Mainstream and Digital Media

The influence of media, particularly mass news media and technology, in shaping Islamophobia has been a growing area of concern since the 9/11 attacks. Various perspectives problematize the way the media, across various mediums such as news, film, and literature, negatively represent, racialize, and demonize Muslim-American identities. The impact of such constructions of Arabs and Muslims on negative stereotypes and experiences of discrimination among Muslim-American communities are captured in these academic pieces. These works therefore provide critical perspectives on not only the way the media “mediates” public opinion broadly, but also how negative media representations contribute to, and legitimize, the othering of American Muslims. Finally, a new and emerging body of academic discussions deal with the impact of technology on Islamophobia more broadly, including perspectives on how social media has been used to both exacerbate and challenge negative mainstream news media representation of Muslims. The following readings are useful resources for those interested in the media impacts on public opinion broadly, as well as to understand racism in the media and how mainstream media has contributed to discrimination against Muslim communities.

Annotations

Frequently cited

Said, Edward W. Covering Islam: How the media and the experts determine how we see the rest of the world (2ND Edition). Random House, 1997.

Edward Said, founder of the academic field of postcolonial studies, provides a groundbreaking overview of how images and representations mediate the perception of Islam across a range of contexts in the West. Said begins with an overview of the prevailing Western and American hostility towards the Middle East, as well as the reciprocal hostility of the Middle East towards the West. He does so by tracing how historical events, and political developments in the Muslim world, such as the Iranian Revolution, have been exploited to portray Islam with increasing hostility and belligerence since the 1981 edition of this book. Said’s first chapter, “Islam in the News,” revisits the subject of Orientalism—namely that Western studies of the Middle East have offered negative “representations” and images of the Middle East. These images often reflect a political power structure of colonial dominance over the Middle East by Europe. In doing so, he highlights how the majority of American society from 1974 onwards have had an image of Islam that has been largely shaped by negative media coverage of crises related to the Middle East and Islam, predominantly presented from an Americentrist perspective. The final chapter, “Knowledge and Power,” focuses on how research and writing about Islam, the Middle East, and the Arab world has been produced within an overwhelming academic infrastructure that supports and perpetuates a distorted view of Islam. Said argues that the “experts” from these segments of the US academic community work with the media to influence and shape public policy, as well as legislative debates about the Middle East and “Muslim world.” This book provides an insightful analysis of the political and organizational factors that govern the fabrication of the American representation of Islam, and namely, how these factors combine with important events to shape the American psyche towards Islam and Muslims.

Critical Insight

Alsultany, Evelyn. Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11. New York, NY: NYU Press, 2012.

Evelyn Alsultany, Associate Professor in American Culture at the University of Michigan, provides a valuable critique on the politics of “positive representation” of Muslims in mainstream US media after 9/11. She highlights the way these positive representations have been used to mask Islamophobia as part of a larger effort to prove that the US is now a “post-racial” society where racial inequality is no longer a concern. The first two chapters examine hit television dramas such as 24, The Practice, and Law and Order, to explore the notion of “ambivalent racism,” which refers to anti-Muslim racism that is more acceptable in liberal multicultural societies within an exceptionalist logic that frames the Muslim terrorist as a national security threat. Chapters three and four highlight the gendered sympathies towards Muslim women in these positive portrayals, where women are objects of pity, in need of saving by Western feminism. In contrast, Muslim men—the male terrorist—are not afforded such political victimhood and constructed as the enemy. Chapter five critiques “anti-hate crime” public service announcements issued after 9/11 which, according to Alsultany, standardize acceptable templates of diversity and places “good vs. bad Muslims” within these parameters. Namely, the “good Muslim” is represented as one who is committed to familiar tropes of American national culture, through loyalty to the nation or government, rather than their loyalty to Islam. Overall, Alsultany uses these cases to explain the concept of “simplified complex representations,” or representational strategy that eschews history, ignores politics, and denies the severity and persistence of institutionalized racism, in order to produce the ideological fiction of a “post-racial” society. This book provides a critical engagement with the way positive media representations depict the US “post-race racism” that has been directed towards Arab and Muslim Americans since 9/11.

Recent Perspectives

Chao, En-Chieh. "The-Truth-About-Islam.Com: ordinary theories of racism and cyber Islamophobia." Critical Sociology 41, no. 1 (2015): 57-75.

In this journal article, En-Chieh Chao, Assistant Professor of Sociology at National Sun Yat-Sen University in Taiwan, interrogates the way Islamophobia manifests in online spaces, highlighting how digital debates over Muslims reflect broader American racist discourses about Muslim communities. Drawing on the outcry surrounding the reality show All-American Muslim (AAM) as the case study, this article emphasizes the way cultural racism towards Muslims in American society is reproduced in opposition to AAM’s representation of “everyday Muslims” on-screen. Commencing with an overview of racialization and post-Civil Rights racism in the US, the article discusses Islamophobia as a form of cultural racism and problematizes the way the media represents Muslims in the US. This is examined in relation to the way racial politics are embodied and performed within different kinds of media, such as reality television. With a primary aim to examine the logic of Islamophobia embedded in reactions to AAM posted online, the article draws on a content analysis of 1,139 online comments posted between November 2011 and March 2012 on five influential news websites regarding stories about the (i) airing of AAM, (ii) the advertisers’ withdrawal, and (iii) the cancellation of the program. The article highlights that there were two seemingly opposing discourses within these online comments: the anti-bigotry discourse and the anti-Islam discourse which, according to Chao, reflect mainstream American ideas of what racism and religion are and should be. In doing so, the article highlights the way in which the AAM controversy reveals that even when the media attempts to counter stereotypical representations of Muslims, the potential audience can still reject it due to larger forces of racism. Chao’s perspective thus enhances our understanding of how anti-Muslim sentiment is materialized in Islamophobic online commenting and hate speech, while representing wider Islamophobic discourses and attitudes.

Reading list