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Framing Muslims by Amina Yaqin and Peter Morey

by Arin Keeble
16 Jul 2013 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [10] | Review

framing_muslims_yaquin_moreyReview of:  Amina Yaqin and Peter Morey, (2011) Framing Muslims: Stereotyping and Representation After 9/11. London: Harvard University Press.  pp. 260. ISBN: 978-0-674-04852-2.

After a brief waning of interest at the beginning of a new decade, Showtime’s geopolitical thriller Homeland, which has been enormously successful in the US and in Europe, both commercially and critically, has brought 9/11 firmly back into the Western imagination and has brought renewed critical interest in the cultural representation of 9/11 and the War on Terror.  Not only, though, has it reinforced the continued importance of 9/11 in American and Western culture but it has also illustrated the continuing difficulty Western culture has in representing Islam: the problems of “framing” and “stereotyping” that Amina Yaqin and Peter Morey’s Framing Muslims: Stereotyping and Representation after 9/11 (2011) addresses. Homeland has had positive reviews in several generally liberal publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and The Guardian, though there has also been severe criticism aimed its portrayals of Muslims. For example, Peter Beaumont writes in The Guardian (not the rave review mentioned above):

As someone who has spent much time in the Middle East, I find the depictions not only crude and childish but offensive. There is more to it than the portrayal of individuals. For Homeland presents an odd and unbelievable image of relationships between countries and identities in the region, where Palestinians, Iraqis, Saudis all share an agenda regardless of background, culture and history. [1]

In a recent Salon article, Laila Al-Arian develops this discussion of a simplistic and “conflated” vision of Islam and Islamism. Al-Arian pays particular attention to the way Homeland depicts Muslims within a specific frame:

…conflating the goals and intentions of various Arab, Middle Eastern and Islamist groups from al-Qaida to Hezbollah, without providing any context about their backgrounds or motivations. In the real world, the animosity and mistrust between the Sunni extremist al-Qaida and Shia Hezbollah is so great that it’s highly unlikely they would ever cooperate. But in the world of “Homeland,” Hezbollah, which has never threatened an attack on U.S. soil, is not only a close ally of Abu Nazir, but is able to deploy heavily armed commando units to attack a CIA team in rural Pennsylvania. [2]

Framing Muslims was published just before Homeland arrived though the series, its success and popularity, reminds us of the importance and continued prescience of Yaqin and Morey’s book, which maps out “the restricted, limited ways that Muslims are stereotyped and ‘framed’ within the political, cultural and media discourses of the West.” (2) The ideas and critical tools that Framing Muslims offers, cast a revealing light on programmes like Homeland and leave us grateful for a book that is rigorous, accessible and illuminating in its discussion of the ways in which Muslims are framed and stereotyped.

The title terms, “Framing” and “Stereotyping” provide the critical vocabulary for the text, and follow on, as the text does in many other ways, from Edward Said’s use of “Covering” in his seminal, Covering Islam (1981)[3]; these are well-defined yet multifaceted terms that are deployed throughout the narrative.  “Framing” is, of course, a clever double entendre as it simultaneously evokes the editorial aspects of the way an image is framed, with only certain aspects of a potentially larger subject presented to an audience, and also the way people can be framed for crimes they haven’t committed.  Framing Muslims discusses the way the former, as a metaphor for widespread and perennially reductive representations of Islam, leads to or results in the latter.  “Stereotyping” is a more complex term here and provides one of the many valuable ulterior functions of the book. In addition to critiquing Western representation of Islam it also shows us how, after 9/11, outmoded grand narratives returned to prominence: “At no time since the 1930s have questions about the position of the ‘outsider’ in Western society been raised so persistently, troubling fashionable postmodern notions of the decline of the nation-state in the age of globalized capitalism and a boundless consumer culture.”  (18) This is an aside though as the book is centrally invested in discussing how the stereotyping of Muslims works, what the stereotypes are, and also, what the stereotypes reveal about those who are doing the stereotyping. The book asks directly: “what satisfaction and consolation can be gained from painting people in garish primary colours instead of acknowledging the actual pied beauty of humanity?” (19)  Stereotyping, for Yaqin and Morey is explicitly dialogic and they discuss the “mutuality of stereotypes” extensively: “the negative stereotypes that have been reanimated in the last fiver years or so and the frequent cries for ‘positive representations’ are both inherently dialogical.” (20) This emphasis on dialogic stereotyping enables the book, in several places, to draw connections between representation and reality:

the dialogic nature of stereotyping takes on an added edge when Muslims see themselves constantly portrayed as having some indefinable propensity to barbarism.  It is unsurprising if, in the face such vilification, particular embattled and defensive types of group identity emerge.  (31)

As stated, the book’s explicit critical vocabulary is one of several ways that it follows in the footsteps of Said, and it must be said that it very clearly acknowledges this.  It should also be mentioned that in addition to Covering Islam, Framing Muslims also continues the project of some of Said’s early post-9/11 writings.  Just days after the attacks he published a short article in The Observer called “Islam and the West are Inadequate Banners,” [4] recognizing immediately that the “covering” of Islam would intensify dangerously after the attacks.  Framing Muslims is clear in its mission of carrying on Said’s work in the post-9/11 years of the War on Terror, 7/7, the Patriot Act and the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and does this with a rigour that Said would have approved of, and an accessibility that occasionally eluded him.

One of the many admirable qualities of the book is its ability to articulate important points about the “framing” of Muslims by using accessible, panoramic contexts and comparisons.  For example, in a fascinating section on the reported proliferation of “honor killings” by Muslim men of their “westernized” wives, Yaqin and Morey demonstrate that the difference between these instances and other “crimes of passion” have been found to be negligible or non-existent.  Yaqin and Morey point out that in Great Britain, two women are murdered each week by their partners in similar circumstances to crimes which are sensationalized as “honor crimes” in immigrant communities: “What will pass for cold-blooded murder or a ‘crime of passion’ when taking place among Europeans or Americans will, if occurring in tightly knit immigrant communities, almost automatically carry the whiff of an honor crime and is like to be investigated (and reported) as such.” (72)  Throughout the book, Framing Muslims unpacks assumptions and truisms that cumulatively “stereotype” and “frame,” using familiar and accessible examples.  These examples range from discussion of major media or political events or cases and the way they were reported, and cultural representation from popular “docu-dramas” like the BBC’s Dirty War (2004) or The Hamburg Cell (2004) and realist films like White Girl (2008) and Yasmin (2004) as well as popular television thrillers like Sleeper Cell (2005-2006), 24 (2001-2010) and Spooks (2002-2011). Yaqin and Morey establish clear examples of various modes of “framing” and catalogue the stereotypes that emerge as they work through these examples from mainstream media, politics, film and television.

One clearly stated bias in Framing Muslims is its focus on British cultural examples.  This is in many ways an advantage of the text as it supplements existing work on American or Hollywood representations of otherness and Islam but also provides useful transatlantic comparisons of concepts such as “multiculturalism.”  Yaqin and Morey point out early on the fundamental differences between “the United States’ acknowledgement of itself as a nation born through immigration and Britain’s corresponding fantasy of a comparatively seamless ethnic history troubled only in recent years by postimperial arrivals.”  (46)  This is a useful distinction in that it highlights the unique context in which British Muslims are “framed” but also draws attention to the stark hypocrisy of many American cultural representations of Islam.  The text’s discussion of multiculturalism in Britain as compared to in America, both as a government agenda and a “quotidian experience,” allows for a particularly revealing interrogation of the term and its uses. Yaqin and Morey are particularly in-depth on the way official British multiculturalism has engendered a culture of minority “spokespersons” and “representatives,” which again, opens up bigger questions of “authenticity.”  This discussion of “authenticity” and “truth” is used to reflect on the limitations of such “spokespersons”: “What the fascination with representativeness and authenticity has led to is a situation in which what one might almost call ‘professional Muslims’ are touring the circuits of think tanks, select committees, and talk shows.” (94)

The book’s British perspective also lends itself to an excellent discussion of the repercussions of 7/7 though its lasting significance extends way beyond the series of “events” or wars that followed 9/11.  Ultimately, as a crucial component to a larger Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project, Framing Muslims is more than just a book, but a self-described “network” of researchers and activists committed to the continuing interrogation of the way Western culture portrays Muslims.  Intertextually, as well as continuing the work of Said it also continues to produce new content via its web presence (http://framingmuslims.org/) which, of course, includes links to stories about Homeland, among many other things.

Notes

1.  Beaumont, Peter “review of Homeland,” The Guardian (2012) Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2012/oct/13/homeland-drama-offensive-portrayal-islam-arabs[↑]

2.  Al-Arian, Laila, “TV’s Most Islamaphobic Show,” Salon (2012) Available at: http://www.salon.com/2012/12/15/tvs_most_islamophobic_show/.  [↑]

3. Said, Edward, Covering Islam revised ed. (London: Vintage, 1997).  [↑]

4. Said, Edward, “Islam and the West are Inadequate Banners,” The Observer (2011). Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2001/sep/16/september11.terrorism3.  [↑]

Arin Keeble is the author of three peer-reviewed articles on the literary representation of 9/11 and has two books coming out next year, a monograph on the literary representation of 9/11 and a co-edited collection on David Simon’s The Wire. He currently teaches at both Newcastle University and Bishop Grosseteste University, and works for the Northeast charity, The Cyrenians, which supports homeless and vulnerable people around the region.
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