Populism and Islamophobia avoid real solutions to complex problems
Office of Strategic Communication
The danger of populist politics and reducing people to stereotypes creates a narrow and simplified view of the world that ignores the complexities and diversity of reality, and also avoiding real solutions to challenges people face, according panel presentation, “Rise of Populism and Islamophobia: How Can We Stem the Tide?” on May 23 at Cal State San Bernardino.
The program was moderated by CSUSB history professor David Yaghoubian, and featured panelists Hatem Bazian, co-founder and professor of Islamic law and theology at Zaytuna College, the first accredited Muslim liberal arts college in the United States, and Ahlam Muhtaseb, CSUSB professor of communication studies, director of the Center for Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies (CIMES), and co-producer of the award-winning documentary “1948: Creation & Catastrophe.” The panel discussion was presented by CIMES and co-sponsored by the CSUSB Department of Communication Studies and the College of Extended and Global Education.
Rueyling Chuang, interim dean for the College of Arts and Letters, said the panel discussion was “very timely and very relevant, as you can see from what is happening in the United States, in Europe and around the world, with populism,” and how politicians use racism, Islamophobia and phobias to drive the political discourse and reinforce stereotypes.
Bazian opened with a PowerPoint slide of a quote from the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But, conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.”
Referring to King’s words, Bazian said, “What we need to engage in, specifically, is to speak on things because it is the right thing to do, not because we have other assessments or considerations.”
Part of his presentation focused on the history of right-wing populism, which has its origins in racism (against African Americans, for example) and xenophobia (against Chinese, and now, Muslims). He explained that populism reduces complex issues and challenges to a simple binary world view – “us and them” – that ignores the nuances of such issues and challenges. And populist politicians will use racism, stereotypes and other phobias to play on people’s struggles and fears, offer simple (but flawed) solutions to solve those struggles and fears, and turn them into votes.
Immigration, for example, is one such complex issue, Bazian said. Economics, government policies, disruptions, conflicts, history and other factors play into why people migrate from one country to another. In Europe, which has a long history of Muslims migrating there, populist politicians will ignore all that, and blame Muslims as the reason some people are currently struggling, he said. “It is much easier to put an Islamic face to it, and therefore you stop people from thinking about the causes and complexities of this issue.”
The problem with that world view, Bazian said, is that the world isn’t that simple. “Anyone will tell you even your own household is complex,” he said.
Other markers of populism include white nationalism and white supremacy, militarization (the idea that people need to be rescued), the lack of economic well-being for whites that blames others, and a mental map of the world that reduces a complex world into a very simplistic one, that “‘they are causing you pain and suffering” versus examining the policies that may be the root of that, Bazian said. So if one is led to believe that China is to be blamed for taking U.S. jobs and disrupting the economy, because populist politicians find it is easier to stroke that fear, he said, the reality may be that domestic policies are causing the disruptions.
Muhtaseb took another angle – entertainment media – that reinforces simplified world views that can play into populism and Islamophobia. Media, in general, provides a lens for many to learn about the world, other cultures, other races, other ways of life, especially for those who don’t have the opportunity to travel abroad, she said. And that also informs what people expect or how people interact with other people or cultures different from their own.
While conversation regarding the media tends to focus on the news media, “we forget about entertainment media,” Muhtaseb said. “People will usually dismiss that and say, ‘Well, it’s just entertainment. We don’t think much about entertainment. We’re just being entertained.’”
But, she cautioned, the confirmation of assumptions and cultivation of stereotypes happens when consuming entertainment media, “sometimes more than serious or news media. And that’s because your critical thinking alert system, if you want to call it that, is not active when you are watching entertainment media. It is when you are watching news media – it’s a little bit more critical, actually, by watching serious or news media. You are less critical and less involved in analysis when you’re are watching entertainment media.”
And entertainment media tends to create and propagate negative images in this way: characters of color, and Muslims in particular, fall into a narrow range that doesn’t allow for much more than stereotypes and misrepresentation. Muhtaseb pointed to research by sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen that showed more than 90 percent of primetime TV shows lack Middle Eastern or North African performers. And those that do often cast them as “trained terrorists, agents, soldiers or tyrants” – basically threatening characters.
Muhtaseb used Showtime’s “Homeland,” a spy thriller series that chronicles the life of a bipolar CIA officer fighting terrorism, as a case study. The show has been criticized as playing to stereotypes and misrepresenting Islam, the Middle East, Arabs, Pakistanis and Afghans. One such critical article she cited was by Laura Dukay, a New York City-based writer, filmmaker and activist, who wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post, Oct. 2, 2014, calling “Homeland” the “most bigoted show on television.”
Dukay wrote: “For starters, the show is riddled with basic errors about Islam and the Middle East. … More broadly, ‘Homeland’ carelessly traffics in absurd and damaging stereotypes. … These errors all add up to something important: The entire structure of ‘Homeland’ is built on mashing together every manifestation of political Islam, Arabs, Muslims and the whole Middle East into a Frankenstein-monster global terrorist threat that simply doesn’t exist.”
To combat that, some resorted to what is called “cultural jamming,” or using humor to make the point that such depictions are absurd, Muhtaseb said. Comedians and talk show hosts Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert are two that engage in this. And in one YouTube video, a Pakistani lawyer took aim with “A Pakistani Points Out 6 ‘Homeland’ Fails.”
In one instance, three graffiti artists who were hired by the show to decorate a set in Berlin, Germany, left some messages that were critical of “Homeland,” unbeknownst to the producers. According to a Washington Post article in October 2015, as the main character was led by a Hezbollah commander, they passed a wall on which, in Arabic, said, “Homeland is racist.” The artists left other unflattering messages that showed up in other scenes.
Said the Post article, “A statement from the three artists — (Heba) Amin, Caram Kapp and an artist known as Stone who was approached first by the production company to find ‘Arabian street artists’ to paint the set — criticizes ‘Homeland’ for providing ‘inaccurate, undifferentiated and highly biased depiction of Arabs, Pakistanis, and Afghans.’
“It's very important for us to address the idea that this kind of stereotyping is very dangerous because it helps form people’s perceptions of an entire region, a huge region, which in turn affects foreign policy,” Amin told The Post. “It was a way to claim back our image.”
Muhtaseb also encouraged the audience to look at who is producing the show they are watching. By doing so, it usually gives viewers a good idea of why characters are portrayed the way they are. Using “Homeland,” she pointed out the show was developed by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, who based it on the Israeli series “Prisoners of War,” created by Gideon Raff, and produced by Fox 21 Television Studios. And Gordon was one of the producers of “24: Legacy,” a show similar in plot to “Homeland” and the spinoff of “24.” All have protagonists fighting terrorism and employing very narrow and stereotypical characterizations of Muslims.
Bazian offered these steps to counter populist politics and sentiment:
- Make facts and information known and educate people;
- Expose and challenge erroneous assumptions and stereotypes;
- Develop coalitions that challenge racism across the board;
- Become active in society, and engage in civic activities, even if it means running for public office, to help shape the debate;
- Write a blog to make facts and ideas know, and link to other sources that are doing the same; and
- Donate to causes that oppose populism and individuals who are running against populist politicians.
For more information on the CSUSB Center for Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, visit the center’s website at https://csbs.csusb.edu/cimes.
For more information on Cal State San Bernardino, contact the CSUSB Office of Strategic Communication at (909) 537-5007 and visit inside.csusb.edu.