U.S. Cultural Exports Complicate Ties With Muslims

By Nicole Neroulias
Religion News Service

(RNS) As Carrie Bradshaw might write in her "Sex and the City" column, when it comes to America's relationship with the Muslim world, do the actions of a beautiful woman speak louder than the words of a powerful man?

A year after President Obama proposed a "new beginning" with the Islamic world, now comes Samantha Jones, the provocative and saucy vixen from "Sex and the City 2" who, during a visit to Abu Dhabi, throws wads of condoms at a crowd of men on their way to prayer and simulates oral sex on a hookah pipe.

Meanwhile, the first Muslim-American Miss USA, Rima Fakih, parades around in a bikini to win her crown and "South Park" pushes the envelope with an episode that asks why Muslims are so sensitive about depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

In short, America's cultural exports are making Obama's efforts at Muslim bridge-building a little more complicated.

"Too many people in America draw assumptions about Muslims after watching horrible things on the news, and the cultural messages we send also make the Muslim world draw inaccurate conclusions about the United States," said Hussein Rashid, a visiting religion professor at Hofstra University.

Even before his trip to Cairo last June, Muslims had high hopes for President Obama, given his childhood spent in Muslim-majority Indonesia, the Muslim branches of his family tree, and the more nuanced worldview than his predecessor.

Yet even as the White House has made some progress--lifting travel bans on Muslim scholars like Tariq Ramadan, phasing out hostile terms like "Islamic terrorism" and hosting a recent entrepreneurship summit for Muslim businessmen--it's all been overshadowed by a sense of disappointment, said Corey Saylor, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Obama's friendly phrases still carry more weight than Samantha's crude gestures, but if American foreign policy remains largely unchanged and U.S. media keep exporting outdated or negative messages about Islam, it will take more than a few speeches to win Muslims over, Saylor added.

"We have to see more positive depictions--or at least more balanced depictions--of Muslims," he said, "but I don't see that changing anytime in the future."

One problem is that the Obama administration has focused mainly on changing the Muslim world's perception of America, rather than America's perception of the Muslim world, said Fatemeh Fakhraie, editor-in-chief of Muslimah Media Watch, a feminist Muslim website.

The "Sex and the City" sequel amounts to "Orientalist Boogaloo," she said, filled with cliched scenes like the one in which the film's fascinated foursome watch a woman eat French fries under her face veil "like she's the main attraction on a zoo tour."

Depictions have started to improve, Rashid countered, with shows like "NCIS" and "Bones" making efforts to introduce more realistic characters and plots, in contrast to the terrorism-and-torture storylines that dominated Fox's "24."

Still, movies and TV shows tend to stereotype everyone, not just Muslims, making it easier for international audiences to see all Americans as violent and promiscuous.

Amir Hussain, a professor in the Loyola Marymount University's Department of Theological Studies, said cash-strapped media outlets have done their share of harm by oversimplifying international and religion stories, and legitimizing extremist points of view--like the blogger who made death threats to "South Park" creators after an episode poked fun at censorship of Prophet Muhammad imagery.

"One idiot Muslim convert got publicity as if he were the spokesperson for American Muslims instead of the nutjob that he is," he said.

Likewise, while Fakih's beauty pageant poses and photos have offended some traditionalists, the bigger problem was that the media played up those voices and the right-wing commentators who accused her family of having ties to terrorist groups.

"A lot of the news is just talking for the sake of talking, and focusing on whoever is whining and complaining," said Haroon Moghul, director of the Maydan Institute, a consulting firm that works with American Muslim communities.

"There were some conservative Muslims upset that she misrepresented their reading of Islam, but within the American Muslim community, in general, most people kind of shrugged."

Even the reliance on succinct headline terms like "Muslim world" and "U.S.-Muslim relations" sends the wrong message, Rashid said, contributing to an us-versus-them mentality that overlooks America's own Muslim population and the global diversity within Islam.

Ultimately, what people see on the news in their homes every day resonates far more than what they see Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte doing at the movie theater, he said.

"President Obama is the official face of America," Rashid said, " not Sarah Jessica Parker."

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