Discrimination against Muslims, especially Arab Muslims, is often attributed to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. However, the truth is that Islamophobia goes back centuries before that. From 18th-century oil paintings of scantily clad harem women to modern TV dramas, fiction has a long history of problematic anti-Muslim tropes. As storytellers, we should avoid harmful stereotypes that serve to otherize, demonize, and dehumanize Muslims. That way, we won’t make the world a more dangerous place for real Arab and Muslim people.
Obviously, not all Muslims are Arab.* However, in this article, we cover five stereotypes most commonly seen regarding Arabs and Arab Muslims.
1. The Sheikh Billionaire
The sheikh archetype is a domineering and seductive Arabic man who kidnaps women who must then be rescued. That is, if they don’t fall in love with their abductor (and often rapist). This archetype was probably popularized by the 1921 film The Sheik, a romantic drama featuring a kidnapped white woman.
Since then, the archetype has expanded to include the “oil sheikh” stereotype, portraying Arabic and Muslim men as aggressively sexual, excessively luxurious, filthy rich, and awfully shady. Muslim wealth is presented as decadent and indulgent; luxury is a sign of corruption. The stereotype has not lost its rape-y origins, either. Oil sheikhs are often portrayed as seeking prostitutes or looking to add to their collections of wives or personal harem. Sheikh romance even spawned the term “bodice ripper.”
The oil sheikh is often a monetary tempter of the hero, offering bribes in exchange for nefarious deeds. Sheikhs are also sometimes financiers of terrorism – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. The ignorant sheikh, who is also normally an oil sheikh, is another facet of this trope. They’re greedy, lavish, and self-absorbed, and yet they’re also utterly ignorant of the politics surrounding them. Ignorant sheikhs are framed like giant babies given wallets, a depiction that’s more than a little patronizing.
It’s worth mentioning that the Islamic middle class is rarely present in depictions of the Middle East. When sheikh billionaires are in a story, there are rarely any Arab characters living in between excessive luxury and absolute poverty. Sheikhs seemingly ignore rampant chaos and desolate ruins beyond their castle walls. While this might be to highlight their immoral man-child status, it reflects more on the author for overlooking an entire class of people.
The sheikh billionaire archetype forces well-off Arab men to be one of two things. They’re either dangerous, sleazy predators or out of touch and ineffectual. Needless to say, neither is a good option. Even when they’re framed as love interests, their role in the story is still usually a predatory and abusive one, traits which should not be romanticized.
2. The Belly Dancer
When you think “belly dancer,” what do you imagine? A jewel-encrusted bra, gauzy skirt, bare midriff, come-hither smile? In many movies, no vaguely desert-looking location is complete without a scantily clad belly dancer wiggling across the screen or oscillating seductively in front of the king’s court or some other group of gawkers. The problems with this kind of representation hit on two different levels: cultural appropriation and exotification.
The Arabic name of the belly dance is raqs al-sharqi or raqs sharqi. It’s considered by some scholars to be the oldest dance in the world. Like the salsa or tango, there is a level of salacity to the dance, but it’s most often practiced at social gatherings, such as weddings and other celebrations. It’s normally performed in casual clothing, and in more conservative regions, the dance may even be gender segregated, with the female dancers never seen by male eyes at all.
However, the appropriation of the dance by Western fiction has excessively sexualized everything from the context to the costume, and its treatment has left real practitioners to deal with viewers who refuse to see it as an art form beyond its eroticism. This also promotes the racist stereotype of black and brown women, including Arab women, being more naturally promiscuous or sexually forward. Women of color are facing the backlash created by this sexualization.
In Western fiction, belly dancers are usually depicted as little more than skimpily dressed objects of lust. Often they are closely associated with harems, which, thanks to Orientalism and quite a few lewd old paintings, have become associated with sexual subjugation and naked ladies lounging in suggestive poses. Belly dancers are most often cheap signals to the audience that this story is set in an “oriental” location now. This exotifies Arab women.
Beyond just stories, the belly dance has a long history of appropriation by white dancers on a scale ranging from highly exotified Middle East-themed exhibits at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair to white second-wave feminists attempting to claim the dance to celebrate their sexuality. Today, white dancers even take on Arabic performance names, which critics have compared to donning brownface.
There’s a fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, and whether white performance of the belly dance counts as appropriation can be a contentious subject. However, after over a century of commercializing and whitening, it’s best to err on the side of caution when depicting belly dancer characters. Mass ignorance about the dance affects real dancers struggling to be seen as legitimate in a society that views their dance with an overly sexualized eye. When an entire cultural art form is used as lazy shorthand for “sexy and exotic,” we have some serious problems.
3. The Oppressed Veiled Woman
The belly dancer and the oppressed veiled woman are two sides of the same coin, and they’re often the only archetypes used to represent Muslim women. Veils, according to this stereotype, are objects of fascination, barriers to be broached, and symbols of oppression. Most often, veiled woman characters are silent and identity-less, given no personalities in much the same way as belly dancers. Otherwise, they’re objects of pity, in need of salvation from the cruel ways of their culture.
The latter has particularly nasty impacts on the real world. Women wearing veils such as hijabs* are not only Muslim, but visibly Muslim, which makes them easy targets for hate and harassment. They’re caught in the dangerous intersection of gender, religion, and often race, as well. Hijabs, and other coverings such as niqabs,* are often presented as emblems of the supposedly oppressive nature of Islam. By extension, the hijabi women are framed as victims of their own religion, making them damsels in need of “saving” by heroic intervention. This removes their agency.
The stereotype of veiled Muslim women as tragic victims has also been weaponized to justify war abroad and suppression of greater Islamic culture in the name of women’s liberation. This is done without considering the viewpoint of actual Muslim women and rests on the assumption that, if given the option, Muslim women would unveil immediately. This is simply untrue.* There are many types of veils and many reasons Muslims decide to wear (or not wear) them. Hijabs, and other veils, are commonly seen by their wearers as symbols of faith and personal pride, far from the oppression narrative that has sprung up around them. In fact, to some, the hijab is actually a symbol of resistance, a way of pushing back against a culture set on removing it.
Obviously, the question of veils and coverings is a complicated matter. If storytellers wish to delve into these complexities, they must be willing to put in a large amount of research to do them justice.* For the purposes of casual fiction, however, storytellers should be wary of demonizing veils. That contributes to the real oppression Muslim women face – not from other followers of Islam, but from non-Muslims. In a world where hijab-wearing women are routinely harassed, discriminated against, attacked, and patronized for their choice of clothes, it’s important to normalize the presence of veils. This will help counter misguided Western judgements of Islam and the fetishization of Muslim women’s oppression.
4. The Bomber
The bomber is the quintessential bad Muslim stereotype, and it’s an especially sensitive one in the light of 9/11. Chances are you’ve seen this caricature dressed in a balaclava, wielding a machine gun, and likely either shouting incoherent Arabic or screaming verses from the Quran (commonly “Allahu Akbar”) as they trigger explosives or charge to attack. In fiction, bombers may be assigned to a real-life terrorist group like ISIS or al-Qaeda, or they might operate alone. They are almost always fanatical fundamentalists. In stories, they usually serve as menacing and immoral minions. When they’re not cannon fodder, they must be prevented from completing a terrorist act.
When most people hear the word “terrorist,” this is likely what they imagine. Muslim men are rarely presented in fiction as friends, siblings, or everyday people. The few Muslim characters who are presented in a humanizing light are overshadowed by the sheer number of bomber stereotypes from other stories.
Adding to this, in the real world, attacks committed by Muslims get much more press attention than attacks by people of other demographics. One study found that “attacks by Muslim perpetrators received, on average, 449% more coverage than other attacks.” News about Muslims also tends to be news about terrorism or extremism, and the label “terrorist” itself is generally reserved for Muslims rather than white or Christian domestic terrorists. This is also how you end up with a Congressman claiming that attacks by white terrorists are just different than those by Muslims. Oof.
The overrepresentation of Muslims as bombers, both in fiction and in the news, leads to an overblown conception of Muslim men as violent, untrustworthy, and uncivilized. Because of this, people in the real world easily jump to the conclusion that a terrorist act must have been committed by a Muslim. This has led to undue suspicion, vitriol, and legal enforcement of Islamophobia in the real world. Muslims are targeted more heavily and more frequently than any other group in the name of “counterterrorism,” even when such measures claim to be universal. Fiction should not continue to support and normalize such a disturbing trend.
5. The Patriot Victim
On its face, the patriot victim might sound like good Muslim representation. Often, this stereotype is used to balance out representation of a “bad” or “terrorist” Muslim also present in the story. The patriot victim is usually an innocent target of a hate crime and/or an active part of Team Good, enthusiastically throwing themself into the fight against terrorism. In spite of their patriotism, however, they’re shown in the story to also be targets of Islamophobia: ignorant bigots harass them on the street, TSA frisks them at the airport, or they’re mistaken for dangerous threats. Sometimes, they exist to disprove a main character’s prejudices; patriot victims might outright say “Not all Muslims are like that” or remind the rest of Team Good that bombers are not evil because of the Quran.
These representations are clearly supposed to be positive alternatives to terrorist characters. Writers include patriot victims to condemn Islamophobia and push the audience to sympathize with Muslim struggles, which are both admirable goals. They attempt to paint a more complicated picture than “Muslims are bad.”
However, the patriot victim stereotype is more nuanced than it might seem. Because the main reason they appear is to counterbalance bomber Muslims, this archetype can end up justifying victimization. This is because their oppression is often shrugged off as a fact of life that must be tolerated as long as a security crisis involving unrelated Muslim bombers is at hand. These stories inadvertently send the message that the only way for a Muslim to be “good” is to patriotically uphold an Islamophobic system while nobly suffering because of that same system. This ultimately harms Muslims. The tragic irony, of course, is that Muslims are the very group that patriot victims are intended to humanize!
The binary of “good” Muslim versus “bad” Muslim in which the patriot victim most often appears is yet another example of how mainstream Muslim characters are rarely unrelated to terrorism, whether or not they’re on Team Good. Muslims in stories completely devoid of terrorism remain rare by comparison.
What to Do Instead
As with any kind of sensitive representation, a good place to start when thinking about your Muslim characters is to do research. Much has been written on the subject of Muslim and Arab representation. Furthermore, reading books recommended by Muslims readers and written by Muslim authors about Muslim characters are good indicators of what the Muslim community is looking for in stories featuring Muslims. Arab and Muslim scholars have also extensively documented the bad representation of their cultures in fiction, especially Hollywood. Here are a few good resources with which to start:
- Reel Bad Arabs by Jack Shaheen
- Here are 8 Muslim protagonists you should read about in YA literature by Amani Salahudeen
- Common Muslim and Arab Stereotypes in TV and Film by Nadra Kareem Nittle
- The Radicalization of the Muslim Body and Space in Hollywood by Maheen Haider
- Haqq & Hollywood: Illuminating 100 Years of Muslim Tropes and How to Transform Them by Maytha Alhassen
In addition, the Riz Test, first introduced by Riz Ahmed in a 2017 speech to the House of Commons, poses five questions to story representations of Islam. Is your Muslim character:
- Talking about, the victim of, or the perpetrator of terrorism?
- Presented as irrationally angry?
- Presented as superstitious, culturally backwards, or anti-modern?
- Presented as a threat to a Western way of life?
- If the character is male, is he presented as misogynistic? Or if female, is she presented as oppressed by her male counterparts?
If the answer is yes to any of the above, your character fails the Riz Test, and you may have some rethinking to do.
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