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Manufacturing Terror: The Media’s Anti-Arab and Anti-Muslim Problem


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“You Are A Terrorist,” street poster photo by (cc) Flickr user GaijinSeb

After the Boston Marathon bombing, journalists scrambled to identify those responsible for the attack, and their motive. Rolling news and online message boards were filled with speculation, many pointing the finger at Muslims and Arabs. Does the media reinforce anti-Arab and anti-Muslim stereotypes?

Adel Iskandar, media and communications scholar; Mike German, ACLU Washington Legislative Office senior policy council; Maytha Alhassen, University of Southern California Provost Ph.D. Fellow in American Studies and Ethnicity; Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, HuffPost Live co-founding member

Special thanks to The Media Democracy Fund and The Media Consortium for funding our travel to the National Conference on Media Reform

More information
Full panel: Manufacturing Terror: The Media’s Anti-Arab and Anti-Muslim Problem
Social media’s rush to judgement
Decoding the Invisible Whiteness In Boston Bombing Coverage
The Tangled Meanings—and Misuses—of ‘Radicalization’
Obama’s rush to judgment: Was the Boston bombing really a “terrorist” act?
Jon Stewart mocks CNN’s new ‘responsible’ reporting on Boston bombing
Film review: “Planet of the Arabs” and “Arabs A Go-Go”


Episode Transcript


  • This week on Making Contact.
  • Police are investigating a report of two explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Now, there were two booms that were heard from the–

  • Two bombs went off at that finish line, wounding more than 140, killing 3, at least.

  • Investigation into the possible tie to jihadists. The hunt for the terrorist connection.

  • After the Boston Marathon bombing, journalists scrambled to identify those responsible for the attack and their motive. Rolling news and online message boards were filled with speculation, many pointing the finger at Muslims and Arabs. But does the media reinforce anti-Arab and anti-Muslim stereotypes?

  • What defines a terrorist? It has to be something politically motivated. Well, what does that mean? Because as long as the word Islam is associated, then that defines terrorism.

  • On this edition, does government counterterrorism policy influence the media? And how does the media influence us? I’m George Lavender, and this is Making Contact– a program connecting people, vital ideas, and important information.


When you hear the word terrorist, who do you think about?

  • Can I say what I’ve seen now?
  • Well, there might have been someone there the police spoke with.

  • Yeah. He had on a black– I mean, he looked Muslim. I mean, I’m not racist, so I shouldn’t say that. But that was my instinct, just to look for somebody Muslim. And I looked at this one kid–

  • Radio, TV, newspapers, films, and the internet all play a part in shaping our ideas. But what messages are they giving us about Muslims and Arabs? At the 2013 National Conference for Media Reform, four panelists discussed media, terrorism, and Islamophobia. We’ll hear first from Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, an Emmy award-nominated journalist and founding member of HuffPost Live.

  • I wanted to start by saying, you know, one thing we often say in media, at least in my kind of community, is that perception dictates reality or perception is reality. And so when we talk about the problem in terms of how Muslims and Arabs are portrayed, to me, the perception of us, our community, people who are Muslim or Arab, is literally a product of the way that the media perceives the government’s narrative here in America, but also Muslims in the Arab world in general. And this is something that’s gone on long before I was even born, as I’ve learned through reading.

But I think most aptly share my personal experience as someone who is a young Arab Muslim on the face of it, even though my friends will tell you, in terms of literally an interpretation of Islam, I’m probably a very bad Muslim in terms of a practicing Muslim. I’m not hungover, but I did have a few drinks last night.

So when we talk about the Arab or Muslim world, for me, as I’m sure many of you know, it’s often framed through sectarianism. It’s framed through violence. It’s framed through extremism and division. And that has existed long before 9/11, and I think was exacerbated by 9/11.

And what shocked me when I was 17 years old– and even though I was born in this country– I was born in Berkeley, California– I was born there, but I had never lived in America. I had the good fortune of growing up abroad. My dad worked for the UN, so I lived in many countries, many parts of the world. And so when I arrived here, I went to Boston University. It was a couple months after 9/11. I was 17 years old, so I’m sure you know where Logan Airport plays into the 9/11 story.

And the point I’m trying to get at is how Arabs and Muslims– I think what compounds this problem is that we are portrayed with one broad brush stroke. The ignorance and arrogance, I think in this country– and please, I’m caveatting this by saying, I am an American. I’m a proud American. But I was shocked and appalled as an American by the level of ignorance about where I came from, because I am an American. And I was at a good school– at least that’s what my high school counselor told me. BU was a second-tier college, but it was good enough.

And so what I’m getting at is, I would tell people– I got to my dorm room. The people at the school– I had a Palestinian flag, because my parents are originally from Palestine. And I had it on my wall. And they came, and they looked, and they were like, that’s a beautiful flag. Where is it from? I said, Palestine. Blank stares. So many blank stares. Not even an acknowledgment of perhaps one of the biggest conflicts in our time.

So then I would say, oh, you know, it’s close to Israel. Do you know Israel? And still, if you can imagine, there would be blank stares. And then, oh, Pakistan, they would say to me. No, not Pakistan. And they would say, oh, Afghanistan, because we were already going to war with Afghanistan. And I was like, no, it’s not Afghanistan, but, OK, sort of. So I would give in and relent to sort of, because it seemed, at the time, to be a lost cause. But we’ve come a long way since then.

But I think if you think about 9/11, in all seriousness, the pervading, at least from my vantage point, sense of the emotion, let’s say, was one of fear, and understandably so. America was scared, as we should be scared. And so the problem was that the way that Arabs and Muslims were portrayed was only exacerbated by 9/11. It was made worse by 9/11, because of our government’s reaction.

9/11, when I think of Muslim or Arab, I think it’s the way we, as Americans, we, as the media, we, as our government reacted to 9/11. Of course it was a tragic and horrible event. But I think what’s more tragic, from my vantage point, is the reaction for decades and as long as it’s been.

But anyway, so that reaction, specifically what I’m talking about, is the preemptive doctrine that Bush adopted– this notion of imminent threat, mortal threat, Islamic jihadists, fundamentalists. I mean, if you remember, that was literally everywhere. And I remember, because I was 18. And when you’re 18, you’re trying to figure out who you are, what you’re trying to be about, what’s important to you, what your values are, and you’re constantly being bombarded with this messaging. And the problem is, the media, as you all know, in the lead-up to the Iraq war, was misled and adopted a lot of this rhetoric. And language does matter.

And so Islam became, I think, largely, the new perceived enemy of the West. Muslims, Arabs, all, I think, collectively, became perceived as a threat. And whether it’s a mortal threat or a clash of civilization– all those phrases that were used– the framing made by the government, I think, whether knowingly or not, is something that I think continues to this day to frame the region through a sectarian lens.

  • That was Ahmed Shihab-Eldin. Up next is Mike German, Senior Policy Counsel for the Washington Legislative Office of the American Civil Liberties Union. Before joining the ACLU, he worked for 16 years as a special agent with the FBI, where he specialized in investigating domestic terrorism and covert operations.
  • After 9/11, when all of a sudden there was this surge of interest in studying terrorism, a lot of the themes came out. And the most dangerous was this idea of radicalization. You may have seen in 2007, the NYPD put out a report, “Radicalization in the West.” And it basically describes a four-step process, that somebody moves from normal, productive citizen to terrorist. A very simple linear progression, where you start with adopting a particular ideology. And then, as you intensify your interest in that ideology or in communing with others in that ideology and become an activist in favor of that ideology, and then become a terrorist. Very simple. The only problem with the theory is that there is zero empirical evidence supporting it. And, in fact, all empirical studies show that that’s not true.

But why the government likes it so much is it makes it very simple for them to then surveil the people who have the ideology and to discredit the people who have the ideology. So that’s why you see things like– the NYPD spying on Muslims was basically a reaction to that theory. But it wasn’t the NYPD’s theory. It actually– the document was very– I mean, almost identical to an earlier FBI report called “From Conversion to Jihad.” But it had the same four-step process. So there are a lot of studies now out criticizing that.

The problem that we found was the radicalization theory, as wrong as it was, actually was the least of the problem. I mean, there were some, actually, overt racist sort of training that the FBI was putting on, both for its own agents and for other state and local law enforcement.

So you had this situation– so we have these documents going from 2003 to 2011, just because that was the scope of our FOIA. So basically, you have a decade’s worth of law enforcement agents being trained with this racist material that had complete factually flawed, basically arguing that all Arabs and Muslims were backward, inherently violent, and therefore don’t have to be treated as normal, should always be treated as suspect.

We actually have a textbook that they published. So this is a very professionally-produced– obviously, it took a lot of time and resources. And one of the essays in there written by an agent suggesting to younger agents how to interact with the Muslims in the public, it says you should ask them a list of questions. And the question was, how do you feel about the Iraq war? How do you feel about the Israel-Palestine issue? How do you feel about Egypt? And then it says, if they answer in a pro-Western, patriotic response, they are probably OK and could be used as an informant.


But if they answer any other way, there’s a possibility that they’re a militant. So this kind of dangerous thinking, unfortunately, because it’s in the government, a lot of the media discussion of these issues, they have to use the language that the government’s using. So you’ll often see, in these stories about a terrorist, where the person was radicalized, even though there is no particular process for doing that. It’s sort of a made up thing that, again, moves the focus from people who actually engage in violence to people who speak out in favor of certain political, social, or religious themes. And that’s what drives a lot of what ends up in the press.

  • This time it’s a college student, which is when he appears to have become immersed in radical politics.
  • British officials tell ABC News it’s still not certain Abdul Muttalib was radicalized here.

  • Can we close the book, simply, on their path to radicalization? What motivated these guys? Did they have some sort of long history, some connections that we should look into more deeply? And I hope that we will, before we sort of close the book on these guys.

  • Well, this is something that counterterrorism experts have been pointing to for quite a while now, that there is this radicalization on campuses. And not only are they–

  • Every time you use the word radicalization, that justifies this spying on the community as a whole.

  • That report that Mike was talking about is actually– I want to just read something from a blog I wrote once. It said, it described a terrorist in Canada as someone who speaks multiple languages, including three predominant Western languages, German, French, and English and Arabic– all of which I happen to speak, because I grew up in Egypt and I grew up in Austria, and so on and so forth. And this report was presented to me by– when I was working at BBS, my boss, he dropped it on my desk, and said, it looks like you’re a terrorist. And he was joking, but he really shouldn’t have been. Because to your point, it literally described me, and arguably any other male between the ages of whatever and whatever to a T.

And it said, they were anywhere from 15 to 35, at an age where they’re seeking to identify who they really are while trying to find the meaning of life, from a middle-class family, and students appear to be the most fertile ground. And then it said that– the biggest problem for me was that it described us as literally hanging out, I think it was in coffee shops, bookstores– I mean, literally, it was the most vague and broad definition. Like, they breathe, they’re struggling to find the meaning of life, so on and so forth.

So to me, I think what this all points– is this notion that we often talk about how we failed in the lead up to the Iraq war. And the correlation is that, sure, we did fail. We didn’t ask the right questions, access to the government– there was an emotive reason for as to why we probably failed as the media, whether it’s the mainstream media. And even though many in the independent media world or realm actually tried to challenge, I think not enough did.

But there was also a decade-long war that continues, arguably, to this day, where we also failed. We failed to show the true human cost of the Iraqi people, for example. We failed, today, I think, to show the true human cost of these drone attacks, because we used this counterterrorism language. Look, I don’t support terrorism. I don’t like terrorism. But at the end of the day, unless we make a concerted effort to really portray the Arab people in not such a monolithic– where they’re all just these backwards people who hate us. That’s too convenient and it’s too easy.

And so that’s why, for me, when we talk about what we can do as solutions– I left Al Jazeera, because, as much as I enjoyed my show and I enjoyed what I was doing, Al Jazeera wasn’t on in America largely because of this very problem of how they perceive Al Jazeera. I mean, my name, my employer, my background was all kind of, I think, dismissed in this way that was, we were all part of this threat. We were all part of this collective threat. And if you type my name, Ahmed, into YouTube, very quickly, what do you find? The first video that comes up and the most popular on YouTube– I think it’s the seventh most popular of all time– is Achmed the Dead Terrorist.



  • So Ahmed–

No, no, it’s “Ach-med.”

That’s what I said.

No, you said Ahmed. It’s “Ach-med.” [SNORTING]


Silence! I kill you!



  • So it’s this terminology of terrorism and how we choose to define it and the inconsistencies within our media and our government in terms of what defines a terrorist. It has to be something politically motivated. Well, what does that mean? Because as long as the word Islam is associated, then that defines terrorism, or at least that’s my reading of it.
  • We’ll be right back.


You’re listening to Making Contact, a production of the National Radio Project. Because of listeners like you, this show is distributed for free to radio stations in the US, Canada, Australia, and South Africa. To find out how to support us, download shows, or get our podcasts, go to Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @Making_Contact.

Up next, Maytha Alhassen from the University of Southern California talks about the portrayal of Arabs and Muslims before 9/11 and what it can tell us about the sources of Islamophobia.


  • Right now we’re talking about this climate and this moment of fear. But the strange thing, that most of us Arabs know that a lot of other people don’t, is we’ve lived with this. And I might appear young, but how many in the room remember this line from a movie?


  • (SINGING) Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric. But, hey, it’s home.
  • Where’s that from?

  • Aladdin.

  • Aladdin, exactly. 1992, I was a kid. And this is the image and portrayal we had of Arabs.

  • (SINGING) To another Arabian night. Arabian nights, like Arabian–

  • But this wasn’t the first time such a depiction existed. Arabs have always kind of been this mainstay as the convenient villain in film. And if not even just the convenient villain, the convenient character to laugh at for their ludicrous expenditures. And I’ll go a little bit more into that and its relationship into politics.

Ironically though, how many people in the room know that Arabs are classified as Caucasian? So this started in the early 1900s, so the early 20th century, before the National Origins Act was enacted in 1924, which set up a quota system, which basically meant only Europeans could come. But before, Syrian, mostly Christian Americans, came, and they fought to be naturalized. And they did this by trying to prove that they were white. And they did this by also explaining that they were Christians.

And so if Americans considered themselves– or white Americans considered themselves Christians, then they had to recognize that they came from the cradle of civilization. So that’s why they needed to award them citizenship. So it’s a really interesting history that we don’t really talk about and has had a huge impact on our limitation of our rights. We’re socially constructed as the other.

So I want to show a couple of minutes of this clip by a filmmaker named Jackie Salloum. And she did this for her master’s project. It’s called Planet of the Arabs. And it’s a compilation of portrayals of Arabs in some films that we know and love.



  • This is a hijack!


  • Dr. Amar, does it say what God’s command is?
  • To kill Americans.


  • It’s your government we fight, not you. It’s your White House. One day I will go there. I will drive a truck, and truck it will be.
  • You have killed our women and our children, bombed our cities from afar like cowards, and you dare to call us terrorists?


  • Before we start drilling, where should we park the camels?




  • American cowboy.

(SINGING) I’m about as old-fashioned as I can be, and I hope you like what you see. ‘Cause if you’re lookin’ at me–

  • (SINGING) You’re looking at country. [LAUGHS]

(SINGING) You’re lookin’ at country.


  • I don’t know about you, but these guys make me nervous.


  • Stay down. There are Arabs out there.


  • You were educated in the US. What happened to you?
  • I learned to love Allah.


  • And what’s the other one? Shuha–
  • Shuhadah.

  • Right, that’s it. The prayer before you give your life for God.

  • It’s an honor to die for Allah.

  • Face Mecca, Pilgrim.

  • In my country women do not–

  • In your country, you treat women like camels and send young boys to their deaths in the name of your excuse for a god.


  • Do you remember these films? It’s kind of shocking to see with the discourse that we have about the racialization or vilification of Arabs post 9/11. So you ask yourself, why did this happen pre-9/11? And why was there no concerted objection to what we’ve been seeing? There is a unique anti-Arab racism that’s acceptable.

Jack Shaheen, in his book Reel Bad Arabs, he makes the point with the obvious relationship between politics and film. So what was going on during these moments? During the ’70s, oil embargo was happening. And so the question in the minds of Americans is, how could Arabs have that kind of control to upset our economy, right? And why do they? Why do these backwards Bedouins have this kind of control? They can buy luxurious cars, and they’re womanizers, and they have a hook nose.

And then, during the ’90s, obviously the invasion of Kuwait and the Iraq war was something that we needed to understand as, obviously, our enemy. And even more understated, I think, is what was happening– the beginning film that she showed was called Delta Force. And it was a series of films that were produced by two Israeli filmmakers. And this was during the time that the first intifada happened in 1987.

  • Which was largely nonviolent, I would think.
  • Yeah, yeah, yeah. Which was largely nonviolent, but you saw the portrayal of this. And of course there were some hijackings.

And another point I want to add is, where are the women when we talk about the portrayal of Arabs? And Jack Shaheen also provides another interesting, convenient way to think about this. He says that women usually are these roving mass of black sheets. That’s basically the kind of voice that we get in the media. Or that we want to be saved by the West.

In thinking more generally about how Arabs are depicted, we need to move away– and I think you’re going to talk about this more– away from the attitudes around how we’re depicted and the structures, right? So the relationship with film and politics, and most recently crystallized in Zero Dark Thirty. How the heck did we get so much intel for a film, right? What is the relationship with Hollywood and agency? It’s a really, actually, simplified portrait, because what they’re doing is they’re always talking about Arabs and Muslims in the context of terrorism or fear. So ask yourself, when have you seen them outside that context?

  • That was Maytha Alhassen. The final speaker is Adel Iskandar, a media and international communications scholar and author. He teaches at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.
  • Thanks very much. I really appreciate following three remarkable panelists who really have problemitized a lot of the issues that underlie the depiction of Arabs and Muslims in the US media. I think it’s important to also kind of contextualize what Mike had described about counterterrorism training. There’s been sort of a societal counterterrorism training that’s been going on for decades, through the media primarily. I mean, if we’ve been exposed for at least 60 years to messages that vilify and negatively portray and depict Arabs and Muslims as terrorists– I mean, in fact, the other day I spent a little bit of time trying to list the various kinds of profane ways in which Arabs are represented by using just a single letter. And I realized that the letter B is probably the best letter to describe them– billionaires, bombers, belly dancers. I mean, I compiled a list of like 15.

So anyway, but being subjected to this kind of content has a very, very interesting and compelling subliminal effect on popular consciousness. The majority of the population, irrespective of their level of engagement with the Arab world– whether or not they’ve traveled there, they’ve taken courses at universities about the Middle East, they have a regional interest or curiosity– all of that is entirely negligible, even if they’ve actually been engaged in conflict on the ground in one or more Arab countries. Which, unfortunately, our generation today is the generation that is at that forefront. They’re the ones who are often looking at Arabs through the barrel of a gun as opposed to through direct engagement.

So in the absence of direct engagement, the media supplant that sort of natural, humanistic relationship between individuals. And so if we’re looking at the daily regimen of Americans’ exposure to Arabs and Muslims, it has a very, very complicated subliminal effect about our psychic relationship with these people, with this world, with this realm. Which, of course, seems incredibly incompatible with everything that we believe this country stands for. And I think that is the underlying problem. So I think that is the early seed of counterterrorism training.

But I want to point out things that I think are often overlooked. We often sort of miss out on the connection between the structural problems and what actually happens on the screen. And I think that there is something integrally problematic with the corporatization of media and how Muslims and Arabs are depicted.

Take, for instance, the manner in which syndication works. Typically, writers who have wide circulation and wide readership and are syndicated and get their articles published across newspapers or across platforms or end up getting hosted on television or on major mainstream media– typically, they’re individuals who sustain or help provide a platform for the continuation of current policies– economic and social and cultural, as well. And so for the most part, it’s very difficult to break into that circuitry.

The other point is the fact that there is a growing militarization of Hollywood. That there’s a constant liaison relationship between Hollywood production, cinematic production in this country, and the major security apparatus. So there are military– the equivalent of attachés, if one were to imagine the diplomatic corps. It’s almost like the security institutions have diplomatic corps in Hollywood to ensure that the representation of the Department of Defense, of the Pentagon, of military, endeavors of the FBI, of the CIA, are all represented in a manner that is not problematic. That doesn’t necessarily infringe on the political direction of the country, and doesn’t undermine the discourse that pervades.

So I think that is deeply problematic, which brings us to the question of, what does it mean to be authentically Arab or Muslim? And who has the right to speak for them? I mean, I don’t have the right to speak for Arabs or Muslims or Middle Easterners. And I don’t think anybody here wants to take that responsibility either. And in the same way that we are prepared to sort of dismantle our expectations of anyone representing any community, we should do the same for the Arab world. Which, of course, brings us to the question of authenticity.

The remedy is not to say, well, let’s try to present a sympathetic depiction of Arabs and Muslims. Because by and large, that too is going to be warped, is going to be effectively an amputation of some aspect of reality. We’re ordinary people. We’re emotive. We’re real. We breathe. As Ahmed said, we experience our daily lives in the same manner as everyone else.

And so to pigeonhole us, even to present us in a sympathetic light, is in and of itself problematic. So I think the key here is to effectively deconstruct every representation of the Arab world, of Arabs and Muslims and Middle Easterners, on a regular basis, by sponsoring and supporting anything that does even like– provides a very, very minuscule amount of media literacy for the public at large.

And secondly, to continue our critique of corporate media and to be able to push from the margins. Because pushing from the margins means that we can have individuals like Ahmed, like me, like various other journalists and reporters and media practitioners who are from the Arab world. We don’t want them to come in and say, well, we want– that they need to present the Arab world or Arabs in a positive light. But they need to provide a platform, so that people can speak for themselves. And speaking for themselves is all that it comes down to.


  • And that’s it for this edition of Making Contact. You’ve been listening to a panel discussion from the National Conference for Media Reform. For more information about the conference, go to To get a CD copy of this program, go to our website,, where you can also get our podcast, download past shows, or make a difference by supporting our work. Like Making Contact on Facebook or follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @Making_Contact.

Lisa Rudman is our executive director. Jen Chien and Andrew Stelzer, producers. Irene Florez, web editor. Lisa Bartfai, Salima Hamirani, and Erin Matthewson, production interns. And Barbara Barnett, Larry Piltz, Dan Turner, and Alton Byrd, volunteers. I’m George Lavender. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.



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