The Portrayals of Muslims in Popular Culture

At the beginning of this course, we had an assignment where we had to find out what our identities were and talk about them. The first thing that came to my mind was my religion. Then we had to choose one of these identities and do some research on how they are portrayed in popular culture. This was the perfect assignment for me because I have a passion for researching and learning more about my religion. I am a Muslim born right here in Portland, Oregon. My mom also happens to be an Islamic teacher so I learned all about the religion ever since I was young. I find myself involved in Popular Culture through social media, shows, movies, and even the news. So I already had a strong opinion on how Muslims are portrayed in popular culture. After my research, I can confidently say that my opinion of Muslims are portrayed as terrorist was correct. Persistent research has proven that viewers automatically label Muslims as terrorists or they are portrayed in a negative light throughout movies, films, and other aspects of pop culture.

American Sniper is a very popular movie and was a box office hit when it first came out. However, the film had many controversial scenes. In the beginning of the movie, there is a scene where a sniper shoots a woman wearing her hijab and a little boy that looked like it could have been her son.  The woman wearing the hijab indicates that she’s Muslim and ironically they had a bomb with them. There was another scene where the U.S. troops break into a house and hits an old man for simply being in his house. The old man tried inviting the soldiers in despite being hit, but one of the soldiers says, “No. This Hajji just wants us all in here so he can blow us up.” The old man was dressed in traditional Islamic clothing and seemed like a religious man. In both of these scenes, Muslims are portrayed as terrorists. In the first scene, both the child and the mother were shot because there was a possibility that they had a bomb on them, what made me mad about this scene was that the woman was wearing a hijab. A hijab is the religious scarf that Muslim woman are required to wear. Showing her wearing a hijab portrays to the audience that she is Muslim and is a terrorist. The second scene I mentioned is equally disturbing and controversial. The old man in that scene was dressed as a sheikh. A sheikh is a religious leader and teacher in a community. He was portrayed as a terrorist that was going to blow the troops up when he was just being respectful and trying to invite the rest of the troops into his house. This movie helps spread a negative image of Muslims. The audience watching this will relate with the American soldiers every time the see a man dressed as a sheikh or a woman wearing a hijab. Both my mother and my sister wear a hijab and some people view them as possible terrorists because of films like this that portrays Muslims as terrorists. I remember after watching this movie in theatres, I saw many reactions on twitter that shocked/scared me. Some people were being flat out disrespectful with no regard to others and went to say that this film made them want go to shoot some Muslims.


Another source I found was the very popular show that airs on Showtime called Homeland. There was a specific scene in which two terrorist leaders were meeting in a Beirut, Lebanon and there were American snipers crouched up on a rooftop waiting for their target. The beautiful city of Beirut was portrayed as a place filled with armed terrorists and a place where they can meet up. The funny thing is that, it wasn’t even filmed in Beirut or in Lebanon for that matter. Most viewers saw the scene and automatically registered that Beirut is a city filled with terrorists and is crowded with guns and bombs. This may not sound like a big deal for some people, but for middle easterns it is. We live in a world where Muslims get a lot of hate and are stereotypes as terrorists. Scenes like this only further the hatred and stereotype people have and does nothing to improve the overall portrayal of Muslims.

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February 2015, there was a shooting in Chapel Hill, North Carolina that left the community shocked. According to this article on “USAToday”, a white man shot three Muslims in their early 20s over parking. The article stated that the crime was “motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking.” Apparently he got into arguments with multiple people about the parking issue since he lives in an apartment complex. Also, the article states that he was a second amendment advocate and carried a gun on him most of the time. I find it very interesting that three Muslims were shot in the head, execution style, and the media covers it up as a parking dispute. According to the article, the killer knocked on the door and had an argument with the Muslim guy, who was the first victim. The argument led the guy to shoot the Muslim man in the head then went on and shot the two Muslim woman inside. No matter what the issue is, there has to be some serious hatred in order for you to go and murder three younger people. Race/religion definitely had something to do with it. There isn’t a justification for shooting people in the head regardless of what happened. The article mentioned how the killer often posted quotes critical of religion and was known as an atheist. The father of the three Muslims that were murdered believed that it was a hate crime as well. Weeks before the incident, one of the victims told her father that the murderer often made her and her husband feel uncomfortable, her husband is one of the other victims. She told her father that he would often confront them with his gun clearly visible on his waist. If all this isn’t an indication that it was a hate crime than I don’t know what it is. However, the media continues to portray this as a crime over parking dispute and that it had nothing to do with religion.

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While I was doing my research, I found an article by a fellow Muslim named Omar Alnatour that, like me, is tired of Muslims being portrayed and stereotyped as terrorists. He backed up his claim with a bunch of statistics. “According to the FBI, 94% of terrorist attacks carried out in the United States from 1980 to 2005 have been by non-Muslims.” There has been more acts of terrorism by other religions, but you don’t see them portrayed as terrorists. According to this article, there was a study done by the University of North Carolina that showed that less than .0002 percent of Americans killed since 9/11 were killed by Muslims. The percentage is so low, but yet people are still manipulated by the way popular culture portrays Muslims. Omar also had another statistic about terrorism in Europe. He said that there has been over a thousand attacks in Europe over the last couple of years and less than 2 percent of them were done by Muslims. This is in the past five years as of December 2015. How can pop culture continue to portray Muslims as terrorists when the stats show that it truly us a very few minority of Muslims that are involved in terrorist activities. I don’t remember the last time a non-Muslim was labeled as a terrorist. According to Google’s dictionary, terrorism is defined “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political arms.” There are many non-Muslims that use violence in “pursuit of political arms”, but we never hear them called terrorists. Whenever a common person thinks of terrorism, he automatically relates it to Muslims despite all the stats that show how little the percentage is of terrorist attacks caused by Muslims.

Throughout this paper, I have consistently showed you how Muslims are portrayed in a negative way throughout many different aspects of popular culture. I started off with the popular film, American Sniper, that gained a lot of attention for showing American patriotism. I have no problem with this, but it also portrayed Muslims as terrorists. Another example was the show that airs on Showtime called Homeland. The scene I talked about portrayed the beautiful Islamic capital of Lebanon as a city filled with armed civilians and terrorists. Those are just two examples of many instances throughout popular culture where portrayed in a negative light. There needs to be more popular shows and films that portray Muslims and Islam in a more positive light.


“Ethnic and Racial Studies.” The Effect of Terrorist Events on Media Portrayals of Islam and Muslims: Evidence from New York Times Headlines, 1985–2013: Ethnic and Racial Studies: Vol 39, No 7. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

Alnatour, Omar. “Muslims Are Not Terrorists: A Factual Look at Terrorism and Islam.” The Huffington Post., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

“The Social Studies.” Teaching about Islam and Muslims While Countering Cultural Misrepresentations: The Social Studies: Vol 106, No 3. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

American Sniper. Dir. Clint Eastwood. Warner Home Video, 2015. DVD.

Gordon, Howard, and Alex Gansa. Homeland. Showtime. N.d. Television.

Stanglin, Doug, and Michael Winter. “Chapel Hill ‘rocked’ by Killings of 3 Muslim Students.” USA Today. Gannett Satellite Information Network, 12 Feb. 2015. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

“Homeland’s War on Beirut.” Imagining Lebanon. N.p., 11 Mar. 2015. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.