Friday, October 12, 2012

Evelyn Alsultany's "Arabs and Muslims in the Media"

Evelyn Alsultany is an Associate Professor in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan. She is co-editor (with Rabab Abdulhadi and Nadine Naber) of Arab and Arab American Feminisms: Gender, Violence, and Belonging (Syracuse University Press, 2011). She is guest curator of the Arab American National Museum's online exhibit, Reclaiming Identity: Dismantling Arab Stereotypes.

Alsultany applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11, and reported the following:
This book was inspired by watching television after 9/11, particularly by my surprise at seeing many sympathetic representations of Arabs and Muslims. It is a historical trend that during times of war, the “enemy” – for example, Japanese during WWII, Russians during the Cold War – are demonized to facilitate passing policies that will kill or harm them. My book examines the following question: Given the increase in hate crimes and government policies that targeted Arabs and Muslims after 9/11, and public support for such policies, how do we make sense of the proliferation of sympathetic images? I set about analyzing these sympathetic representations in TV dramas, news reports, and public service announcements in order to understand how they are operating during the War on Terror.

Many people have said to me that they believe that the ability to represent the so-called enemy in nuanced ways – to not demonize an entire people – is reflective of the dawn of a post-race era, an era where we are more aware and sensitive to stereotypes. This is partly true, but not the full story. I argue that a new standard in racial and cultural representations emerged out of the multicultural movement of the 1990s. This involves balancing a negative representation with a positive one. This has meant that if the storyline of a TV drama or film represents an Arab/Muslim as a terrorist, then the storyline also includes a “positive” representation of an Arab or Muslim American to offset the negative depiction of the Arab/Muslim as a terrorist.

I identify and examine a range of forms that these positive representations have taken, from patriotic Arab Americans to oppressed Muslim women. I argue that these positive representations should not be taken at face value to represent the dawn of a post-race era, but rather should be analyzed for their ideological work. What I found is that many of these positive portrayals of Arabs and Muslims do the “ideological work” of justifying discriminatory policies even while they are trying to avoid reproducing stereotypes.

Page 99 is the conclusion to chapter 3 and sums up one of the main themes of the book: the feelings we have, even the ones inspired by a desire for justice, can support government war initiatives:
Outrage is an emotion that carries vast political potential. If we are outraged at the treatment of the oppressed Muslim woman, we are far more likely to support U.S. interventions in Muslim countries in the name of saving the women. The U.S. media participates in encouraging a particular form of outrage – outrage at the oppressive nature of Islam – while other forms of outrage are intentionally left absent, namely that the United States has played a significant role in creating Islamic fundamentalism and current conflicts including 9/11 and the War on Terror. As Judith Butler has written:
Open grieving is bound up with outrage, and outrage in the face of injustice or indeed of unbearable loss has enormous political potential … Whether we are speaking about open grief or outrage, we are talking about affective responses that are highly regulated by regimes of power and sometimes subject to explicit censorship.
The U.S. government and commercial media’s selective framing of the War on Terror seeks to restrict outrage to narratives that absolve the United States from accountability and support its interventionist projects. This highly mediated evocation of outrage for the plight of the oppressed Muslim woman inspires support of U.S. interventions against Muslim men and barbaric Islam. War has been and continues to be made possible in part by the media’s eager cultivation of pity and outrage.
Read more about Arabs and Muslims in the Media at the New York University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue