Storytelling

Five Arab and Muslim Stereotypes to Avoid

Originally Aladdin's opening song included the line: "Oh, I come from a land/From a faraway place/Where the caravan camels roam/Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face/It’s barbaric, but hey, it's home."

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

Taken features a sheikh billionaire buying the main character’s daughter.

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

In Danny Phantom, antagonist Desiree even has a backstory as a harem girl.

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

Homeland: Contentious for a reason. Does the implication here even need to be spelled out?

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

Iron Man’s backstory was actually changed post-9/11 to include al-Qaeda.

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

24 also features a number of Muslim bomber clichés.

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

Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel, is a step forward in Muslim representation.

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:

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:

  1. Talking about, the victim of, or the perpetrator of terrorism?
  2. Presented as irrationally angry?
  3. Presented as superstitious, culturally backwards, or anti-modern?
  4. Presented as a threat to a Western way of life?
  5. 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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Comments

  1. Uly

    Just a note – not only are most Muslims NOT Arab, but not all Arabs are Muslim.

    • Cay Reet

      Indeed. The Islam is far more wide-spread in the Far East (Eastern Asia) than in the Middle or Near East. On the other hand, Christianity is spread very widely in Africa, including the Arabian areas of the northern part.

      • Tony

        Eastern Christianity is also widespread in the Levant and Iraq.

        On the other hand, a lot of those Christians may identify not as Arab, but as Syriac, Coptic, etc.–especially because these groups are often culturally distinct minorities that face discrimination.

        • Star of Hope

          Middle Eastern Christians(Coptics,Assyrans,Armenians,Syriac Christians e.t.c) are amongst the most persecuted people on Earth, they have it rough.

          Also many of them are if distinct cultures as Tony mentioned, which also adds other problems for them.

          Really the Middle East needs also to change,more progressive in its society, but with Middle Eastern touch on it, so no one can accuse the west of corrupting them, a common argument of Conservatives living there and few progressives.

  2. Star of Hope

    Not an Arab, but as someone from Near Eastern descant, I can say that many of these examples can be used to demonise non-arabs and non-muslims as well.
    Nr.1 is often just an rapist or someone who wants to “steal” the “White” Women(as if they have no mind of their own) from the “White” Males and as such creates an Xenophobic fear that fuels the White Genocide(the idea that “non-whites” want to outbreed “White” people in their own countries and the world for that matter) narrative, but also forces them to be rivals which is also bigoted towards men and women. It’s just disgusting and prevents any form of close relationship or any meaningful interaction with one another.
    Nr.2 Can be very sexist and belittling to our intelligence. For instance I can see no warrior for being so stupid to be defeated by Women wearing skimpy outfits. If you really want them to be there, try to make it clear that this is in a confined space and don’t over-exaggerate it. Personally I am not so friendly to this trope due to it’s sexuakized nature.
    Nr.4 Is just the worst stereotype, but there is an older cousin I call the Oriental Empire, a foreign Middle Eastern Kingdom(Acheamenid Persia,the Islamic Caliphates, the Ottoman Empire e.t.c) threatening and conquering all of Europe and then being somehow always of larger armies and being less advanced for some reason as well as being uniquely oppressive towards anything really. You can just fix it by making it as complex and multifaceted as possible or just reverse it and have them defend their country from Western invaders for once. You can break a lot of conversions with this one, it’s quite easy.
    Nr.5 is perhaps the most realistic problem and very condescending as I had to constantly be quiet about it, just to not cause a fuss. I sometimes hate myself for it. You could deconstruct this narrative and have the Hero of colour speak against his or her treatment.

    • SunlessNick

      There was a miniseries a while back called The Grid, which featured a Muslim CIA agent whose resentment at the extra evaluation tests he got was portrayed sympathetically. (It also featured Muslim authorities in Muslim countries taking part in combatting terrorism, which I’m not sure I’ve seen anywhere else).

      There was also a young Londoner who’d learned a cell using his mosque to meet in, and ended up risking his life as an informant. But he wasn’t just a good Muslim as defined by fighting for the West – the cell had radicalised, used, and murdered his brother, so he got to be personally invested in fightng them for reasons that aren’t limited to the interests of white people.

      There was an evil oil sheikh, though.

    • Tony

      The stereotypical evil Middle Eastern (or Middle Eastern-inspired) empire also incorporates a number of the stereotypes mentioned above.

      The leader of such a country tends to tick a lot of the same boxes as the oil sheikh. He’s usually decadent and extravagant. Often, either he’s a cruel tyrant himself, or (in the case of someone like the sultan from Aladdin) he’s the naïve, pampered puppet of his shady courtiers. Also expect to see a harem full of belly dancers somewhere in the guy’s palace.

      I’ve also noticed that a lot of male Middle Eastern villains are stereotyped as either bearded, chauvinistic brutes or swishy, slinky schemers.

      • Star of Hope

        Is the show Grid on Netflix? I might watch it.

        You have forgotten the 3 biggest parts in this: They are followers of an evil god,they all want to rape all Western Women for some reason and are all characterised as Lazy,weak, yet somehow an threat and somehow strong enough to destroy society. Oh and a bonus, they are all an warrior culture, even the Caliphate of Cordoba and the small Taifas, because Europeans are never cruel, it cannot be!!! The bonus is just an double standart and handled in one article of this site, how was it called? Five signs your story is racist? Yes, it was that article.

        There are a lot of villians who are chauvisnitc brutes, swishy slinky schemes and bearded, but the Male Middle easterners have little variety in this as opposed to western or Japanese villians.
        There is a reason why I consider Al Mualim the best villian of the AC franchise. He is though and skilled,but also deeply complex, but he uses schemes as well and executes them well and despite that, he was the biggest influence of our Protagonist’s ideals, who influenced countless Assassins afterwards. You can play with these tropes and break them.

        • Tony

          The example I was thinking of was Calormen from the Narnia books, but it’s sad that there are so many that could come to mind.

  3. Gwen

    Little Mosque on the Prairie is a fun sitcom about a community of Muslims in Canada, written by a Muslim woman and approaches Islamophobia as well as other things with fun wit.

    It is about a young new Imam coming into a small community and figuring out his style of leadership. His love interest, a Dr. who is serious about justice and her faith, her parents who are wildly in love and not always the most devout. The local traditionalist always arguing how things should be done, and his introverted teen daughter. The local cafe owner who immigrated to Canada and her teenage son. A Catholic priest who pays the bills by renting out the church as a Mosque, and the local bigoted radio host who never gets the last laugh. Its a good show.

  4. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s note: Islamophobic comments will be immediately deleted (here and anywhere else on the blog) which includes digging up some example of a Muslim doing something bad and then using it as some kind of generalization.

  5. Jenn H

    These stereotypes aren’t just harmful, they’re a result of lazy writing that can damage the work they appear in. Instead of creating original characters the authors copy characters from other works (which were probably copied from earlier works).

  6. Erynus

    Back in the time russians were the enemy, so every work of fiction had a russian antagonist, then briefly was the asian’s turn, but mainly chinese intelligence agencies using someone to do their wrong deeds. Now it is muslim’s turn (in the shape of afghan taliban specifically, which make sense since they were funded, armed and trained as terrorists against russian troops by the americans).
    In the meantime, for a brief period, the enemy were chechen terrorists, but they didn’t realize that chechens are in a big part muslims, so in that case they just portrayed them as mobsters without any religious background.

    Does Kamala Khan’s status as muslim have any impact on his books? or it is just a trait like his eyes or hair colour that can define her, but it is irrelevant?

    • Cay Reet

      First of all, Kamala Khan is a woman, not a man.

      Yes, her background influences her looks and her actions.

      • Erynus

        I’m sorry, i still mix his/her when i’m distracted, as english is not my main language.
        I was wondering how people in comic books are able to leverage their beliefs with the fact that gods walk in the street and the existence of Satan is known and proved.
        For alien races, Galactus is a god and worshiped accordingly, but not in the earth, as we are cooler than that…

        On an offtopic note, will anyone give coverage to Wonder Woman raping a guy in her new movie?

    • Bunny

      Kamala Khan’s religion does factor into the growth of her character, and she grapples with things like what it means to be Muslim in America, intergenerational gaps between herself and her parents, well-meaning but ignorant non-Muslims fixating on her faith, and how she practices her faith on an individual level and how it factors into her everyday life. It helps that the books have a large Muslim cast, which diversifies Muslims by presenting a variety of different interpretations of the religion and how it’s experienced.

      Just as importantly, though, Kamala is given character outside her Muslim faith. It’s just one facet of her identity, and she’s a more complicated character than that. She gets into trouble with her teachers, has tiffs with her friends, plays video games, and writes fanfic. Basically, she’s presented as a teen dealing with teen problems who’s also Muslim. Being a Muslim is not all that she is, and so she avoids being tokenized. It’s a good example of how a character’s religion can be kept relevant in a story, and the character can have a complicated relationship with it, while not being everything the character is or creating every problem they face.

      If you’re curious, I highly recommend at least checking out the first issue of the comic (Ms. Marvel: No Normal). I also recommend “Avenger, Mutant, or Allah: A Short Evolution of the Depiction of Muslims in Marvel Comics” by Nicholaus Pumphrey about the history of Muslims in Marvel comics (although this might be behind a paywall).

    • SunlessNick

      Along with what Bunny said, Kamala is a friendly neighbourhood heroine, and there are a range of Muslim characters who engage with their faith in different ways.

      The local Imam is orthodox, sometimes overbearing, and doesn’t have good answers for questions like why shouldn’t men and women pray together in the mosque when they did in Muhammad’s time. But he’s got some really good advice of the kind a budding superheroine needs to hear.

      Kamala’s parents would like her to be a bit more religious. On the other hand, they’d like her brother Aamir to be a bit less, and get a job rather than endlessly studying salafi theology. On the other hand, he loves his sister dearly and has a great moments where that comes through.

      Her best friend Nakia is experimenting with a more conservative way of presenting herself, including wearing a headscarf (although it doesn’t stop her from sneaking out of the mosque sometimes). Her parents are hoping it’s a phase and she’ll stop doing it (not outright stated but there’s an undercurrent that they’re afraid it could get her attacked).

  7. Richard

    It should also be noted that there are as many “varieties” of Islam as there are of pretty much ANY major religion – and I’m not just talking about the Sunni and Shia division.

    https://informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/islamic-sects-schools-branches-movements/

  8. Eli

    ok can some explain that last stereotype? for some reason it isn’t clicking in my brain.

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