Film & TVIslamophobia

Western Muslim Representation is a Double-Edged Sword

Westernisation has been a volatile issue since the beginnings of Western conquest, as it has created problems such as generational trauma, the “us vs. them” mentality, the eradication of culture, and modern-day imperialism masked as patriotism.

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Westernisation has been a volatile issue since the beginnings of Western conquest, as it has created problems such as generational trauma, the “us vs. them” mentality, the eradication of culture, and modern-day imperialism masked as patriotism.

There is a certain level of frustration that comes when one takes a look at the Muslim representation on Western television. As the writer of this piece and a young Muslim woman, I do not see myself reflected in the Muslims that the West places on their TV screens.

In fact, it is disappointing to see the definition of representation that Hollywood producers have created. They want so badly to tap into the Muslim market yet they cannot find a meaningful way to accomplish this goal. There is now a sigh of exasperation instead of feelings of joy when Muslim characters are included in Western media. 

Plots are described as “A Muslim who grapples to combine their Muslim (insert foreigner identity) with their Western identity”. By including Muslims in their media, the West is attempting to normalise the sight and sound of Muslim characters as Muslim people continue to immigrate or take refuge in Western countries – which would be all well and good until you realise what is considered representation.

These plots perpetuate a dangerous ideal as characters grapple to change their identity to fit in with a culture characterised by the “othering” of Muslims and the constant belittlement and disrespect of the Islamic identity. The expectation of this is assimilation, defined as the “process in which a minority group or culture comes to resemble a dominant group or assume the values, behaviours, and beliefs of another group”.

The West creates shows with characters that try their very best to Westernise their religion which is frankly tiresome and boring. This ideal is dangerous because it implants inherent fear and doubts regarding the true values of Islam.  

Westernisation is seen as the standard of liberty and freedom which is in itself oppressive as seen by the countless attacks on Muslim countries by the West under the guise of liberation which has only led to further destabilisation and death for the purposes of material gain. Islam is in fact a religion of liberty, having an important history for its liberation of oppressed peoples in its youth and its unifying strength throughout its existence.

There are many millions of Muslims who willingly follow Islam, the fastest-growing religion in the world, as more and more people understand the appeal of a religion that strives for peace, unity and tolerance but on the big screen, this is not its portrayal.  

In spite of having Muslim characters, creators produce internalised doubts coupled with ideals of oppression regarding their religion that later lead to Muslim girls removing their hijabs for a white boy who is then portrayed as her “white saviour” from her oppressive and sexist religion. The hijab and many other Islamic accoutrements are used as tools to attack Islam in an odd bid to appeal to  Muslim viewers.

This false internalised oppression is created and perpetuated as if it lives in the hearts and minds of every Muslim which is most certainly not the case. This is not only perpetuated through movies and TV shows but through the media as well. The “white saviour” complex is one that can easily be seen when Western countries storm Muslim-majority countries to “liberate” them from their oppressive regimes which is by Western definition, any unfavourable or non-capitalistic government.  

These ideals and portrayals are maintained and fed to the minds of impressionable viewers, Muslim and non-Muslim, all of whom internalise them and continue its perpetuation. Western film and TV are produced by giants of the industry such as Hollywood and they, therefore, have a greater responsibility in relaying impactful and accurate portrayals of Muslim communities – but this responsibility is misunderstood and thereby disregarded. They are almost propagandist as the themes explored in Western TV and movies breed and justify hatred in addition to the destruction of anything not seen as Westernised. 

Westernisation has been a volatile issue since the beginnings of Western conquest, as it has created problems such as generational trauma, the “us vs. them” mentality, the eradication of culture, and modern-day imperialism masked as patriotism. With those issues raised, people will try to show how Westernisation has benefited society such as “freedom”, trade, and technology – but benefaction is a matter of perspective. There can be no recognition of the benefits of oppression because it is uneven and achieved with the use of cruelty and abuse. 

Of course, no religion is 100% perfect with regards to important modern societal issues but this fact is made abundantly evident and it is used as a reason to validate contempt towards Islam and distract from real injustice committed by the apparent liberators. When representing Muslims, creators will deliberately raise these issues so as to draw attention to it further justifying their contempt which becomes more important than creating meaningful Muslim representation.

Only the negative perceptions of Islam will be portrayed and the overwhelming positives are ignored. The issues brought up can not only be dealt with through religious philosophy but also through human compassion that acts in conjunction with religion. True Muslims adopt peace and pacifism in the face of conflict and can in no way justify evil and mistreatment of different people. This plays into the hands of the real oppressors and goes against the essence of the faith. The same can be said for any religion.  

With regards to the portrayal of Muslims on the big and small screens, they are portrayed with an agenda in mind. Either the Muslim character will shout the predictably offensive “Allahu Akbar”  before claiming both his own life and the lives of those around him, or the Muslim character is the overtly “liberal” person who is highly critical of their religion.

Islam is a subject that is poorly dealt with by people who are not interested in doing so tastefully and respectfully. Western creators attempt to show Muslims as characters who yearn to assimilate to Western culture and believe in ideas that do not coincide with their religious principles. If these creators try so hard to portray Islam as a normal part of their society, why do they try so hard to market it as everything but what it is? 

Characters are liberated through indulgence of haram with no remorse. To err is human but as Muslims, we are also urged to ask for forgiveness as a symbol of strengthening our Imaan. This is the way in which the definition of liberation has been misconstrued where Western culture looks down upon Islamic values and reveres those opposed to it.

Liberation is allowing people to decide for themselves and giving people the freedom to live the way they please, not what is shoved down viewers’ throats as the only acceptable way of life. Islam is followed for its embrace of peace, love,  piety, charity, and worship yet those are never the traits Western media will show to its viewers.  

Hollywood, among other Western media producers, need to do better where characters embrace their Islamic identity and live harmoniously with people of other religions and cultures. The way in which Muslims are represented subliminally teaches young Muslims, who are trying to understand Western life, to behave in a favourable and palatable manner, in a way that does not provoke or anger people.

Muslims are not taught to love their religion in spite of their hardships nor do they see people who have lost their way use religion as a means of finding inner peace and prosperity. They are taught to identify their religion as a source of hardship instead of strength. This plays into the dangerous and destructive ideal of assimilation in a world where their faith will always be thrown into question.  

It is not difficult to employ the help of practising Muslims to give insight on Islamic representation, nor is it difficult to conduct your own research and take notes from shows that are doing it right, such as Diriliş: Ertugrul. Start showing us a Muslim girl who does not succumb to her “white saviour”,  a boy who prays with his heart, and Muslims who keep company with non-Muslims without typical feelings of temptation. Show us Muslims who love being Muslim and live their lives by an Islamic code of ethics without a second thought.