Common Muslim and Arab Stereotypes in TV and Film

A masked camel and bedouin in the desert in Dubai
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Even before the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Arab-Americans, Middle Easterners, and Muslims faced sweeping cultural and religious stereotypes. Hollywood films and television shows frequently depicted Arabs as villains, if not outright terrorists, and misogynistic brutes with backward and mysterious customs.

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

Arabs in the Desert

When Coca-Cola debuted a commercial during Super Bowl 2013 featuring Arabs riding camels in the desert, Arab-American groups weren't 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 This representation is largely outdated, much like Hollywood’s common portrayal of Native Americans as people in loincloths and war paint running through the plains.

Camels and the desert can be found in the Middle East, but this portrayal has become stereotypical. In the Coca-Cola commercial, Arabs appear backward as they compete with Vegas showgirls and cowboys using 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.

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 major cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, because the film featured a fictional terrorist group called the “Crimson Jihad,” whose members, Arab-Americans complained, were portrayed as one-dimensionally sinister and anti-American.

Ibrahim Hooper, then a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told The New York Times:

“There is no clear motivation for their planting nuclear weapons. 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 outrage over the depiction of Arab characters. In the first minute, 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 in the home video release after Arab-American groups blasted the original as stereotypical. But the song wasn’t the only problem advocacy groups had with the film. There was also a scene in which an Arab merchant intended to hack off the hand of a woman for stealing food for her starving child.

Arab-American groups also took issue with the rendering of Middle Easterners in the film; many were drawn “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 Crusades. “These are the terrible people who captured Jerusalem and who had to be thrown out of the Holy City,” he said, adding that the stereotype seeped into Western culture over centuries and is found in Shakespeare's works.

Arab Women: Veils, Hijabs, and Belly Dancers

Hollywood also has represented Arab women narrowly. 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. 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. On the one hand, belly dancers code Arab culture as exotic and sexually available. ... On the other hand, the veil has figured both as a site of intrigue and as the ultimate symbol of oppression.”

Films such as "Aladdin" (2019), “Arabian Nights” (1942), and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" (1944) are among a host of movies featuring Arab women as veiled dancers.

Arabs as Muslims and Foreigners

The media nearly always portray Arabs and Arab-Americans as Muslims, although most Arab-Americans identify as Christian and 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.

The 2000 census (the latest for which data on the Arab-American population is available) found that nearly half of Arab-Americans were born in the U.S. and 75 percent speak English well, but Hollywood repeatedly portrays Arabs as heavily accented foreigners with strange customs. When not terrorists, Arab characters in films and television often are oil sheiks. Portrayals of Arabs born in the United States and working in mainstream professions, such as banking or teaching, remain rare.

Resources and Further Reading:

Arab-Americans Protest 'True Lies'.” New York Times, 16 July 1994.

Scheinin, Richard. “‘Aladdin’ Politically Correct? Arabs, Muslims Say No Way ⁠— Criticisms That Kid Movie Is Racist Takes Disney by Surprise.” Entertainment & the Arts, Seattle Times, 14 Feb. 1994, 12:00 a.m.

Veils, Harems & Belly Dancers.” Reclaiming Our Identity: Dismantling Arab Stereotypes, Arab American National Museum, 2011.