Sunday, April 21, 2013

Do You MuJew? - Nabiha Hashmi

        Growing up in a Muslim community, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was a prevalent issue one that seemed so deeply knotted in trouble that prospects of peace seemed dim. I never really knew anything about the issue but naturally sided with the Palestinians. All my ideas of Jews had been interpellated into my mind by this ongoing conflict. I was socially constructed to believe certain things and to get upset at others. My father was deeply involved in interfaith events and so my stereotypes had definitely lessened but I never got to build a relationship with a Jewish person.

        My basis of logic for my perceptions was zip. I had not background knowledge, so I was in no position to argue the cases that I had wanted to and nor did I ever do it as I was not a confrontational person. But, this did not stop me from questioning what the entire issue was. Why, 60 years later, we were still in the same position. I could not process or comprehend how peace was not possible in that region so closely located to a holy land. So, I got myself educated. My history class in the senior year of high school took a semester to learn the Arab-Israeli conflict and how deeply rooted it is. So, I learned about the history…but a textbook can never tell you about people, cultures, and experiences. It tells you cold hard facts and theories but not emotions and perceptions. I didn't know Jewish people and I wasn't comfortable with the fact that I did not. I also did not like the essentialism that Muslims did not like Jews and Jews did not like Muslims. So, when I heard about MuJew – a Muslim-Jewish Interfaith Dialogue group, I knew I wanted to join it and go on the Alternative Spring Break trip with them.

          We went to Joplin, Missouri which was the site of an EF5 tornado that ripped apart the town in 2011. The disaster greatly impacted the town and the communities. We were working alongside the Jewish Disaster Relief Corps and the Islamic Circle of North American Relief as part of the Rebuild Joplin non-profit agency. We were assigned the task of demolishing a damaged home in order for it to be rebuilt. While in Joplin we were hosted by New Creation Church, a local church near the work site that caters to housing volunteers. The communities in Joplin were incredibly welcoming and were willing to share their stories, some of them very tragic and others incredibly inspiring. The trip was an amazing opportunity for us to get to know each other and each others' faiths. We were able to meet with the local Muslim and Jewish communities, and joined them from Juma'a and Shabbat services. It was amazing to meet with the members of the Muslim community who had their mosque burned down in a hate crime and to show them the beauty of interfaith work and how together we can break down ignorance build love and peace. We truly learned from the spiritual and emotional journey we shared in Joplin and felt a deep connection with the work we were doing, the stories told by the survivors of the tornado, and of course, with the new friendships we forced with community members and each other. 
For more information about our trip, please visit
        I truly believe in teaching through example. Although, our class focused on the media portrayal in the news media and film industry; I feel as if the internet media is truly this generations next source of news. To get out there as a Muslim Jewish group was such a breath of fresh air for some people, our statuses were liked and shared. It was a simple way to get out there and get our vision out there. Many people think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a religious conflict – as if our religions are the ones at odds at each other. There definite religious aspects that play into the conflict but our religions have actually been at such peace for so many years before this conflict. I truly believe this group is counter-hegemonic in what it is trying to do and has been challenged by many people who still believe in the hegemonic thought that Jews and Muslims cannot get along. We might not be able to bring peace to world, but let’s start with breaking some barriers at home and lessen hostility and creating bridges. This does not mean breaking our differences but just building bridges the lead to understanding that we might be different and our positions on certain issue might be different but that doesn't mean we cannot be friends and try to understand one another. It doesn't mean we cannot go on a trip together and learn how closely knit our religions are.

The Inadequacy of Simplified Complex Representations - Andrew Covert

 One of the more modern films we examined in this course was The Siege, a 1998 Twentieth Century Fox production written by Lawrence Wright, Menno Meyjes, and Edward Zwick. The film was directed by Zwick as well. By coincidence I saw this movie shortly before starting this class. My initial impression of the movie was that it was, for the most part, another unremarkable “terrorist” themed action flick: complete with explosions, shootings, and torture. The only things that seemed particularly remarkable about it were that it made an effort to include “good” Arab/Muslim characters in the plot and to condone torture and unlawful detainment. The movie centers not only around an outbreak of terrorist violence in New York City, but the military's detainment of thousands of innocent Arab Americans as well. After viewing it again in the context of this course, however, I have gained an understanding of how these sort of simplified complex representations are not enough to counter negative representations of Arabs and Muslims. Though the movie may be sympathetic and raise important questions about race in the US, its impetus is the all too common depiction of Arabs and Muslims as dangerous terrorists.
         Professor Alsultany defined simplified complex representations as a “representational mode that has become standard since 9/11 [that] seeks to balance a negative representation with a positive one”[1]. She argues that this phenomenon emerged out of the multicultural movement of the Gulf War, which stressed cultural tolerance and the importance of diversity, and has become increasingly standardized since September Eleventh. She explains that writers, directors, and producers began attempting to complicate their representations of Arabs by simply introducing characters who relate positively to the United States. She ultimately concludes that while the “good” Arab characters provide an alternative narrative of Arab identity for the viewer, they ultimately fail to displace the negative connotations made by the “bad”, militant anti-American Arabs, and have actually formed “a new kind of racism, one that projects antiracism and multiculturalism on the surface but simultaneously produces the logics and affects necessary to legitimize racist policies and practices”[2]. In short, simplified complex representations help to position the US as an “enlightened” and “postracial” country while simultaneously allowing the common negative portrayal of Arabs and Muslims to continue.
           The presence of “good” Arabs in The Siege was best exemplified by the FBI Agent Frank Haddad, played by Tony Shalhoub. Haddad is the Arabic-speaking partner of the story's protagonist, Agent Anthony Hubbard (played by Denzel Washington). He is also an Arab American whose son is detained in the military camp during the occupation of New York City. A large part of the movie is the conflict Shalhoub's character feels between his Muslim and American identities. When Denzel Washington's character confronts him in the detainment camp while he's searching for his son, Haddad throws his badge at his partner, telling him that he won't be the FBI's “sand nigger” anymore.

Agent Frank Haddad, played by Tony Shalhoub, tells his partner, Agent Hubbard (Denzel Washington) that he's quitting the FBI because the very government he works for has unlawfully interned his son.
          Shortly thereafter, Hubbard convinces Haddad to help him neutralize the last terrorist cell. Hubbard tells Hubbard that he can get his son back if he fulfills his duties and helps end the conflict. Haddad takes back his badge and helps Hubbard foil the last terrorist.

Agent Hubbard (left) played by Denzel Washington, convinces Haddad to return to the FBI so that he can help end the conflict and thus get his son back, not the other way around.
          When I first viewed this film, I thought Haddad's character worked on the reader's perceptions of Arabs and Muslims in a positive way. After viewing it in tandem with the concept of simplified complex representations, however, I find the movie much more problematic as it sets up an overly simplistic binary between “good” and “bad” Arabs, where one is vehemently anti-American and the other is a strict conception of patriotism: Haddad only gets his son back once he helps Hubbard and the FBI kill the last terrorist. It's as if Haddad must prove his loyalty before he is awarded his family member's freedom.
In all sorts of television and cinema, simplified complex representations like Frank Haddad are not only insufficient to displace the negative “terrorist” figures popular in post-September Eleventh film, they also ingrain narrow notions of what it means to be an acceptable Arab-American. I agree with Alsultany that this sort of writing is a quick solution for racial intolerance in a racist civilization eager to call itself “postracial”. Perhaps films like The Siege are better than films that include no positive Arab/Muslim characters at all, but I think it is also important to recognize oversimplifications for what they are, whether they be about Arab-Americans or any other identity. Viewers should be vigilant for these sort of oversimplifications in emerging film and media in order to understand how they might be problematic for the group of people in question and how they might ingrain the viewer with narrow conceptions of appropriate patriotism, masculinity, religiosity, or any other quality people generally aspire to achieve within their societies.

[1] Evelyn Alsultany, “Introduction,” in Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11, (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 14.
[2] Ibid., 16.

Terrorism and Xenophobia in the Media - Patyn Gillam

Following the recent Boston Marathon bombings (my deepest condolences to all those affected), uproars of finger-pointing ensued. Finally, when they found those who were behind the attacks, they were Islam extremist brothers from Kyrgyzstan, further fueling the stereotype that all Muslims in America are terrorists. Nobody ever generalizes religion as the cause of terrorism when it’s a Caucasian man responsible for the bombings (McVeigh, etc.) even though often times, it is a form of white-supremacist Neo-Nazi Christianity that drives those men to commit such crimes: click here for examples. They use these attacks as a way to support the idea of a “Clash of Civilizations” as coined by Huntington and Lewis, which means that “the West” and “the Rest” have irreconcilable differences that lead us to war. I read this quote about the situation,

“I really don't give a damn about the religion or ethnicity of the bombers. This horrible tragedy was carried out by people. Not their religion, and not their ethnicity. Terrorists like this are in the extreme minority. They don't represent the people of their country or origin, nor do they represent the people with similar religious beliefs. We can NOT let this become another excuse for the American people to bring out their pitchforks and torches, and turn into xenophobes. We're Americans, and we need to be better than that.” – Being Liberal (Facebook)

and I thought, “my God, rational people!” But then that last line sort of caught me. The line is subtle, covertly asserting that Americans are superior in some way to the rest of the world. It suggests a sort of “Benevolent Supremacy” ideology about the United States as the moral leaders and exemplary models of freedom and democracy. I could be reading into this remark a bit too much, but there’s something to be said about the relationship between being patriotic and being condescending. I agree that everyone should hold themselves to that standard, American or not, because it’s not fair to judge someone for the things that other people who are demographically similar to them have done. I certainly wouldn’t want to be called a dumb gold-digging whore just because the media produces a monolithic image that young Caucasian blonde women (e.g., Paris Hilton, Anna Nicole Smith, Jenny McCarthy) are just that. However, we can take steps to reduce these beliefs, as I said earlier, by critically examining why we hold them. Another idea for those whose minds are more vulnerable to media reports, as expressed by this funny comic I came across, is to stop exposing yourself to them. Either that or balance your news sources with more counter-hegemonic ones to get a broader picture on which to base your beliefs. Be open to new ideas, but always challenge them. I’ll end with relevant favorite quote of mine, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Post-Race America - Nabiha Hashmi

            September 11th was horrifying to me as a child; I do not think I truly grasped the idea that when the building went down…people had died until I saw pictures of people jumping out of the building. I remember having countless nightmares of how I would escape a falling building. I remember I always thought I would never stoop to jumping out of the building until I heard the miracle story of one man who had survived the jump. I thought the most the attacks had affected my family was my uncle who was in the building next to the world trade center and from whom we were not able to get into contact with until late at night. But, I did not realize it would affect us any more than that…
  • that we would have to find my brother, Osama, another name
  • that we would have to explain why we followed a religion that promoted such attacks
  • that our family trips to Canada were lessened and our time at the border elongated
  • that I had to argue with my father to let me wear the hijab for he feared I might be victimized
            But, life is filled with surprises and positives to weight out the negatives. Post-racial America meant educated people who questioned perceptions and viewpoints and didn’t let the stereotypes fill their thinking. It meant…
  • we were talked out of changing my brother’s name by his preschool teacher who loved his name.
  • that when we explained our religion, it was in a safe space created by the community in an interfaith dialogue group.
  • that racial profiling was being recognized and questions like safety vs. civil rights were being brought up.
  • that I win every argument with my father so of course, I got to wear the hijab.
            Another positive I saw was that although there were hate crimes, we weren’t purposely being targeted. Maybe only at airports and borders and I was more than happy to give up my rights for the sake of public safety. I do not mean this in a sarcastic way; I honestly did not mind getting checked over and over. It made sense to me.

            The Simplified Complex Representations that emerged especially after 9/11 of these positive Muslim/Arab characters that were added into plot lines that still revolved around terrorism made it seem as if those characters were complex but actually they were creating simple binaries of what it means to be a good/bad Muslim/Arab. And I too was reflecting this in who I was as a person. As someone who publicly can be identified as a Muslim, I found myself questioning my ways based on how I thought everyone would judge me. I never spoke against anything the U.S government did (not that I knew much) and always felt the need to be extra vocal on my patriotism. I made sure to smile extra, not because I wanted to, but because I didn’t want people to assume that since I wasn’t smiling it meant I was oppressed and to add to the victim narrative trope. I felt the weight of my religion and those who follow it on my shoulders. I still do. I never questioned it; it forced me to understand my surroundings. It shaped who I became and it made me okay with the inferential racism and the race profiling that did occur around me.

            I, too, was assuming that there was a binary between a good Muslim and a bad Muslim and I was trying my hardest to fit into the good Muslim image. I did not realize I was doing these – I was so engulfed in this hegemonic thought. I, myself, started to essentialize beards and niqabs with an extreme version of Islam when it truly is not. The power of this discourse was that it made Muslims themselves fearful of portraying some of these stereotypes because of how much we internalized these conflations between the negative attributes put on certain parts of our religious practice. I think the best way to diminish this binary is by telling more stories - not only the victim story. I think the online world is a perfect place for images and stories of Muslims of all types to really get out there and tell their own story. It is by showing these multiple layers of a Muslim identity that the stereotypical Muslim image can be erased. 

'The Ten Commandments' and Benevolent Supremacy - Andrew Covert

            I was a young kid when I first saw Director Cecile DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments. My initial impression of the movie back then was that it was a roughly accurate retelling of a biblical story, no more and no less. I didn’t think racial or national meanings could exist since the groups being portrayed (the Egyptians and the Hebrews) were historical groups. The movie was set long ago, so how could there be any deeper meanings within it aside from the story it’s retelling? What I failed to realize as a kid was that to really understand a movie and its message, you must think about what the world was like during its production. After contextualizing the film in Alsultany’s class, I began to understand how this adapted version of Exodus encoded meanings of race and nationality relevant to anxieties surrounding the position of the US during the Cold War.
Melanie McAlister’s concept of benevolent supremacy was integral in reforming my perception of this film. McAlister defines benevolent supremacy as a “discourse about the nature of U.S. power in the Middle East in the post[WWII] period”[1]. She argues that this discourse worked to position the US as morally superior to the Eastern Block for its emphasis on the importance of civil rights. Part of her initial evidence for this is actually DeMille’s introduction to The Ten Commandments, in which he explains that the story of Exodus and the film is a struggle over the question of “whether men should be ruled by God’s law, or by the whims of a dictator like Ramses. Are men the property of the state, or are they free souls under God? This same struggle is going on today.” If only the young me had thought about what was happening in the world in 1956, I might have realized that this was a film less about a biblical story than it was about the United States and Russia.
Essentially, the Hebrew slaves represent Americans. They are “American” in that they want to live in a free society, and that their quest for freedom will play an important role in the founding of Christianity, which is the dominant religion in the US. The Egyptians, then, are meant to represent the Soviet Union and communism. In retrospect, it is no wonder that Yul Brynner, who was born in Russia, was cast to play the evil dictator Ramses. It is also no wonder that a character who is supposed to be an ancient Egyptian speaks with an accent that sounds very Russian.

Ramses, played by Russian-born actor Yul Brynner
Moses, played by American-born actor Charlton Heston
Seeing the movie after contextualizing it in Professor Alsultany’s course made it not only more interesting to watch and critique, but also to start making connections about how media can serve political purposes. The Ten Commandments synonymizes Judeo-Christianity with freedom, taking a system of belief essential to the US as a nation: Christianity, and positing it as something that directly manifests itself in values of personal freedom and democracy. A religious affiliation is mapped onto a political stance.
Too often we view media out of context and without a critical eye. The Ten Commandments is but one example of how media is often constructed to reflect dominant standpoints and to perpetuate hegemony, or the domination of certain ideologies and discourses. If we as the viewer can take a few minutes to think about what was happening in the real world when a certain piece of media was made (or is happening in the case of emerging media), we can grasp the ultimate meaning of it and be able to mount necessary critiques.

[1] Melani McAlister, “'Benevolent Supremacy': The Biblical Epic at the Dawn of the American Century, 1947-1960,” in Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East, 1945-2000 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 45.

Review of "Muslim Women's Quest for Equality" - Patyn Gillam

A few days ago, as I’m shuffling through the endless list of freebies in the Kindle store looking for a new book to catch my interest, I spy a book by the name Muslim Women's Quest for Equality (Stories for Change) and so I downloaded it, because why not, it’s free. Not knowing what to expect from this book, I was surprised when I opened it to see that it was essentially a compilation of structured interview responses from Muslim women from around the world. Thinking the concept was cool, I read through quite a few of them, trying to solidify the main ideas for each category (these include: clothing, education and work, participation in society, friendship between men and women, dating, sex, marriage, polygamy, abortion, the household, children, female circumcision, and violence). The main message I gleaned was this: the biggest challenge of Islam is that it is so stereotyped by others as violent and oppressive, when that is not what Islam really is; the clothing is typically not forced, but chosen by the women, and is not viewed as oppressive, but often the opposite; education and work equality between men and women is highly valued; women participate in society largely the same as men (sports, politics, etc.); men and women can maintain friendships without problems, especially if they are co-workers, etc.; dating often occurs before marriage; sex before marriage is frowned upon; marriage is a mutual decision, and some may choose not to get married altogether; polygamy is only acceptable if the first wife gives the green light; abortion is a mixed topic, some support it, some do not; men and women should share household and childcare responsibilities, although some choose to follow the traditional roles of stay-at-home mothers if that best suits their family; female circumcision and violence is unjustifiable and unacceptable. The responses above sound much like what you or I would say, so why do we think Muslims are so different than us? It’s because we have conflated Islam with terrorism and oppression, when really Islam is a religion of peace and equality. I thought this book was a good representation of what we had discussed in class about cultural relativism and how they, not us, should be the judge of what they want for themselves. If hijabs, burqas, nihabs, etc. aren’t viewed by the women wearing them as oppressive, then they aren’t. It’s just that simple.

Commodification of a Culture - Nabiha Hashmi

          I came into Harems and Terrorists thinking I would only learn about representation of Arabs and Muslims. I have learned that, but I have also learned key critical analyzing tools in which I can recognize power structures and realize when images are being shown in a ethnocentric light. I honestly never understood this idea of commodification until this class. I did not realize that I had internalized so many images and ways of different cultures that I too was commodifying many cultures. I had heard of news stories in which people wanted the Native American to not be a mascot and I did not understand why they thought this was insulting. I thought the mascot was instead used to honor the Native Americans and I thought that was lovely. It was incredibly Eurocentric view in which I had internalized this idea of tribal culture being something that could be displayed in setting that got taken out of its true context.
          But, that was because I knew nothing of Native American culture. The dance the chief does as a mascot is actually a ritual and is done completely wrong. You cannot honor a culture by degrading their rituals and dress up a mascot without actually understanding the culture in the first place. This was commodification; when the intentions of using culture are more for entertainment than recognizing the culture. I was able to step back and take off my own cultural lens and understand the culture before making assumptions on how it should be portrayed. I find it so important to understand this cultural relativism so we can better understand the world around us without biases and judgments.

I love Selena Gomez but was incredibly disappointed by her description of her latest song and music video which she described to have a “tribal, exotic feel” in which she has a Native American head piece, an Indian religious bindi, and some sort of Hawaiian/Bollywood mix dancing going on. The music in itself seems like it had Arab/Bollywood influences. I am sure she does not know it – but she is selling different cultural dances and clothing as something “tribal and exotic.” By exoticizing the notion of this far away culture, she makes it seem as if she is appreciating it when really she is just using a culture she knows nothing about to sell her own work. I know she does not mean to so I do not blame her as much as I blame society to not have this initiative to understand different cultures and to be careful about their customs and ways.

          Little did I know, commodities of cultures existed all around me even of my own South Asian background? Personally, it bothers me especially because my mother did not enjoy wearing American clothing (until a couple of years ago). She felt most comfortable in her shalwar kameez which is the normal South Asian dress and she wore it for years. I, sometimes, felt embarrassed for my mother because she would get the strangest looks. I don’t think I have gotten that many looks from people when I was wearing the hijab probably because I was still dressed in the typical t-shirt and jeans. But, my mom always was looked down upon as if she was some fresh off the boat immigrant. But, it was her choice to wear what she wanted to wear – she had every right. I guess it bothers me when that same dress put on some magazine cover or worn by some actress is seen as a fashion statement even though technically it is in that case when the dress should be looked down upon or look at weirdly because of how out of context it is. By exoticizing the notion of this seemingly other worldly culture, it makes the idea of people actually wearing those clothes seem far-fetched and has an impact on how people will see those clothes in true context like on my mom. I want people to be careful at how they use certain cultural items and understand the culture and your own intentions of using it before actually using it or especially selling it. 

'The Road to Morocco' and Racism - Andrew Covert

          I first saw The Road to Morocco when I was a little kid. If you would have asked me then if I thought it was racist, I probably would have answered no. I might have said that it obviously exaggerated the Arab world, but would have added that such exaggeration wouldn’t necessarily be offensive or problematic. Today, after learning a bit more about what racism really means and the many subtle forms through which it can occur, I would answer that yes, The Road to Morocco was, intentionally or not, a racist film according to the way we understand racism now.
          In her famous work “Eating the Other”, bell hooks explains that racism occurs not only through conflict, but through commodification and sexualization. She writes: “When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting and alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders [and] sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other”[1]. “Eating the Other” is precisely what Bing Crosby and Bob Hope’s characters are doing throughout the film: conquering Arab women through their sexuality and their wit. The film centers around Bing and Bob meeting exoticized, high-class Moroccan women and convincing them to flee away to the West with them where they can be free from the advances of tyrannical and rapacious Moroccan men. What looks like love is actually a restatement of the power relations between white men and women of color, where the former is positioned as hero and the latter as victim.
          This can be explained another way through Stuart Hall’s differentiation between overt and covert racism. Hall describes overt racism as an open statement of a racist position. This is what most people think of when they consider something “racist”. Covert (or inferential) racism, on the other hand occurs through the naturalization of oppressive notions of race, usually through “representations … which have racist premisses and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”[2]. The Road to Morocco, though not overtly racist, indeed contains extensive inferential racism. Arab men are represented as less intelligent and overly-possessive over women.
          One might be inclined to write off The Road to Morocco as racist because it was from a racist era. However, I argue that if we examine such an excellent example of primitivization and exoticism and seriously consider all the ways in which this can be done, we can see that such constructions appear in modern media: women of color are sexualized, men of color are demonized. Through Professor Alsultany’s class, I have grown more aware of all the forms that racism can take. I believe that if more viewers were similarly equipped to recognize the complexity and versatility of racism, they could be better able to identify it and challenge it in the world around them.

[1] bell hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” in Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks. Durham and Kellner, Eds. (Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 425.
[2] Stuart Hall, “Racist Ideologies and the Media,” in Paul Marris and Sue Thornham, eds. Media Studies: A Reader, 2nd Edition (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 273.

"Dove Real Beauty" - Patyn Gillam

As I’m sure most people have seen since it went viral recently: the Dove Real Beauty Sketches (click to watch if you haven’t seen it). Now, I understand the message Dove is pushing: that our toughest critics are ourselves. However, I think this ad campaign does more than send that message. It reinforces the hegemonic ideology of what we see as “beauty” in Western culture; in fact, it relies on this hegemonic ideology to get the message across. By having two pictures, they are subtly creating a binary between what is “beauty” and what is not; there is no “beauty” without an equal and opposite “ugly”. One woman relates being fatter in her picture as she described herself with being sad. The video focuses on the Eurocentric ideal of “beauty” by focusing mainly on three Caucasian women. They are young and thin, with general facial features that fit our model of what “beauty” is (i.e., big eyes, small nose, nice smile, good bone structure, etc.). Other racial groups are either excluded or given very little screen-time, but only if they fit our Eurocentric ideal. The two African American women that are briefly shown are mostly light-skinned with facial features that resemble the hegemonic ideal of beauty. The repertory of images representing beauty in this video isn’t as diverse as Dove would like us to believe. Where are the old, fat, big nosed, squinty eyed people? Where are the people with different racial and ethnic backgrounds? Where are the men? But good try, Dove. I understand the difficulties regarding the paradox of marketing skin products to women trying to make themselves more beautiful, while at the same time trying to send the message that you’re already beautiful.

Repertory of Ridiculous Images - Nabiha Hashmi

Everything seemed so silly. All these movies, all these stereotypes…how was there so much ignorance. The movies were actually so misinformed; it was hilarious. The camels, the desert odyssey, the mummies and Egyptology, the made up Arab cities, the men on horse with guns, the women in the imaginary of harems – those were the only images shown of Arabia. I saw the images and repeated tropes as ridiculous but I could not put my finger on exactly why. Until I realized these movies were filmed in a Eurocentric perspective. People who are different cannot be explained and must therefore be something either mythicized (as in not real) or degraded as savages which brings into the idea of binary opposites which are continued to be used today. Being western entailed positive and progressive traits and being anything but was conflated into one set of inferior and savage traits. The movies shown to us from The Mummy, The Sheik, and Road to Morocco; I think everyone agreed that the movies did not depict the reality of Arabia in any way. They were fantasies of a mystical land that did not exist.
It was hard to understand how such misconceptions could have even existed at the time. But, I think the reason it was so easy for all of us to agree was based on the fact that it was during another time period where the prejudices and normative ways of thinking were very different from how we think today. We’ve moved past those prejudices and come to understand things in a completely different manner and therefore, it is easy to criticize ways of thinking of past times. This does not make us forward or intelligent; we are part of today’s norm and what would make us progressive is thinking of how current prejudices can be moved past. It will be interesting when we get into current day issues and how we as class will react to different things and whether we’ll find everything an issue as we did with these older movies. 


Nabiha Hashmi:

Harems to Terrorists – the name of the class was what drew me to take this class. I really had no idea what the class was going to be about, I knew it was a film class – an item on my bucket list which I could now cross off. But, aside from the name and the type of class, I had no idea what to expect. I am Muslim so I was interested in how my experiences had come to shape the way I think of media portrayal of Arabs and Muslims. I knew that we were generally conflated with terrorism; but I only thought because of how many terrorists there were…obviously media would only show stories of terrorism. I just thought it was the natural way of doing things – of course they wanted to sell stories. It was a naturalized dogma of mine – everything seemed as if it was common sense and could not be argued. But, I never thought in depth about how this may affect people’s thinking, how it was already affecting my own, and how it even came to shape policies.
So, I wanted to understand. I wanted to understand how others saw portrayal of Muslims and Arabs in media and what they thought about it. I hated how there was this clash of civilizations between the West and Islam, because I knew how Islam truly was. I assumed I already knew what was needed to be known. However, in the first class of American Culture 235, I learned we would not be watching films to understand who Arabs and Muslims are but instead how they’ve been represented. All of my background knowledge went out the door and I realized, I would actually learn about something very different to what I thought I would. This whole idea of representation and the meanings it created made sense to me only in the sense of terrorism and Islam based on my own experience. But, I never realized that there were origins to these representations and that these representations by creating meanings actually led to influencing major decisions. I realized I was going to have to set aside preconceived notions of what I thought I knew about representation of Arabs and Muslims and get ready to be challenged to think in new ways – something I had never truly done in a class format.

Patyn Gillam:

The purpose of this blog is to reflect on how this class (AmCult 235) has changed how I perceive things, both real and fictional. Hopefully those who might read this that have not taken the course learn from my experiences that I will share here. If there’s one thing I want readers to take away from the blog, it’s this: think about your own thinking. I mean, really, critically examine your own beliefs. Why do you believe them? Are they yours, or did someone else put them there? What assumptions do they stem from? What’s the basis for assuming those assumptions? Basically, be skeptical of what gets into your mind, because as much as we’d like to think we put a guard up to filter out all the things that don’t belong there, those things still find a way in. Before this class, I had never really thought about how films impacted my beliefs – I mean, it’s just harmless entertainment, right? But when the same themes and plots are used again and again, it becomes normalized. This is called ideological work. So since this class has started, there have been several instances where I’ve stopped myself, thinking, “What ideological work is this movie/video/etc. doing to me right now?” I would like to share a couple of these instances and my thoughts on them.

Andrew Covert:

Media surrounds us in our everyday lives. Between print, radio, movies, television, and the internet, we are continuously engulfed in a sea of multimedia entertainment and advertising. It's easy to point out that the point of advertisement is to create sales for a product, but it's much harder to pinpoint the meaning of entertainment. For instance, a film is usually written and shot with the intention of interesting the audience, but what if what interests the audience is, intentionally or not, problematic or offensive to distinct groups of people?

Professor Alsultany's class, “From Harems to Terrorists”, asked us as students to consider alternative, critical readings of a selection of films, television, and other media that involve depictions of Arabs, Muslims, Islam, or the Middle East. The intent was not only to point out what features of mainstream Arab/Muslim representation are problematic, but to also show how these representations emerged from contextual world events, and how the common stereotypes, problematic thematic tropes, and outright racism might be counter-acted. The class not only revealed an important standpoint on issues of race in the media, but also suggested progressive solutions to these historical problems. Our mission is to demonstrate how the concepts in this course altered and enhanced our understandings and perceptions of media, Arab/Muslim identity, and the politics of representation.