Argo and Islamophobia

A few weeks ago I was listening to an archived episode of CBC’s national arts & culture radio program Q on my way to work, and was particularly interested in . The two were discussing Islamophobia in the media, particularly in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, ‘Argo’, and the TV show ‘Homeland’.  At the time, both Argo and Zero Dark Thirty were receiving critical acclaim in Hollywood, and subsequently Argo went on to win the Oscar for best picture at the Academy Awards. However, despite its acclaim, several critics (one of which is Ken Taylor – Canada’s former ambassador to Iran from 1977-1980) claimed that Argo demonizes Iranians, fails to portray “a more conventional side” of Iranian society, and is guilty of racist stereotyping. 

Interested and wanting to find out more, I watched Argo a few days ago to see how Iranians were portrayed. In the first few minutes of the film, I felt as if I were watching a zombie horror flick. Crazed Iranians stormed the US embassy, while the American employees looked on with equal parts defeat and horror. Throughout the remainder of the film, the only Iranians we see are either carrying guns and are gesturing threateningly, or are screaming in Farsi.  In case you haven’t seen Argo and are wondering what Islamophobia looks like, then check out the trailer below for the film ‘Not Without My Daughter’. ‘Not Without My Daughter’ came out in 1991 and is unabashedly and blatantly Islamophobic:

Not Without My Daughter trailer

In a nutshell, ‘Not Without My Daughter’ is about an Iranian physician who takes his American wife and daughter to visit his family in Iran. He soon becomes violent and domineering, and refuses to let his wife and daughter return to America. This film plays up many of the well-worn stereotypes about Islam and Muslim men. The recently deceased Roger Ebert said of Not Without My Daughter, “No Muslim character is painted in a favorable light; the local people who help the heroine are dissidents or outlaws. We are not even permitted to learn what they say, because the film declines to use subtitles to translate the considerable spoken dialogue of the Iranian characters.” Similar things have also been said about Argo. For example, “there is not one positive Iranian subject in the entire story” and , which serves to dehumanize Iranians and distance us from their characters. When examining these two movies, it seems like some things haven’t changed much over the last two decades. Muslims continue to be portrayed as violent extremists, even though “[extremists] tend to be non-faithful individuals who are drawn to radical peer groups for political or personal, but not religious reasons” and are not isolated to any one ethnic or religious community.

The Runnymede Trust released a report on Islamophobia several years ago, and described how Islamophobic individuals view Islam in the following ways:

i) Islam is monolithic and cannot adapt to new realities
ii) Islam does not share common values with other cultures
iii) Islam as a religion is inferior to the West.  It is archaic, barbaric, and irrational.
iv) Islam is a religion of violence and supports terrorism
v) Islam is a violent political ideology

We can sometimes see these views echoed in the media around us, which casts Islam as temporally and spatially different from the “modern world”. This can lead to exclusion, discrimination, prejudice, lack of equal opportunities, and can create of a sense of cultural inferiority. Many have argued that such perspectives are often employed to mobilize public support for overseas war efforts such as the war in Afghanistan or Iraq.

However an important point to note, which the Runnymede Trust report also goes on to state, is that there is important distinction between Islamophobia and criticism. It can be warranted to criticize the policies and practices of any government – including Muslim states and regimes – such as when governments do not subscribe to internationally recognized human rights or where women are abused or oppressed. It’s important that we distinguish between criticism and fears or prejudices.

Whether you’re watching TV, listening to the radio, or are reading the news or other media, keep some questions in mind to help distinguish between Islamophobia and criticism. Are Muslims being portrayed in a balanced or unbiased way? Are both sides of the picture being shown, or simply one perspective? Do such portrayals create informed opinions, or fear? Why does the media portray these groups in certain ways? Could these portrayals be used to advance or justify political and economic agendas (war, imperialism, increased surveillance, etc.)?

And for educators, UNESCO put together a document on guidelines for countering discrimination against Muslims, which is available here: