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Framing Muslims: Stereotyping and Representation after 9/11

reviewed by Brigitte Nacos - September 07, 2011

coverTitle: Framing Muslims: Stereotyping and Representation after 9/11
Author(s): Peter Morey and Amina Yaqin
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674048520, Pages: 256, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

Three years before 9/11, President Clinton's Advisory Board on Race (1998, pp. 97, 84) reported a major problem regarding “the representation, coverage, and portrayal of minorities on the news, on television, in film, and in other forms of media.” Arab and Muslim Americans were among those minorities. In the words of one Muslim American quoted in the report, “In the United States, we see…the Arab and the Muslim have become…not only the other, not only the potential terrorist who is a threat to the way of life…the Arab and the Muslim have become the enemy.” This perception was hardly surprising. After all, Hollywood motion pictures and TV shows had long dwelt on the negative image by casting Arabs and Muslims as violent and barbaric villains (Shaheen, 2009). For decades, the authors of crime fiction had taken their plots from media reports of anti-American terrorism in the Middle East perpetrated by Muslim and Arab fanatics (Simon, 1989, p. 140). As for the news media, Edward Said (1981) wrote, “Muslims and Arabs are essentially covered, discussed, apprehended either as suppliers of oil or as potential terrorists” (p. 26).

These stereotypical images and narratives became even more dominant after the attacks of 9/11 by a group of Islamists. Based on her analysis of Fox News on the afternoon of September 11, 2001, Elisabeth Anker (2005) concluded that the reporting was best described as a “melodrama [that] defined America as a heroic redeemer with a mandate to act because of an injury committed by a hostile villain” (p. 35). The other networks told the same story about the eternal clash between good and evil, heroes and villains, freedom-loving victims and barbaric aggressors. In the 14 hours or so following the 9/11 attacks, anchors, reporters, experts and other sources used the terms “evil” 16 times and “war” or “war on terrorism” 93 times in newscasts aired by ABC News, CBS News, and NBC News. The frequently shown images of Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 attackers left no doubt about the profile of the new enemy.

Just as mass-mediated, negative stereotypes of African Americans in news and entertainment media help to explain the white majority’s misconceptions about the African American minority in general and about poverty and welfare in their own country in particular (Gilens, 1999; Entman & Rojecki, 2000), the stereotypical depiction of Muslims has informed post-9/11 public and elite attitudes on Muslims at home and abroad. Distinguishing between “good” and “bad” civil society, the post-9/11 counterterrorism regime reserved the problematic side mostly for Muslim groups and individuals. Increasingly, non-Muslims came to accept the good versus bad, the “us” versus “them” divide. As Howell and Lind (2009) have noted, “The silence of mainstream civil society in respect of the targeting of Muslim communities and the violation of civil liberties has been alarming” (p. 73).

How we view the world around us, how we think about and act on issues and problems arising in the public and private sphere, is not only affected by information we receive as news but also by words, ideas, images, stereotypes, and outright bigotry presented in other types of mass media. Contrary to most media scholars who restrict their analysis to one media type, in their book, Framing Muslims, Peter Morey and Amina Yaqin examine the framing of Muslims in a range of news and entertainment media, in relevant parts of the blogosphere, and in the marketing scene, as well as in the political arena. While relying more on British than American examples, the relationships that the authors recognize between the representation and self-representation of Muslims in politics and the mainstream media were and are at least as strong in the U.S. as in the U.K.

Take, for example, the American media’s reluctance to use the term “torture” in describing the torturing of detainees in U.S. controlled facilities at a time when President George W. Bush and other members of the administration insisted that America does not torture. Or think of senior officials in the Bush administration, led by the president’s influential adviser Karl Rove, meeting with representatives of the film industry several weeks after 9/11 to enlist Hollywood’s cooperation in the “war on terrorism.” As Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, put it, “Mr. Rove wanted to come out and have a meeting with the top executives of the studios, the television networks, theater owners, to see what ideas we have that would enable this war to be fought on every front” (CNN, 2001). Whether in response to Karl Rove and his colleagues or not, TV drama series, for example, became far more violent and their torture scenes far more brutal and numerous after the events of 9/11. The unreal dirty bomb threat scenario became not only real in episodes of the TV-hit “24,” but also in the minds of political elites, conservatives, and liberals alike.

As for the self-representation of Muslims in the Western diaspora, most of what is said and written about them comes from non-Muslim sources. To the extent that Muslims speak for themselves, the authors describe the problems here as well. Thus, the most influential Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), an umbrella organization, was constituted in response to an invitation by the then conservative government in the 1990s. Obviously, the government wanted a compliant Muslim lobby. When the MCB proved not sufficiently in step with the government in the post-9/11 era, the organization came to be portrayed as part of the problem. In the U.S., the authors are right to point to the relentless attacks against the Council of American-Islamic Affairs (CAIR) by anti-Islamic activists who accuse CAIR of sympathizing with terrorists. But unlike the MCB in Britain, CAIR was not groomed by Washington’s power elite but has grown into an important advocate of American Muslims’ civil liberties.

To be sure, in our time, extremists in the Muslim world and the Western diaspora have been responsible for the by far largest number of terrorist attacks; military actions in the name of counterterrorism have caused great harm. Nobody would expect that the media would ignore or under-cover those events and developments. Yet, the authors are correct when they criticize the narrow media agenda, what they call a “Muslim index matrix,” that is mostly limited to covering Muslims in the context of terrorism, radicalization, and other threats, all of which correspond to perceived state interests and government agendas.

As noted earlier, it is the particular merit of this volume that the authors trace the narrowcasting and stereotyping of Muslims in essentially all types of media with particular attention to television and radio without ever losing their central focus, namely, “to trace the restricted, limited ways that Muslims are stereotyped and ‘framed’ within the political, cultural, and media discourses of the West” (p. 2). To that end, they familiarize the reader with the most persistent Muslim stereotypes, on the one side the bearded, barbaric, violent male and on the other side the victimized, veiled female, in especially compelling ways: the Internet images of Islamic Rage Boy, created and recreated by those inflicted by the virus of Islamophobia, and the marketing images of an “Islamic Barbie” doll, decried by the Washington Times in an editorial as a signal that “Western culture has lost another battle in the clash of civilizations as Barbie dons the burqa.”


Anker, E. (2005). Villains, victims, and heroes: Melodrama, media, and September 11. Journal of Communication, 55(1), 22-37.

McDermott, A., & Schneider, B. (2001, November 9). Uncle Sam wants Hollywood. CNN Entertainment. Retrieved August 15, 2011 from http://articles.cnn.com/2001-11-09/entertainment/hollywood.war_1_war-effort-film-industry-vietnam-movies?_s=PM:SHOWBIZ

Entman, R. M., & Rojecki, A. (2000). The black image in the white mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gilens, M. (1999). Why Americans hate welfare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Howell, J., & Lind, J. (2009). Counter-terrorism, aid and civil society. Houndsmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Said, E. W. (1981). Covering Islam: How the media and the experts determine how we see the rest of the world. New York: Pantheon Books.

Shaheen, J. G. (2009). Reel bad Arabs. New York: Olive Branch Press.

Simon, R. (1989). The middle east in crime fiction. New York: Lilian Barber Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 07, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16539, Date Accessed: 10/28/2021 3:34:22 AM

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About the Author
  • Brigitte Nacos
    Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    BRIGITTE L. NACOS is a journalist and an adjunct professor of political science at Columbia University. She is the author of several books, among them Terrorism and the Media (Columbia University Press, 1996); Mass-Mediated Terrorism: The Centrality of the Media in Terrorism and Counterterrorism (Rowman & Littlefield 2006); Fueling Our Fears: Stereotyping, Media Coverage, and Public Opinion of Muslim Americans (with Oscar Torres-Reyna); Terrorism and Counterterrorism (Pearson Longman, 2011), and (with co-authors Yaeli Bloch-Elkon and Robert Y. Shapiro) Selling Fear: Counterterrorism, the Media and Public Opinion (University of Chicago Press, 2011).
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