Sunday, November 7, 2010

Representations of Islam in the Media

Throughout history, Islam has been negatively portrayed in the media. This essay will address how, television series such as Little Mosque on the Prairie seek to challenge the contemporary views of Islam by providing an alternative representation of Islam. An overview of the negative depiction of Islam throughout Hollywood history will be summarised by adopting theories developed by Jack Shaheen. The ideology of the public sphere formed by Jurgen Habermas will be outlined to identify the power that the media plays in modern social systems that have contributed to the accepted representations of Muslims. The use of the media as a vehicle that promotes and constructs social identities will be explored through Stuart Hall’s concept of identity and resistance-identity. As a result, the analysis of television series Little Mosque on the Prairie will provide several contradictions to these theories through the means of comedy as a way to instill a counter-hegemonic perspective that seeks to educate a community of the misrepresentations of Islam in the media.

The media is a significant medium in shaping a cultures perspective and hegemony of Islam and Muslims which is identified through the study of vilified Muslims within Hollywood by Jack Shaheen. Shaheen (2001, p.2) describes Hollywood as the most effective teacher of our young concluding that from 1896 Muslims that have been associated as Arabs, have been labeled by filmmakers as “brutal, heartless, uncivilised religious fanatics and money-mad cultural “others” bent on terrorising civilised Westerners.” This is corroborated by Edward Said’s (In Canas, 2008, p.196) Orientalism that explores the discourse that “portrays Muslims as inferior, pre-modern and violent.” These classifications of Muslims are representative of the how Muslims are portrayed in society validating the concept hegemony that “equates with domination of a single power over others… that is devoid of any ideational content” (Haugaard & Lentner, 2006, p.216). The first episode of Little Mosque on the Prairie clearly identifies several of the representations of Muslims post 9/11 that supports the theories of the vilification of Muslims by Shaheen and Said. Many of the misrepresentations and stereotyped behaviours of Muslims are highlighted by way of comedic interpretation as there are several references to terrorist actions, relationships between men and women and the element of fear that is present in the Western characters. The prejudices evident in the first episode are driven by the xenophobia of society that constructs the hegemony surrounding Islam. Karim (2003, p.6) concludes that “the mainstream media…are important channels for hegemonic communication and usually function as instruments of consensus engineering.” Thus, the repetitive representation of Muslims in Hollywood, television series and media formulates a naturalised social opinion of Muslims that has allowed Little Mosque on the Prairie to create a counter-hegemony that will reposition identity (Wood, 1998, p.405). As a result, the vilification of Muslims in popular mediums throughout history exemplifies the interconnected relationship between culture, identity, power and media that constructs a hegemonic perspective.

The media stands as a driving force behind culturally accepted ideologies that form and transforms the accepted representations of Islam in society within the public sphere. Said (1985, p.7) identifies that Islam “somehow is made to cover everything that one most disapproves of from the standpoint of civilised and Western rationality.” The power relationship between culture, media and representation is highlighted by Morley and Chen (1996, p.85) who state that “culture is the way the social relations of a group are structured and shaped; but it is also the way those shapes are experienced, understood and interpreted.” Thus, this relationship is significantly linked to the concept of the transforming public sphere formulated by Habermas (Kellner n.d.) that describes the limitations of the media to conform to the ideologies that are accepted by the elite media corporations. Evidently, this contributes to the transformation of a society to adopt the ideology of media corporations that reverse the original meaning into a form of consumer consumption. Little Mosque on the Prairie identifies this role of the media in a scene that involves two Western men undergoing an interview on the radio in the town of Mercy. The man explicitly states the fear and concern surrounding the introduction of Muslim participants into their town by identifying and relying on the dominant cultural ideologies of Muslims to promote fear into the township that will result in community resistance and hostility. However, the predominant theme of the show attempts to disrupt the popular public sphere by creating a counter hegemony as “the public sphere is the source of public opinion needed to legitimate authority in any functioning democracy” (Rutherford, 2000, 18). By attempting to take control and transform the public sphere Little Mosque on the Prairie endeavors to incorporate social change through social integration by the process of resistance-identity.

Little Mosque on the Prairie seeks to change the common ideologies of Muslims in society by creating a counter-hegemony that shifts stereotypes through comedic interpretations. Dominant elite power media forms are able to construct a particular group to be directly associated with a specific representation. Hall (1997, p.348) defined a representation as being intrinsic to the core of culture through the “production of meaning through language, discourse and image.” This definition recognises the struggle for Islam to defer from the current misrepresentations of Muslims as Arabs, terrorists and gender divided as the media is dominated by a Western elite system that is identified as the major source of hegemony. Dines and Humez (2003, p. 90) elaborate on the function of representations in stereotypes in the following excerpt:

Institutions like the media are peculiarly central to the matter since they are, by definition, part of the dominant means of ideological production. What they produce is, precisely, representations of social explanations and frames for understanding how the world is and why it works as it is said and shown to work.

Hence, the media constructs and interprets certain understanding of what race is, in particular reference to how Islam is defined in association with cultural assumptions. Stereotypes are a derivative of the media’s powerful ability to locate sensitive issues permeated around fear that transforms society’s opinions to constitute a common ideology. Little Mosque on the Prairie seeks to disrupt these stereotypes and starts to “break the homogeneity of representations constructed and deployed by dominant institutional media channels” (Canas, 2008, p.199). This is evident in the pilot episode that sets up a binary between the representations of two Imams, an Islamic leader of worship. The current Imam is representative of the common stereotype made by dominant media, not only in the way he addresses the gathering of people at the mosque but also how he dresses. In comparison, the new Imam is young lawyer that wears stereotyped Western business clothing and does not conform to any stereotypical dominant ideologies of a Muslim. This is highlighted by a stereotyped orthodox Muslim woman states “You don’t even look like an Imam” (Little Mosque on the Prairie 9 January 2007). This binary explores how the media are able to construct particular representations within society and how Little Mosque on the Prairie seeks to contradict and challenge the current representations by explicitly incorporating components of resistance identity.

Resistance identity combined with comedy is a powerful driving force used by Little Mosque on the Prairie to create binary oppositions and dissect common stereotypes. The foundation of stereotypes is based on the sharing of information that allows varying religious perspectives to be continuous and sustainable (Stout & Buddenbaum, 1996, p.7). Canas (2008, p.196) asserts that Little Mosque on the Prairie “is a challenge to this orthodox cultivated and nurtured by hegemonic media discourse that has emerged within the media space itself.” Evidently, Muslims in Little Mosque on the Prairie project these stereotypes and are subject to these stereotypes by the more Western characters in the show. Consequently, this forces the characters to confront a “a barrage of stereotypes which unfairly shows them as a global menace, producers of biological weapons and zealots” (Shaheen, 2000, p.24). This is evident in the main stereotypes associated with Muslims in the show. Shaheen (2000, p.24) summarises the aim of Little Mosque on the Prairie to disrupt stereotypes that the media have portrayed in the following extract:

In reality, Muslims are an integral part of the American mainstream, people who contribute to their respective communities as teachers, doctors, lawyers and artists. They respect traditions, are committed to education, faith, family and free enterprise.

The development of characters within Little Mosque on the Prairie provides several versions of the realities Said refers to. A dominant representation of Muslim women in the media is that they are all repressed, controlled individuals who must follow the commands of their husbands and are obliged to follow strict, conservative rules and functions within society. This is supported by Allen (1997, p.27) who states that “many women are under such complete male domination that they do not even control their own bodies or sexuality… and are not allowed to hold positions of social, political, or economic power.” The women within Little Mosque on the Prairie seek to disrupt this stereotype. A comparison can be made between a very traditional Muslim woman in the show who does not want to disrupt the stereotyped role of women in Islam and an Anglo-Saxon Western woman. The Anglo-Saxon woman is married to a Muslim man and does not comply with the rules of dress and behavior of the stereotyped Muslim wife and works in a position of power at the Mayor’s office. Also, a comparison is made within the show in reference to American television series when a Muslim man says “Desperate Housewives? Why should they be desperate when they’re only performing their natural womanly duties” (Little Mosque on the Prairie 9 January 2007). This juxtaposition presents a version of stereotyped Muslim women in the media and a version of reality of a Muslim wife in modern society at the same time presenting the naturalised opinions of both the American and Islamic societies. Through comedic conversation and symbolic gestures Little Mosque on the Prairie successfully provided a disrupt ideology or a resistant identity of a stereotyped Muslim woman and wife.

In conjunction with the disruption of a common stereotype of the Muslim woman or wife, Little Mosque on the Prairie significantly addresses the issue of terrorism in a comedic way that seeks to provide an under- voice that unveils the media stereotype of Muslims and transforms them into the “ordinary”. Since 9/11, Muslims are grouped together as one distinct group that represents the ideology that “there’s only one kind of Islam and one kind of Muslim, both characterised by violence and anti-democratic tendencies” (Read, 2008, p.40). The pilot episode of Little Mosque on the Prairie explicitly states the fears and prejudices Muslims have faced since the aftermath of 9/11 that have forced Muslims to be directly related to notions of danger (Ramadan, 2010, p.22). The young new Imam from Canada is on his mobile phone at the airport speaking to his mother and subtly refers to several words associated with Muslim extremists by the media that urge fear in people by stating "I've been planning this for months. It's not like I dropped a bomb on him. If dad thinks it's suicide, so be it. This is Allah's plan for me” (Little Mosque on the Prairie 9 January 2007). This conversation then led to the young Imam being taken away by the airport security exclaiming that he would not be going to paradise today in reference to an Islamic belief afterlife (Little Mosque on the Prairie 9 January 2007). Clearly, Little Mosque on the Prairie uses satire and culturally sensitive references to instill a message in the audience that Muslims are ordinary people. This is highlighted by the Imam who asks the airport security, “What’s the charge? Flying while Muslim?” (Little Mosque on the Prairie 9 January 2007). This statement is a strong representation of how Muslims and Islam is portrayed in a society as a judgment based on a race and culture that has been developed and constructed on a foundation of fear from Western society. Little Mosque on the Prairie successfully breaks down the common stereotypes of Muslims and Islam using comedy and satire as a powerful tool to elevate fear and transform society’s ideologies of the stereotyped Muslim to a more culturally accepted normalised version of reality.

The comedic and satirical approach of Little Mosque on the Prairie significantly contributes to how society perceives Muslims and Islam today. Society’s traditional image of Muslims has been based on the foundation built by Hollywood and the media that has depicted Muslims in a negative light forming the current hegemonic ideas of Islam. Evidently, the media has largely been the main influence of the xenophobic notions that Western society has in relation to Islam. This xenophobia is representative of the common ideologies present within the public sphere that proves to be a challenge for Little Mosque on the Prairie which seeks to transform the opinion of society since the tragic events of 9/11. However, Little Mosque on the Prairie constantly attempts to redefine the hegemonic ideologies of society by forming a resistance-identity that seeks to break down common stereotypes of Muslims that are a derivative of the media influence. The stereotype of Muslim women and the Muslim terrorist that has been heightened by the media was a significant tool that the writers of Little Mosque on the Prairie used to transform the opinion of society and present Muslim citizens as part of the ordinary. As a result, Little Mosque on the Prairie has initiated the transformation of the ideologies of society by providing a counter-hegemony that usurps the traditional views of Western society by forming a resistant-identity that aims to reeducate a community about diversity and multiculturalism instead of a society based xenophobia and fear.

Reference List
Allen, NR 1997, ‘Islam and women’s rights’, Free Enquiry, vol. 17, no. 4, p.27.

Canas, S 2008, ‘The Little Mosque on the Prairie: Examining (multi) cultural spaces of nation and religion’, Cultural Dynamics, vol. 20, no. 3, pp. 195-211.

Hall, S 1997, Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices, Sage Publications, London.

Hall, S 2003, ‘The Whites of their eyes, racist ideologies and the media’, in G Dines & JM Humez (eds.), Gender, race and class in media, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, California, pp.89-97.

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Karim, KH 2003, Islamic Peril: Media and global violence, Black Rose Books, London.

Kellner, D n.d., Habermas, the public sphere and democracy: a critical intervention, viewed 25 October 2010, .

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Morley, D & Chen, KH (eds.) 1996, Stuart Hall critical dialogues in cultural studies, Routledge, New York.

Ramadan, T 2010, ‘Good Muslim, bad Muslim’, New Statesman, vol. 139, no.4988, pp.22-26.

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Rutherford, P 2000, Endless Propaganda: the advertising of public goods, University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Said, E 1985, Covering Islam, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Shaheen, JG 2000, ‘Hollywood’s Muslim Arabs’, The Muslim World, vol.90, no.1, pp.22-43.

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Stout, DA & Buddenbaum JM 1996, Religion and mass media, Sage Publications, London.

Wood, B 1998, ‘Stuart Halls cultural studies and the problem of hegemony’, The British Journal of Sociology, vol. 49, no. 3, pp.394-414.

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