- Arabs and Muslims in the Media after 9/11: Representational Strategies for a “Postrace” Era
After 9/11 a strange thing happened: there was an increase in sympathetic portrayals of Arabs and Muslims on US television. If a TV drama or Hollywood film represented an Arab or Muslim as a terrorist, then the story line usually included a “positive” representation of an Arab or Muslim to offset the negative depiction. Dozens of TV dramas portrayed Arab and Muslim Americans as the unjust target of hate crimes or as patriotic US citizens. President George W. Bush was sure to distinguish between Arab and Muslim “friends” and “enemies,” stating “the enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them.”1 News reporters interviewed Arab and Muslim Americans, seemingly eager to include their perspectives on the terrorist attacks, careful to point out their experiences with hate crimes.
Yet at the same time that sympathetic portrayals of Arab and Muslim Americans proliferated on US commercial television in the weeks, months, and years after 9/11, hate crimes, workplace discrimination, bias incidents, and airline discrimination targeting Arab and Muslim Americans increased exponentially. According to the FBI, hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims multiplied by 1,600 percent from 2000 to 2001.2 In just the first weeks and months after 9/11, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and other organizations documented hundreds of violent incidents experienced by Arab and Muslim Americans and people mistaken for Arabs or Muslims, including several murders. Dozens of airline passengers perceived to be Arab or Muslim were removed from flights. Hundreds of Arab and Muslim Americans reported discrimination at work, receiving hate mail, and physical assaults, and their property, mosques, and community centers vandalized or set on fire.3 In the decade after 9/11, such discriminatory acts have persisted. [End Page 161]
In addition to individual citizens taking the law into their own hands, the US government passed legislation that targeted Arabs and Muslims (both inside and outside the United States) and legalized the suspension of constitutional rights.4 The government’s overt propaganda of war was palatable to many citizens on edge and regarded with suspicion by others as the government passed the USA PATRIOT Act, initiated war in Afghanistan and later in Iraq, and explained the terrorist attacks to the public by stating “they hate us for our freedom.”
Given that Arabs and Muslims have been stereotyped for over a century, given that 9/11 was such an opportune moment for further stereotyping, given that the US government passed domestic and foreign policies that compromised the civil and human rights of Arabs and Muslims, and given that demonizing the enemy during times of war has been commonplace, why would sympathetic portrayals appear during such a fraught moment? As overt war propaganda has become increasingly transparent and ineffective over the decades since World War II and the Cold War, the production and circulation of “positive” representations of the “enemy” have become essential to projecting the United States as benevolent, especially in its declaration of war and passage of racist policies. Positive representations of Arabs and Muslims have helped form 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.5 It is no longer the case that the other is explicitly demonized to justify war or injustice. Now the other is portrayed sympathetically in order to project the United States as an enlightened country that has entered a postrace era.
The representational mode that has become standard since 9/11 seeks to balance a negative representation with a positive one, what I refer to as “simplified complex representations.” These are strategies used by television producers, writers, and directors to give the impression that the representations they are producing are complex, yet they do so in a simplified way. These predictable strategies can be relied on if the plot involves an Arab or Muslim terrorist, but are a new standard...