The Other Anti-Semitism: The image of Islam in American pop culture

Historically, the animus of anti-Semitism directed against both Arabs and Jews has been the same. It has been a largely Western Christian struggle against two Semitic civilizations-one that it found living within its midst and that it saw as an internal threat; the other that it confronted as an external challenge but that it similarly defined as a threat to its survival.

Both Jews and Arab Muslims were perceived as threats-their organizations, their wealth, and even their corporate identities were seen as damaging to the West. And the results have been devastating to both peoples. Both groups have suffered a history of vilification and both have endured campaigns of systematic violence.

Several years ago I did a study of political cartoons and other forms of popular culture, comparing the depiction of Jews in Czarist Russia and pre-Nazi Germany with that of the Arabs in the United States in the 1970s and ‘80s. In both content and form the treatments given to each were identical. The two most prevalent German and Russian depictions of Jews paralleled the two most common images of the Arabs projected in U.S. cartoons. The fat grotesque Jewish banker or merchant found its contemporary counterpart in the obese oil sheik, and the images of the Arab and Jewish terrorists differed only in their attire.

Both groups were uniformly treated as alien and hostile. They were accused of not sharing Western values and were both viewed as prone to conspiracy. They were both seen as usurpers of Western wealth and were defined as threats to Western civilization. Jews were associated with capitalist greed and anarchist violence and communism. Arab avarice was held responsible for runaway inflation, and they were seen as the main agents responsible for international terrorism.

In the wake of the horrors of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism against Jews is now recognized for what it is-hateful prejudice. We have yet to learn this lesson when it comes to Arabs and Islam.

Although some may argue that these misrepresentations of Arabs and Islam stems from ignorance, the problem is not just ignorance, but what passes for knowledge. The so-called media “experts” who define Islam for Western audiences include virtually no Arabs or Muslims, and many of these self-proclaimed experts are actually ideologues engaged in a hostile campaign to portray Islam as a “green scare” replacing communism as the new national threat. They depict Islam as something foreign, un-American, and diametrically opposed to “our” values. American Muslims are thus reduced to followers of a foreign and potentially dangerous faith and not the bright-eyed girl next door who chooses to wear a hijab to her soccer games.

POPULAR CULTURE ONLY reinforces these negative images. In films, books, and television, the portrayal of Arabs and Muslims are almost uniformly hostile. Some years ago, I did a study of the treatment of Arabs by the three major television networks. I surveyed entertainment programs aired during a five-year period and found that the only portrayals of Arab or Muslim Americans were either as terrorists or lecherous oil sheiks. There was not one, single positive Arab or Muslim character to be found.

When the networks’ executives countered my study saying that they had also used Italian gangsters and American Jewish criminals, I responded that alongside these negative images were positive images that balance the view of Italians or American Jews as communities that include some bad but mostly good people.

In the absence of any positive portrayals of American Muslims in the mainstream media, Western audiences don’t see the community as multifaceted with many positive characteristics. They only see one-dimensional stereotypical images; and because of the media’s obsession with isolated violent acts without any discussion of context or history, the image of Islam has come to be defined by the terrorist. The terrorist is not seen as the exception to the religion of Islam, but the rule.

To counter this “other anti-Semitism” requires both vigilance and hard work. A number of Arab American and American Muslim organizations have been engaged in challenging the negative stereotypes and calling for more positive portrayals of Muslims and Arabs in the U.S. media and popular culture.

Their efforts have not been without some small success. But for real change to occur the campaign must be broadened and should be supported. When non-Arabs and non-Muslims react to anti-Arab and anti-Muslim stereotypes with the same outrage they display toward anti-Jewish bigotry, then we will be on the path to burying the “other anti-Semitism.”

JAMES J. ZOGBY is president of the Arab American Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community.  He may be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Originally published in Sojourners magazine and reprinted with permission of the author.

The American Muslim does not claim primary copyright on the source material.  If you wish to reprint the entire article, you must obtain permission of the copyright holder.