Last month, American Sniper surpassed Saving Private Ryan as the highest grossing war movie in Hollywood history. To date, it has earned approximately $430 million worldwide.
The movie’s mass success makes for an unfortunate commentary on the state of American views of the Muslim world.
By necessity, the perpetuation of Islamophobia in Hollywood has become somewhat subtler in order to appeal to a broader, increasingly liberal-leaning audience. The success of American Sniper is proof that a more nuanced approach (i.e. Chris Kyle’s moral dilemma in killing hundreds of Iraqi people) can be just as—if not more—effective at propagating hate and fear of the Muslim world and Islam itself.
Not convinced that your own perception of the Middle East has been tainted by Hollywood movie-making magic? Keep reading for an overview of the movies and TV shows that have steadily poisoned the collective conscience with the distinct flavor that is Islamophobia.
For many millennials, our first exposure to the “otherness” that is the Muslim world likely started with the 1992 Disney classic Aladdin.
It’s no secret that Disney has often appealed to cultural stereotypes and clichés to help its audience make sense of characters. In Aladdin, many “good” characters have American English accents and western facial features, while the bad or weird ones are portrayed as more exotic with foreign accents and exaggeratedly “ethnic” features.
In the opening scene of the children’s movie, song lyrics reflect a view of the Muslim world as a distant, savage place:
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
While the message of Aladdin is not explicitly hateful or fearful, it’s one of the first films in which the millennial generation would have been influenced to view the broader Muslim world as a strange and scary place.
Jump ahead a few years and we have Syriana, a film which is actually quite adept at depicting the complexities of Muslim people groups, differentiating among Arabs, Pakistanis, and Iranians.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers also choose to perpetuate stereotypes via an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist and a brutally violent Arab mercenary.
Up next is the year 2012, a big one for the Islamophobia genre.
We start with Argo, Ben Affleck’s political thriller set in Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis. Throughout the film, Iranians are primarily portrayed as a mass of violent religious fanatics. Regular citizens are given the dehumanization treatment–wide angle camera shots that reduce the Iranian person to a mob of indistinguishable faces speaking untranslated Farsi.
In contrast, American characters are the main subjects of close-up shots, character development, emotion, and intelligible speech. It reeks of ethnocentrism.
Some of the film’s supporters point out the fact that the story begins with a brief telling of the history leading up to the hostage crisis, much of which had to do with the U.S.’ less than helpful political involvement.
Laura Durkey, writer for The Socialist Worker, , saying “It’s true that this is more historical context than most American films set in a Muslim-majority country offer. But the value of this sequence is immediately undercut by the first live-action sequence of the film, in which a horde of Iranians storms the U.S. embassy like it’s the Iranian zombie apocalypse.”
Zero Dark Thirty also came out in 2012, telling the story of the search and killing of Osama Bin Laden.
The film continues in the pattern set by Argo and Syriana by contributing negatively to the public opinion of Islam and the Muslim world, but this time there’s an added element of glorifying and justifying torture and violence against Muslims. Social media buzz generated by the movie indicates that the idea that people of Muslim faith are to be feared and hated is seeping into the public stream of consciousness.
Finally, we have American Sniper. Much could be said about the way this film over-simplifies the Iraq occupation and bathes the U.S. military in a glowing light of moral ambiguity–Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi calls it “almost too dumb to criticize.” But the most troubling thing about this movie is its blatant perpetuation of Islamophobia.
Scott Whitlock of Newsbusters says it best:
“[Chris] Kyle’s version of the Iraq war was black and white. There was no room for humanizing Iraqis when he had his finger on the trigger. To Kyle, if they weren’t Americans, they were the enemy. Unfortunately, some of those feelings have spread into our culture. The public reaction to the movie American Sniper also highlights some of the most disturbing consequences of this war, the normalization of Islamophobia being one of them.”
Photos courtesy of Mondoweiss, daddyclaxton.com and Roger Ebert.