Last December, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates with my mom, dad, sister, and two brothers. Even though it was one of the few family vacations in which we didn’t step foot in a single museum or attend any historical tours, our trip to the futuristic city on the Arabian peninsula was one of the greatest learning experiences I’ve ever had.
Educational context! Yay!
The United Arab Emirates, (دولة الإمارات العربية المتحدة, read as Dawlat al-Imārāt al-‘Arabīyah al-Muttaḥidah), is a country located on the Southeast end of the Arabian peninsula with a population of 9.2 million. (85% of which are expats!) The government of the UAE is a federation of 7 hereditary monarchies, the official language is Arabic, and the official religion is Islam. Dubai (دبي) is the most populous city in the UAE, and has emerged over the past 40 years as a global city and economic hub of the Middle East. (They filmed Fast and Furious 7 there. Obviously very important.)
Let’s try something…
My brother, Gus, is a photographer. One of his greatest skills is slyly taking photos (and video) of people while they’re not looking and going completely undetected. For this next part of the post, take a look at some of the photos Gus captured on our trip and think about what you see. What comes to mind when you see these images? What stands out to you? Why?
Aside from how excellently stealthy these photos are, what was your impression?
I’ll tell you mine.
In these photos, Gus captured what we saw left and right in Dubai: Essentially, just a bunch of people going about their lives. Just a dude sending a text on his iPhone. Just a family buying balloons for their kid. Just a guy chatting up his buddy. Just a dorky dad taking a selfie with a camel. (Seriously, all dads are the same.)
And yet, there’s something shocking about these images. Indeed, something seems… different. And then it hit me.
These photos depict persons in traditional Islamic, Arab, and Middle Eastern clothing doing things I’ve never seen people in that type of clothing doing before.
All around me in Dubai, I saw men and women donning thwabs, keffiyehs, hijabs, niqabs, burqas– and was taken aback by the simpleton-ness of the activities they performed while wearing them. But why? Why was I so surprised to see a man in a thwab pushing his daughter around in a stroller? Why did I stare at the cluster of young 20-somethings giggling and shuffling throughout the mall simply because they wore all black?
As a Westerner living in the Western world, virtually all of the images I see of Middle Eastern Muslims come from the media. So the moment I realized these images stuck out to me as unusual was the moment I realized that the media I was consuming in the United States was not doing an appropriate job of portraying the wholeness of the Islamic identity in the Middle East.
I know that the only reason these images were shocking to me was because they stood out from the images I am accustomed to seeing of people dressed in this way.
The portrayal of traditionally-dressed Muslims in U.S. news and entertainment media (and Western news and entertainment media in general) takes place overwhelmingly within the context of war and violence, breeding fear of Islam in the millions, if not billions, of people who consume these media. Many of the messages generated by this portrayal come from the way we talk about terrorism and extremist acts in the news, such as in the video below.
Indeed, the media successfully reproduce racism not so much because the media audience always blindly adopts the opinions of the media, but rather because the media “strongly suggest how readers should think and talk about ethnic affairs” (Van Dijk 1991, 245).
And Islamophobic messages are not just limited to verbal media– they are also implicit in the images we see on the screen. Anybody who has sat down in front of the TV and flicked on the news, or gone to the movies and seen the latest war action movie knows that the sweeping majority of images we so often see of people wearing traditional Islamic clothing feature extremist terrorists holding AK-47s pointed at US tanks.
This is important because, as one fellow classmate put it at an event on campus I attended on World Hijab Day, “When Muslims choose to wear hijab [or any other form of traditional muslim clothing], they are literally wearing their religion on their sleeve.” So the message the viewer receives is “Arab dress equals Muslim equals Terrorist.”
The message the viewer receives is “Arab dress equals Muslim equals Terrorist.”
I would agree with the many people who would argue that for the sake of being historically accurate, certain images of military extremists donning traditional Islamic dress are appropriate. (I’m thinking along the lines of American Sniper…) But as David Miller put it in Promotion and Power in the Media: “There are many different and conflicting ways in which the meaning about the world can be constructed… [therefore, it] matters profoundly what and who gets represented, who and what regularly and routinely gets left out; and how things, people, events, relationships are represented.” Moreover, when people in traditional dress are portrayed ONLY as terrorists, we internalize these messages and subconsciously assume in our daily lives that if we come across someone dressed this way on the street– or in an airport– then they, too, must be a terrorist.
In COMM 108: Media Processes and Effects, taught by Jeremy Bailenson, my classmates and I learned about Cultivation Theory, one of the groundbreaking Communication theories of the modern era. Founded by George Gerbner in 1976, it states that the constant exposure of mass media messages shape consumers’ beliefs about reality. The research done in support of the theory show that our perceptions of how the world works– how violent the world is, in particular– is massively influenced by the media we consume. So what does a consumer learn about Islam when the only sensory input she receives about the religion is through media that solely focuses on the violent, extremist minority within it?
We’ve got to fix this.
(Hear ye, hear ye, from the belly of the barely-20 college kid who really wants your attention–)
The media must take a more proactive role in consciously balancing out violent images of Muslims with non-violent ones.
Communication scholars agree: The role of the media as sole provider (or primary definer, Hall 1978) is ever the more crucial when selective, biased frameworks are applied to audiences who have little social contact with minority groups (Van Dijk 1991). The media hold an exceedingly powerful position in conveying, explaining and articulating specific discourses that help represent (and misrepresent) groups with whom the majority have little to no contact.
Therefore, as the primary influencers of consumers’ perceptions of foreign groups, the media have the responsibility to accurately portray these groups by offering balanced imagery that reflects the whole of the group’s identity. In the case of Muslim representation, the Western media need many MANY more images of normal, NON-EXTREMIST Muslims (the 90%) in entertainment and news media, just like the people in Gus’s photographs.
“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
^Noodle on that quote for a while. It’s a good one.
I recognize that it is a rare and privileged opportunity to travel the world. Not everybody will go to Dubai in their lifetime, but everybody will watch a movie or read a news article. Normalizing the appearance of religious, racial, ethnic, and gender diversity is no small task, but the media can do it. They must do it, for they have too much influence in shaping our perceptions of the far reaches of the world to ignore such a great responsibility.
Here’s some of Gus’s videography work! He’s a cinematography stud.
Hey! I did a quarter’s worth of research on this topic and wrote a big long paper AND did a long fancy presentation about it in my Program in Writing and Rhetoric class on Cross-Cultural Communication. Here are just a few sources I used in my research, if you want to learn more. Stay curious, folks! -Cath
Miller, David (2002) Promotion and Power. In: The media: an introduction. Longman, London, UK, pp. 1-8. ISBN 0582423465
Saeed, A. (2007), Media, Racism and Islamophobia: The Representation of Islam and Muslims in the Media. Sociology Compass, 1: 443–462. doi: 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2007.00039.x
Seib, Philip, ed. Palgrave Macmillan Series in International Political Communication : New Media and the New Middle East. Gordonsville, VA, USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 31 May 2016.
1991. Racism and the Press. London: Sage.