Common Muslim and Arab Stereotypes in TV and Film

Portrait of camel and bedouin in desert, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Lost Horizon Images / Getty Images

Even before the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Arab Americans, Middle Easterners and Muslims faced sweeping stereotypes about their culture and religion. A number of Hollywood films and television shows depicted Arabs as villains, if not outright terrorists, as well as misogynistic brutes with backward and mysterious customs.

Moreover, Hollywood has largely portrayed Arabs as Muslims, overlooking the significant number of Christian Arabs who live in the United States and the Middle East alike. The media’s racial stereotyping of Middle Eastern people has sometimes produced unfortunate consequences, including hate crimes, racial profiling, discrimination and bullying.

Arabs in the Desert

When beverage giant Coca-Cola debuted a commercial during Super Bowl 2013 featuring Arabs riding on camels in the desert, Arab American groups were far from pleased. This representation is largely outdated, much like Hollywood’s common portrayal of Native Americans as people in loincloths and war paint running through the plains.

Obviously camels and the desert can both be found in the Middle East, but this portrayal of Arabs has become so fixed in the public consciousness that it’s stereotypical. In the Coca-Cola commercial in particular Arabs appear behind the times as they compete with Vegas showgirls, cowboys and others with more convenient forms of transportation to reach a giant bottle of Coke in the desert.

“Why is it that Arabs are always shown as either oil-rich sheiks, terrorists or belly dancers?” asked Warren David, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, during a Reuters interview about the commercial. These old stereotypes of Arabs continue to influence public opinion about the minority group.

Arabs as Villains and Terrorists

There is no shortage of Arab villains and terrorists in Hollywood films and television programs. When the blockbuster “True Lies” debuted in 1994, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a spy for a secret government agency, Arab American advocacy groups staged protests in several major cities, including New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. That’s because the film featured a fictional terrorist group called the “Crimson Jihad,” the members of which Arab Americans complained were portrayed as one-dimensionally sinister and anti-American.

“There is no clear motivation for their planting nuclear weapons,” Ibrahim Hooper, then a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told the New York Times. “They are irrational, have an intense hatred for everything American, and that’s the stereotype you have for Muslims.”

Arabs as Barbaric

When Disney released its 1992 film “Aladdin,” Arab American groups voiced their outrage over the depiction of Arab characters. In the first minute of the theatrical release, for example, the theme song declared that Aladdin hailed “from a faraway place, where the caravan camels roam, where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face. It's barbaric, but hey, it’s home.”

Disney changed the lyrics to the opening song of “Aladdin” in the home video release of the film after Arab American groups blasted the original version as stereotypical. But the theme song wasn’t the only problem Arab advocacy groups had with the film. There was also the scene in which an Arab merchant intended to hack off the hand of a woman for stealing food for her starving child.

To boot, Arab American groups took issue with the rendering of Middle Easterners in the film, as many were drawn grotesquely, “with huge noses and sinister eyes,” the Seattle Times noted in 1993.

Charles E. Butterworth, then a visiting professor of Middle East politics at Harvard University, told the Times that Westerners have stereotyped Arabs as barbaric since the days of the Crusades.

“These are the terrible people who captured Jerusalem and who had to be thrown out of the Holy City,” he said. Butterworth remarked that the stereotype of the barbaric Arab seeped into Western culture over hundreds of years and can even be found in the works of Shakespeare.

Arab Women: Veils, Hijabs and Belly Dancers

To say that Hollywood has represented Arab women narrowly would be an understatement. For decades, women of Middle Eastern descent have been portrayed as scantily clad belly dancers and harem girls or as silent women shrouded in veils, similar to how Hollywood has portrayed Native American women as Indian princesses or squaws. Both the belly dancer and veiled female sexualize Arab women, according to the website Arab Stereotypes.

“Veiled women and belly dancers are two sides of the same coin,” the site states. “On the one hand, belly dancers code Arab culture as exotic and sexually available. Portrayals of Arab women as sexually available position them as existing for male pleasure. On the other hand, the veil has figured both as a site of intrigue and as the ultimate symbol of oppression. As a site of intrigue, the veil has been represented as a forbidden zone that invites male penetration.”

Films such as “Arabian Nights” (1942), "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" (1944) and the aforementioned “Aladdin” are just a few in a long line of movies to feature Arab women as veiled dancers.

Arabs as Muslims and Foreigners

The media nearly always portrays Arabs and Arab Americans as Muslims, despite the fact that most Arab Americans identify as Christians and that just 12 percent of the world’s Muslims are Arabs, according to PBS. In addition to being sweepingly identified as Muslims in film and television, Arabs are often presented as foreigners in Hollywood productions.

The 2000 census (the most recent for which data on the Arab American population is available) found that nearly half of Arab Americans were born in the U.S. and that 75 percent speak English very well, but Hollywood repeatedly portrays Arabs as heavily accented foreigners with strange customs.

When not terrorists, often Arab characters in Hollywood films and television shows are oil sheiks. Portrayals of Arabs born in the United States and working in mainstream professions such as, say, banking or teaching, remain rare on the silver screen.