constantly questions the cultural citizenship of American Muslims. The film presents the possibility of imagining Islam as an inspiring source of patriotism in fighting terrorism. Samir’s multiple identities (Arab, black, Muslim, American) are initially put into question. He, however, emerges as the embodiment of American multiculturalism.
#AfAmExp #WhoAre? #ImmigrantExp #Politics #WarOnTerror #Global

AmericanEast (2007)
Hesham Issawi’s AmericanEast is one the earliest attempts by American Muslim filmmakers to reenact the post-9/11 visibility of the Arab/Muslim American communities. The film’s crew publicized their interest in inspiring other Arab/Muslim American directors and actors in producing works that necessarily subvert their narrowly projected image in mainstream cultural circles.
#WhoAre? #ImmigrantExp #Politics #WarOnTerror

Mooz-lum (2010)
American Muslim director, Qasim Basir, offers a staunch critique of the circumstances surrounding the life of the African American Muslim teenager, Tariq (Evan Ross). The film penetrates Tariq’s world and illustrates the impact of strict religious teachings on his personal growth.
#AfAmExp #WhoAre? #ImmigrantExp

My Name is Khan (2010)
My Name is Khan and I am not a Terrorist has made it possible for the South Asian Muslim diaspora to register a valid critique of the impact of racial profiling on issues of citizenship and allegiance. It gained marketable recognition, especially when the lead actor himself was subjected to TSA’s post-9/11 racially informed scrutiny of Arabs, Muslims, and look-a-likes. The vision offered in this film limits its construction of South Asian subjectivity to Bollywood’s recycled portrayals of the Hindu-Muslim religious tension in India. It promotes interfaith harmony in a context that does not necessarily address the American sociocultural complexity.
#WhoAre? #ImmigrantExp #Politics #WarOnTerror #Global

The Taqwacores (2010)
This film is about the immigrant experience of a Pakistani university student Yusef (Bobby Naderi) with an unconventional American Muslim scene. He roommates with a group of American Muslims embracing the concept of Taqwacore, i.e. Muslim punk rock. Throughout the film, Yusef unsettle his orthodoxical reading of Islam and learns to appreciate the complexity of the Muslim experience in the United States. Taqwacore exists in real in life as a rock subgenre and a musical manifestation of Muslim convert Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel The Taqwacores (2003).
#WhoAre? #ImmigrantExp

The Citizen (2012)
Written and directed by Syrian American Sam Kadi, the film interrogates the life of its lead character Ibrahim (Khaled Nabawy), a Lebanese immigrant forced to contest the U.S. government for his right to American citizenship. The film criticizes U.S. hyper nationalism as a source of anti-Americanism, and reflects the rising demands in the American Muslim community for visual projects that seek to redefine what it means to be an American.
#WhoAre? #ImmigrantExp #Politics #WarOnTerror

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012)
Director Mira Nair offers this adaption of a novel by U.S. educated and British Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid (2007). The film represents the first serious diasporic attempt to emphasize the post-9/11 identity conflation of Middle Easterners, South Asians, and look-a-likes. With production support from the Doha Film Institute, the New York-based Indian filmmaker invites the British Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed to personify the role of a Pakistani American’s exploration of his transnational and postcolonial critique of U.S. hegemony.
#WhoAre? #ImmigrantExp #Politics #WarOnTerror #Global

Documentaries

Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (2006)
In this documentary, Jack Shaheen spreads awareness about the injustice directed against Muslims and American Muslims in Hollywood since the silent cinema era. The work serves as an appropriate educational tool that introduces the students to the various stereotypical images of Islam and Muslims, which have become part of the U.S. cultural memory.
#ImmigrantExp #Politics #WarOnTerror

Talking Through Walls: How the Struggle to Build a Mosque United a Community (2008)
Teaching about Islamophobia is incomplete without introducing students to the hardships American Muslims faced in the post-9/11 context, especially when related to building a mosque in New York suburb, which preceded the “ground zero mosque” controversy. This work delves into the life of Zia Rahman and his struggle to build a place of worship for his community.
#WhoAre? #ImmigrantExp #Politics #WarOnTerror

Journey into America (2009)
This is a must-see documentary for educators interested in teaching about American Islam. Renowned Muslim Scholar Akbar Ahmed tours many cities, communities, and mosques in the United Sates and introduces the audiences to the diversity of the American Muslim experience.
#WhoAre? #ImmigrantExp

Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football (2011)
This documentary takes audiences away from political portrayals of Islam and pays close attention to the lives of an American Muslim high school football team based in Dearborn, Michigan. It provides an important narrative around identity and citizenship in post-9/11 America, and offers an example of how American Muslims negotiate prejudice while maintaining their faith in the American Dream.
#WhoAre? #ImmigrantExp

Television

Little Mosque on the Prairie (2007-2012)
This is a Canadian television sitcom that offers a satirical look into the lives of the Canadian Muslim experience. The series raises many issues that overlap with the post-9/11 Muslim experience in the United States. The humor in the show derives from the interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims, conservative and liberal Islamic views, as well as cultural sensitivity and miscommunication.
#WhoAre? #ImmigrantExp

All American Muslims (2011-2012)
This is a TLC reality television show that captures the daily lives of an American Muslim family in Dearborn, Michigan. The episodes exhibit the family’s particular worldview in relation to certain personal and social issues that range from conducting oneself as a Muslim to reflecting on commonly held misconceptions of Islam. Each character communicates his and her own personality in a framework that pays respect to the individuality of the American Muslim experience. The friendly gesture towards the American Muslim community attracted controversy from conservative groups that called for boycotting commercial sponsorship of the show. The pressure resulted in Lowe's sponsorship withdrawal, which sparked widespread criticism in the social media. TLC did not renew the show for a second season due to low ratings.
#WhoAre? #ImmigrantExp #Politics #WarOnTerror