9/11 sparked a surge in Islamophobia — for years, the media fed the flames
On Sept. 11, 2001, the skies descended upon Manhattan while parts of the Pentagon were engulfed in flames. Immediately after the attacks, President George W. Bush attempted to console the nation and provide hope to the millions of Muslims living here who feared reprisal — targeted because the attackers claimed to be Muslims.
Over the course of the last two decades, American Muslims have been put through the ultimate test of allegiance — being made to feel like strangers in our own homeland. American Muslims are a diverse community that have existed on this land since before the inception of this nation, yet American media demonized and boxed in an entire community of Americans based on their religious affiliation, painting them as the “other”.
The portrayal of Muslims across all mediums of media has overwhelmingly contributed to Islamophobia in the United States and globally. American media did not represent Muslims in a balanced manner even before the cataclysmic events that unfolded on Sept. 11, (one example is the 1998 movie, “The Siege.”) However, the role of media, film, and television took a turn for the worse in the years following the attacks on our nation.
Popular, counter terror-themed television shows such as “24,” “Homeland” and “Bodyguard” have only contributed to the anti-Muslim sentiments in the United States, a nation where most of the population does not know a Muslim to help them formulate a balanced understanding of the community.
Even among shows with a liberal bend and audience, like HBO talk show “Real Time with Bill Maher,” which is watched by millions weekly, have taken Islamophobic stances onscreen. Maher has said there is a connecting tissue of intolerance and brutality that binds 1.6 billion Muslims to terrorist groups like ISIS, and that “The Qur’an absolutely has on every page stuff that’s horrible about how the infidels should be treated.” Although Maher has been called out publicly, his show was not cancelled by HBO, and this is a common phenomenon throughout American media. One can only imagine how Maher would have been received by the general public and by the media if he had made an anti-Black, anti-Semitic, or homophobic comment even once during his career. His show would have been cancelled immediately. Yet the way the Muslims are portrayed in the media gives TV pundits a pass when it comes to Islamophobic rhetoric.
Our media has a responsibility to America, the world, American Muslims and the truth to portray Muslims more fairly and accurately across all platforms. In a 2017 Pew Research Center survey which asked if killing civilians for political, social or religious reasons can ever be justified, an overwhelming majority of American Muslims confirmed that it is “never/rarely” justifiable, which is indifferent from the general American public. Globally, American Muslims reject suicide bombings and other forms of violence against civilians in defense of Islam. Yet, depictions in films from “Back to the Future” to “Aladdin” have portrayed Muslims as savage “others” devoted to acts of terrorism.
However, over the last few years, and especially in reaction to the election of Donald Trump in 2016, there has been a noted improvement in accurate representation of Muslims across American media. Organizations like the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Hollywood Bureau have worked to rewrite the narrative of Islam and Muslims in the entertainment industry so that audiences see Muslims as vital contributors to social and cultural change in America and around the world. We have done this by engaging decision-makers and creatives to improve the quality of authentic, nuanced and inclusive depictions of Islam and Muslims.
Through screenwriting fellowships and labs, we have created opportunities for Muslims to tell their own stories. The progress we have made in inclusion and representation is certainly a welcome change and gives us hope for future generations of American Muslims to thrive and realize the American Dream.
While we remain hopeful that the disturbing and longstanding trend of negative, Islamophobic media depictions continues to decline, the damage done to the large swaths of young American Muslims who have been impacted by the media assault cannot be ignored.
Salam Al-Marayati is president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.