There has been a long precedent for anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. Events within the past few decades have only worsened the level of discrimination against these groups, and American media has contributed significantly to this. Demonization, according to the Dictionary of Media and Communication Studies, is a process carried by the media and state against groups perceived to be dangerous or subversive[1]. It often frames the enemy as an evil “Other”, entirely barbaric and foreign. Film, especially, has been a tool to promote negative stereotypes and demonize enemy groups. Demonization fits within a larger discussion of propaganda, which A Dictionary of Media and Communication describes as persuasive mass communication that frames issues in a way that strongly favors a particular perspective[2]. Propaganda often has political motivation; it is important to situate recent film portrayals of Arabs and Muslims within their historical context. In 1980, the Iranian hostage crisis ignited a wave of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim news coverage[3]. Images of flag burnings and crowds shouting “Death to America” became associated with Arabs in the minds of Americans. The crisis has been described by Time magazine as resulting in “the American people more united than they have been on any issue in two decades.”[4] This feeling of unity is worth noting- specifically, the surge of nationalism that occurs after a national crisis. The creation of a strong American identity was revived following the attacks of 9/11.

On September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center was targeted by a group of Islamic extremists associated with al-Qaeda. This resulted in the death of roughly 3,000 people, and many more were injured in the attack.[5] This terrorist attack left an irreversible impact on the American people. Similarly, the attitudes and priorities of filmmakers also changed; films produced in the years following 9/11 have focused on themes of Islamic extremism and terrorism. As surveillance and discrimination against Arabs and Muslims within the United States became more accepted, blatant stereotypes were revived for the entertainment of Americans. Several key stereotypes and visual tropes stand out in the portrayal of Arabs and Muslims in post-9/11 action films. We will also explore the representation of Arab and Muslim men in films such as American Sniper (Eastwood, 2014), the Iron Man franchise, and Traitor (Nachmanoff, 2008).

Figure 1: Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) watches a news story on the 9/11 attacks in American Sniper (2014).

A reoccurring narrative within post-9/11 terrorist films is the possibility that any Muslim or Arab could be dangerous. This is often illustrated with a sleeper cell plot, in which terrorists are seemingly ordinary Muslim-Americans. The potential for extremism in any Muslim is often a focus in these films. Several scholars such as Tung Yin have pointed out the similarity between the sleeper cell plot device and Cold War fears[6]. Your neighbor, your friend, your teacher− anyone could be a sleeper agent according to the logic of the film. This is related to the use of invasive surveillance of Muslim-Americans following the September 11 attacks. The films’ emphasis on betrayal within the United States creates positive feelings among viewers towards surveillance of fellow citizens.

Figure 2: A group of stereotypical terrorists in Iron Man (2008).

Most people who have seen an action movie about terrorism have an idea of what a terrorist looks like. As seen in Figure 2, they usually picture dark conservative clothing, sometimes including turbans, and long beards; if the characters are located outside of the U.S., the film is usually shot in the desert. This is a stereotypical representation associated with Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood. The visual imagery usually signifies terrorism or religious extremism, regardless of its inaccuracy. In an interview with GQ, actor Maz Jobrani describes his reaction to his wardrobe in terrorism-centric Chuck Norris movie: “I said, ‘Whoa, whoa! No! Afghans in America don’t wear turbans. Plus, this guy’s a terrorist. He’s not going to draw attention to himself.’ ”[7] Despite criticism, many films still rely on these familiar visual tropes.

The use of religious symbols has a powerful connotation in film. In her book The Veil Unveiled, author Faegheh Shirazi argues that head coverings such as the hijab and niqab are often viewed as a sign of oppression from a Western perspective[8]. This helplessness is linked to the belief that Muslim men are controlling and violent. Even negative portrayals of Muslim women can be linked back to the Western view of Arab men as barbaric. Uses of the Quran before acts of terrorism are also common, as are frequent references to the hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) or jihad. The use of scripture without context allows the film to only represent a violent interpretation.

Figure 3: An Iraqi sniper takes a shot in American Sniper (2014).

The film American Sniper is perhaps the most blatantly negative recent portrayals of Arabs. The film is based on Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who was recognized as the deadliest U.S. sniper in history[9]. At one point in the film, there is a direct reference to the attack on the World Trade Center, shown in Figure 1, implying that Kyle and his fellow soldiers are avenging a wounded nation. Whereas Kyle is portrayed as a complex, morally conflicted character throughout the film, the Arab characters are one-dimensional and brutal. The more obvious enemies are represented as younger Iraqi men dressed in dark colors, similar to the man seen in Figure 3, mostly indistinguishable apart from the characters “The Butcher” and Mustafa. The chilling terrorist leaders with a faceless group of henchmen is often found in counterterrorism films.

Figure 4: A young Iraqi boy holds a weapon in American Sniper (2014).

However, even those who appear innocent at first reveal their inherently evil nature. When Kyle’s character enters a family’s home, they are initially friendly and accommodating; however, he soon uncovers a stash of hidden weapons in their home. This is a common theme in post-9/11 films: the implication that any Arab or Muslim, regardless of how friendly or ordinary they are, has the potential to be the enemy. Another common trope is a comparison to animals or savages. In another scene, Chris Kyle is forced to shoot a young boy- as seen above in Figure 4- with a grenade, and it is flashes between the shooting and an earlier memory of Kyle shooting a deer. This draws a clear comparison between the young boy and the animal. This technique is a classic strategy of propaganda. Gregory Stanton, a Research Professor in Genocide Studies and Prevention, created eight stages of genocide, including the dehumanization of the enemy in which “members of it are equated with animals, vermin, insects or diseases.”[10] This has been seen in examples of propaganda over time, and American Sniper is no exception. After the graphic shooting of the child and his mother, Kyle notes that “that was evil like [he’s] never seen before.” He also repeatedly describes the Iraqis as “the savages”, reducing their humanity. If you want to read more about representation in American Sniper, try Salon’s article on the differences between Chris Kyle’s memoir and movie character.

Figure 5:Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is held captive by a terrorist organization in Iron Man (2008).

A seemingly more harmless take on terrorism is the Ten Rings organization found in the Iron Man franchise. However, the terrorist group that abducts billionaire Tony Stark in Afghanistan in Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) is entirely comprised of post-9/11 stereotypes. Stark is imprisoned in a cave by a group of armed militants led by the leader Raza, pictured above in Figure 5. The setting and imagery clearly draws on Americans’ construction of terrorists, including a group of Arab men hiding out in the desert, torturing an innocent American. In Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013), there is a scene featuring James Rhodes, or Iron Patriot, in a sweatshop in Pakistan. The room is entirely full of women covered in niqabs, and as they leave Rhodes tells them, “Yes, you’re free, if you weren’t before …No need to thank me.” This is a similar narrative that is sometimes but not always addressed in post-9/11 film: the helplessness of Muslim women. There is a strong visual association between Muslim women’s head coverings and a lack of agency. Several movies over the years have repeated this theme, including this scene in Iron Man 3. Only a moment later, the villain throws off the niqab, showing that potential for deceit. The Iron Man franchise is not as blatant as other counterterrorism-based action film, but it does portray Arabs in a negative manner.


Figure 6: An undercover agent infiltrates a terrorist organization in Traitor (2008).

Even films that try to subvert this stereotypical treatment can be harmful. In Traitor, Don Cheadle plays Samir Horn, an undercover agent who infiltrates an Islamic terrorist group, pictured in Figure 6. The end of the movie even includes a scene in which Agent Clayron (Guy Pearce) and Samir discuss the Qur’an as a text that can be used to promote peace. It is clear that the creators attempted to also show some positive images of Islam. Despite this, the inclusion of “sleeper agents”− people who seem like normal U.S. citizens who suddenly rise up to commit acts of terrorism− is problematic. If seemingly ordinary Muslim-Americans can suddenly commit acts of extreme violence, then all Muslim-Americans can be viewed as potential enemies. Discussions of jihad and chapters from the Quran (surahs) are thrown in occasionally to show the characters’ religious motivations. This is also common in films such as these; the use of audiences’ limited knowledge of Islam is associated with on-screen violence.

The production of films such as American Sniper and Traitor are influenced by the context of political tension. The U.S.’s political relationship with the Middle East and the rise of terrorist groups has imprinted on the American consciousness. The use of narratives that demonize Arabs and Muslims create a clear enemy, allowing for a strong American identity in response. It also helps justify the government’s targeting of Muslim-American citizens. The creators of these films are not necessarily trying to promote a political agenda, but they accomplish it anyway. They create content they know the audience wants− a demand has been created for negative portrayals of Muslims in a post 9/11 society. It can be easy to view films like these harmless, but it is important to think critically about the media you consume. The popularity of terrorist films reveals the ignorance of American viewers. Viewers educated on even the basics of Islam are more likely to recognize the stereotypes and tropes used. It is important to recognize the diversity of Muslims and Arabs beyond Hollywood’s interpretation. If you are interested in identifying more post 9/11 terrorist films, TV Tropes has a helpful list.

For Further Information:

-Shaheen, Jack. Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. Interlink Publishing, 2012.
Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. Directed by Sut Jhally. Media Education Foundation, 2006.
Valentino’s Ghost. Directed by Michael Singh. Michael Singh Productions, 2012.
-McAlister, Melani. Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East, 1945-2000. Berkeley: U of California, 2001.
-Green, Todd. “American Sniper and the Muslim ‘Savage’.Huffington Post, 9 Feb. 2015. Web.
-Mosbergen, Dominique. “‘American Sniper’ Triggers Flood of Anti-Muslim Venom, Civil Rights Group Warns.” Huffington Post, 24 Jan. 2015.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What other recent movies can you think of that use these stereotypes?
  2. How do post-9/11 representations of Arabs and Muslims compare to pre-9/11 films?
  3. Is it okay to be a fan of movies with problematic representations in them? How do you separate the stereotypes from the rest of the film? Can you?
  4. How does the sleeper cell plot fit into the context of current anti-immigration groups?


[1] Watson, James, and Anne Hill. Dictionary of Media and Communication Studies. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2015.

[2] Chandler, Daniel, and Rod Munday. A Dictionary of Media and Communication. OUP Oxford, 2011.

[3] ABC News. “Iran Hostage Crisis 1979 (ABC News Report from 11/11/1979).” YouTube video, 10:02. October 12, 2012. Web. 16 September 2016.

[4] “Man of the Year: The Mystic Who Lit the Fires of Hatred.” Time Magazine, January 7, 1980. Print.

[5] “September 11 by Numbers.” New York Magazine, n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.

[6]  Yin, Tung. “Through a Screen Darkly: Hollywood as a Measure of Discrimination Against Arabs and Muslims.” Duke Forum for Law and Social Change. Vol. 2. 2010.

[7] Ronson, John. “You May Know Me from Such Roles as Terrorist #4.” GQ, 27 July 2015. Web. This article contains interviews with actors who have had roles as terrorists in film and television.

[8] Shirazi, Faegheh. The Veil Unveiled: The Hijab in Modern Culture. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001.Shirazi is a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and her research is primarily focused on gender identity in the Middle East and meanings of veiling.

[9] Dockterman, Eliana. “The True Story Behind American Sniper.” Time, 16 Jan. 2015. Web.

[10] Stanton, Gregory. “The Eight Stages of Genocide.” Genocide Watch (1998).


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