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Sarah Zibanejadrad

April 15, 2009


Writing Assignment

The Effects of Stereotyping Middle-Eastern People in the Media

To many Americans, when they think of the words “Arab,” “Muslim,” “Middle

East,” or “Persian,” immediately images of terrorists, the 9/11 attacks, or violent people

come to mind. One would assume this is the product of a post-9/11 America, however

Middle Eastern stereotypes have been around as long as there has been film.

Beginning with the Thomas Edison film Fatima Dances (1898), a scantily-clad woman,

dressed in what was meant to be Middle-Eastern clothing, dances for a group of men in

reference to a Middle-Eastern belly-dancer. In the 1920s, films such as The Sheik and

A Son of the Sahara depict Arabs as power-hungry, corrupt thieves who are violent

murderers and the women as subservient, immoral, and often-times in harems. By the

1970s, films began depicting Middle-Eastern people as gun or bomb-wielding terrorists

such as in Black Sunday (1977) and Iron Eagle (1986). To quote Mazin B. Qumsiyeh’s

report “100 Years of Anti-Arab and Anti-Muslim Stereotyping”: “Arabs in television and

movies are portrayed as either bombers, belly-dancers, or billionaires.” Throughout the

1990s, Middle-Eastern people were already viewed as terrorists in television shows and

films such as Patriot Games, however this only became the staple antagonist after the

terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.


The stereotype of the “Middle-Eastern Terrorist” encompasses many countries,

religions, heritages, and cultures, however it is usually summarized as “Arab” or

“Muslim” (as if the two terms were synonymous). Groups of people affected by this

stereotype include those from any Middle-Eastern country, including countries such as

Iran (the people are Persian, not Arab), those who are not Muslim but are from Middle-

Eastern countries, and people who are not Middle-Eastern, Arab, or Muslim, such as

people from India (or surrounding countries) who are followers of Hinduism, Sikhism, or

Buddhism. Unfortunately for the members of this highly-varied group, people who

accept this stereotype as the truth will usually assume they derive from a violent culture

and that they are radical followers of Islam. In turn, “dark” or “Middle-Eastern-looking”

actors will usually be type-cast as the villain (usually a terrorist) and not the protagonist.

In relation to George Gerbner’s research on Cultivation Theory, the

repercussions suffered by the Middle-Eastern American community are apparent.

According to Cultivation Theory, people who watch television more often tend to believe

that it is an accurate representation of the real world. Therefore, because of the

repeated use of Middle Eastern people portrayed as a “terrorist” or “villain” in television

shows and movies, as well as the selective coverage of the news media focusing on the

Middle East, people begin to associate these images with all Middle Eastern individuals.

In turn, viewers are led to believe that all Middle Eastern people are violent, that all

Muslims are radical followers (such as the small percentage portrayed in the media),

and ultimately the viewers begin to fear or despise Middle Eastern, or those who

resemble Middle Eastern, people. The public also hears first-hand experiences with the

Middle East from those in the armed services who have been in combat with people
from the Middle East. This leads to mainstreaming since people solidify what they

gathered from the media by reinforcing their beliefs with tales from war. Obviously the

first-hand information in this situation is from a biased source who came in contact with

a small percentage of Middle Eastern people. However, the ultimate effect of this

experience causes animosity towards Middle Eastern people, which leads to an

intensified strain between people of Middle-Eastern descent and those of non-Middle-

Eastern heritage.