Demonizing Muslims on screens large and small

One lesson folks should have learned from history is that the worst injustices arises from demonization of the Other.

So let’s look at the history of scapegoating, and enjoy a provocative video along the way.

Crises make for scapegoats

In times of crisis — of plague, famine, and economic catastrophe — we want to find someone to blame, a target for the rage that arises naturally out of frustration, horror, economic catastrophe, and the deep frustration that comes from loss of control over the very things needed to keep us alive and healthy.

The concept of the scapegoat goes back to the Torah, arising from a mistranslation of a phrase in the book of Leviticus Chapter 16, verses 8-10, which describes a ritual prescribed for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in which a goat as ritually burdened with the collective sins of the community, banished from the town, then hurled over a cliff.

The idea of the scapegoat taps a powerful strain in the human consciousness. Humans are driven by something in their nature to seek causes, to find explanations. And when we can’t find the right one, it seems anything will do, so long as enough folks buy in.

We’re just so much happier when we think we know why this horrible thing has happened, and the dark side of our nature seems to feel even better when we’ve meted out “justice” to the agent of our immiseration.

The important fact to grasp is that the designated scapegoat needn’t be the real cause for our plight; all that matters is that we think it is. For, as Hamlet [Act II, Scene II] said, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Our natural dispositions are meat for the demagogue’s grinder.

In addition to our cause-seeking, we hairless bipeds are also finally attuned to the signifiers of rank and status, another arrow in the would-be despot’s quiver. Then there’s our natural acuity, which leads us to seek out similarities and differences between individuals. Finally, and most powerfully, there’s our nature as critters which evolved in closely knit groups, defending ourselves against outsiders, against our natural competitors, human and otherwise.

Together these inclinations have been the key ingredients in the mobilization of rage for political ends.

The perfect scapegoat

In times of crisis, the perfect scapegoat is the alien Other, the being on whom we project our own darkest and most unacceptable impulses as well as our accumulated frustrations and rage.

The perfect scapegoats are the relatively powerless folks towards whom, in saner times, we might feel a sense of obligation or guilt.

Immigrants who speak, dress, and worship differently have always been the ideal scapegoats. Witness the murderous violence of Irish immigrants toward African Americans during the Civil War’s New York draft riots.

Angered by conscription and the bloody body counts of the nation’s most violent war, the Irish — the most despised of white folks in the highly class conscious society of New York — directed their rage at the only group beneath them on the social ladder, the people on whose behalf, they were told, the war was being waged.

Then there are the Native Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Eastern Europeans, each subjected to violence by the poorest, spurred on by demagogues hoping to harness their  fury as an engine for obtaining power.

During esnl’s lifetime, the marginal whites of the South took out their rage on the submarginal former slaves, who were aspiring to their own status as citizens with equal rights. Almost invariably, the Klansmen arrested for worst atrocities were poor, barely literate, and living on the margins [though often egged on by elected officials, capitalizing on their frustrations].

Today, in the United States, two groups are remorselessly singled out for persecution by manipulative power-junkies, Latino immigrants and Muslims.

Handily for the demagogues, both groups are distinctive, Latinos by their skin color and Muslims by their dress [and, yes, those of Arab heritage are often darker-skinned than most Anglos, leading to that bizarre hybrid fear of Muslim terrorists sneaking over the Mexican border disguised as Latinos].

The fear of the Islamic Other

The Founding Fathers, those white males so often invoked by the contemporary Islamophobe, didn’t harbor a noticeable animosity towards folks who followed the Koran.

Many of the Founders were members of Masonic lodges which wouldn’t accept African Americans as members but welcomed Muslims.

In 1796, the fifth session of Congress [which included many of the Founders] and the president signed a treaty with the government of Tripoli which included the following official statement of official policy regarding Islam and its adherents:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

Much of the original animus towards Islamic peoples was rooted in that darkest goblin lurking in the dark underneath the American bed, sexuality.

Americans were never very tolerant of polygamy, although any cultural anthropologist will tell you it’s a practice that was followed by the majority of human groups at the time of their first contact with Westerners.

Our Puritanical heritage was the cause of much of the animosity directed against Joseph Smith and his home-grown religion. Congress would only allow Utah into the Union on the conditioned that the church abandoned the Smith-dictated practice of “plural marriage” [AKA, polygamy]. God conveniently handed down the requisite revelation and Utah became a state.

Lurid tales and novels about Western women “trapped in a harem” tapped into the darkest fears of the American psyche, and the march toward Islamophobia had begun.

But the real villain of the piece is the silver screen and, later, the glowing

images of the phosphor tube and its LCD/LED/plasma successors.

From their earliest years, American children were presented with stereotyped portrayals of the Islamic Other, especially the Arab Islamic other.

Reel Bad Arabs

Which brings us to the first object of this essay, a remarkable documentary called Reel Bad Arabs. Narrated by author and media critic Jack Shaheen, the film reveals the deplorable treatment of Arabs by the American entertainment industry.

Caricatures of the Arab person and culture of the sort once used to demonize African Americans and Jews still thrives in Hollywood, as Shaheen amply illustrates.

The importance of these images and scenes, displayed to children from the moment they set eyes and ears on the tube, cannot be underestimated, just as the no longer permitted noxious depictions of other groups led to their demonization [dehumanization] in the past.


BLOG 7 August NY PostNew York Post cartoonist Sean Delonas was fired for his notorious monkey cartoon, which played on a noxious stereotype of African Americans as ape-men [an identical view was embraced by the Nazis] but not this depiction of Arabs, which closely parallels images of large-nosed, hirsute, and oddly clad Jews from Der Stürmer, that most antisemitic of all Nazi-era German rags.

The Arab Other through the eyes of gamers

A new medium, a creation of the digital era, exerts a powerful hold on the minds of the young.

The computer game employs today’s fast processors coupled with the digital imaging technology that have erased the differences between the real and the virtual on the screens before our eyes.

And because boys have always been fascinated by war and things martial, the hottest and largest segments of the gaming market enable the participant to join in virtual combat, slaying enemies in gruesome, flash-rending ways.

Since the American military is heavily engaged in war in Islamic countries, it’s Arabs and Afghans who are the targets of millions of young virtual warriors. And the ways they’re depicted alarm some critics of the industry.

Here’s what Michael Abbott of The Brainy Gamer writes about new release [H/T to Sociological Images]:

Teyon may choose to call Heavy Fire an “Explosive Arcade Experience on WiiWare!”, but a more apt description would be “Arab shooting gallery.” Whatever narrative or thematic values we may find in games like Call of Duty 4, however meager, are jettisoned in Heavy Fire. This game puts a gun in your hands and a collar around your neck; then it locomotes you from one terrorist-infested location to the next, always directing your attention to the next target.

Your job is simple: kill or blow up as many Arabs as you can. The game rewards efficiency. Pay attention. Where will that nasty Arab pop up next? Look! There he is! Shoot!! How many can you kill? It’s Duck Hunt in the desert.

Heavy Fire: Special Operations is atrocious. Nintendo should be ashamed for approving it as a WiiWare title. It crosses the line, not merely because it eliminates any semblance or illusion of player choice, responsibility, or contextual behavior. Heavy Fire turns a painful and bloody contemporary conflict — June was the deadliest month of the 9-year war in Afganistan — into the setting for an arcade shooter. It makes killing hordes of dark-skinned foreigners feel like a carnival ride. It’s despicable.

Here’s what the company itself has to say about their game in the text accompanying a video preview they posted on YouTube:

Enlist the elite special forces unit in Heavy Fire: Special Operations, a new on-rails shooter for WiiWare™ by Teyon. Grab your Wii Remote™ or Wii Zapper™ and take out enemies in a single-player mode or use the additional firepower of your friend in a multi-player. Blaze through stages using your light-gun from the ground, Humvee or Blackhawk. Get additional points for smashing the environment. Rise in the military ranks and get more and more powerful weapons differing in features and controls.

You will need a quick trigger-finger to complete extremely dangerous levels and restore the balance of the terrorized region in the Middle East. Play to finish the game or just to improve your best score. Stay alert! The operations will begin soon.

Vit Sisler at Digital Islam deals with the broader range of games in which killing Muslims defines victory in an article titled “Digital Arabs: Representation in Video Games”:

Adventure and role-playing games typically portray the Middle East in fantasy or quasi-historical manner, exploiting ‘Orientalist’ imagery, whereas action games and especially first-person shooters present the Middle East in a contemporary and decidedly conflictual framework, schematizing Arabs and Muslims as enemies. The latter exhibit strong cultural bias on a variety of levels and particularly demonstrate Reichmuth and Werning’s concept of ‘neglected media’. The reason for this is closely connected to the question of stereotyping and schematization in video games per se, and lies in the linkage between production and consumption. Since video games are usually produced with their consumer base in mind, they tend to incorporate and reflect the general imaginations of the Middle East prevalent among the western public, as well as the audience’s expectations of particular genres. The producers logically ‘intend on maximizing revenue and implement their own assumptions of their audience’s tastes, expectations, and consumption habits’. Moreover, the highly competitive nature of the game market, together with high production costs, reinforces the iteration of proved and successful patterns in game genres and content. Several commercially successful games laid down frameworks which have dominated the market for years, such as Doom [ID Software, 1993] or Dune 2 [Westwood, 1992].


[I]n the vast majority of European and American games the diverse ethnic and religious identities of the Islamic world have been flattened out and reconstructed into a monolithic representation. . . Apart from missing academic reflection and media critique, the reason could be technological. Non-player characters are depicted often by a limited number of reiterating textures, models and other visual signifiers. Thus technological limitations intrinsically promote schematization, which leads to social stereotyping.

[T]his article has presented the ways in which misrepresentation influences Arab game designers and local production. It has examined two significantly different fashions in which Arab producers have attempted to subvert this misrepresentation — by exploiting and reversing stereotypical depiction, narrative and gameplay known from European and American games [such as Special Force], or by humanizing Arab and Muslim characters and using distinctive Islamic narrative [such as Under Siege, Quraish]. The awareness of racial schematizations does not necessarily lead to attempts to destroy or subvert the schematizing framework itself. On the contrary, many Arab game producers have appropriated the first-person shooter genre with its polarized cultural frame in order to present an Islamic and Arab point of view. . .

In this respect, European and American attempts to transcend culturally biased representations should be mentioned. Most can be found in the emerging media of so-called ‘serious games’. The term refers to games with an agenda, whose aim is not only to entertain but also to deliver a message to the audience. In the context of racial stereotypes related to Arabs and Muslims, three serious games are worth mentioning. Real Lives [Educational Simulations, 2004] is a life simulator that gives the player an opportunity to ‘grow up’ and ‘live’ in almost any country in the world. Global Conflicts: Palestine [Serious Games, 2007]  puts the player into the role of a journalist who has just arrived in Palestine and whose task is to write an unbiased article about the unfolding events. PeaceMaker [ImpactGames, 2007] is a strategy game that allows the player to be the Israeli prime minister or the Palestinian president, while their task is to establish a peaceful and stable solution to the conflict.

In these games a culturally-balanced representation is central to the design in most of the terms analysed in this article: visual signifiers, narrative and gameplay. These games are meant as educational tools and provide additional materials for students and teachers. In Global Conflicts: Palestine the game characters, both Arabs and Israelis, are individualized by distinctive graphical features and humanized by their background stories, presented to the player via a textual interface. The gameplay of PeaceMaker is based on the feedback from the player’s counterpart and thus representation and introduction of the Other are key elements of the game. Given the relative novelty of these games, a proper consumption study is not yet available, but preliminary results from the implementation of Global Conflicts: Palestine in Danish high schools are promising. Although serious games presumably can expand their influence in the realm of digital entertainment and contribute to subvert the dominant stereotypes of ethnical representation, their impact on the mainstream game production cannot be overestimated.

Today we are in crucial need of critically understanding the symbolic and ideological dimensions of in-game representational politics. Obviously, no single factor leads to stereotyping. As Shaheen points out: ‘Undeniably ignorance continues to be a contributing factor’. The most dangerous effect of stereotyping is that sometimes, negative images are perceived as a real portrayal of the other culture. This applies mainly in the absence of positive ethnic images, particularly when these schematizations remain unchallenged. Systematic and well-researched academic reflection of representation in video games is needed, with further emphasis on other languages and cultural spheres.

A new gaming paradigm

As Gwen Sharp at Sociological Images notes, while most Arab games follows the Western model, a new trend is emerging:

[T]he game Under Ash (Tahta al-Ramad), based on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (from the Palestinians’ point of view), humanized Palestinians by giving them significant backstories that explained how they came to be involved in the Palestinian resistance. It presented Israeli soldiers as the enemy but specifically prohibited players from harming either Palestinian or Israeli civilians (in a sequel to Under Ash, titled Under Siege, Tahta al-Hisar, killing a civilian automatically leads to a “game over” message). It doesn’t allow any type of peaceful interaction with Israelis, but it is one of the few games based on the Middle East that presents cities as full of inhabitants whose lives are valuable, regardless of which side of a conflict they’re on.


One response to “Demonizing Muslims on screens large and small

  1. Pingback: Media Muslim depictions foster intolerance | eats shoots 'n leaves

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