This week, a new BBC2 sketch called “The Real Housewives of ISIS” sparked a controversial debate on the portrayal of Muslims in media. The sketch was part of a comedy show called Revolting, which highlights contemporary issues through satirical humor. The show satirized four British Muslim women who leave their homes to join ISIS, with one of the characters nonchalantly debating what to wear to a beheading.
The controversy surrounding the sketch centered on the appropriateness of the content and nature of the portrayal, with one side celebrating it as trenchant satire of would-be terrorists and the other criticizing its blithe dismissal of the suffering of young girls groomed to join armed terror groups. What both sides ignore, however, is the sketch’s broader social and political implications and how it plays into age-old orientalist tropes.
Satire is an essential component of a healthy society, but the ways in which it is expressed are also important to understand. In this case, the BBC sketch reinforced age-old stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims. A recent article by Soumaya Ghannoushi in the Middle East Eye brilliantly elucidates how Islam and Muslims have been caricatured since the colonial era:
As the world was ushered into the era of imperialism, and as Europe began its relentless political, economic and military expansion, Islam turned into an object of knowledge in opposition to the Occident as its negative pole.
To assert its uniqueness and cultural superiority in relation to a world it was invading, Europe expelled outside of itself all that it perceived as undesirable and deviant.
Islam and Muslim societies were essentialised into a permanent, unitary and coherent object, understood through a series of contrasts and dichotomies. Islam became the West’s antithesis, a chaotic realm of raving instincts, emotionalism, irrationality, and despotism that embodied all that the West is not.
Perceptions about this “chaotic realm of raving instincts, emotionalism, irrationality and despotism” is embodied in Western culture, media, policies, and law. In an interview with Muftah, Murtaza Hussain, a journalist with The Intercept, linked these trends in Western society, particularly the media, to growing Islamophobia: “There exists a heavy presence of Islamophobia in broader American and European society that manifests itself through media depictions.” In this atmosphere, stereotypical depictions of Muslims, even satirical ones, may have dangerous effects in a society primed to view Islam and Muslims in the most negative light.
This can even have an international impact. Many of those on the left, who are generally allies against Islamophobia, have perpetuated the ‘war on terror’ narrative in their activism against the possibility of U.S. intervention in Syria (though they continue to ignore continuing American intervention over the last two years). The government of Bashar al-Assad has used this to its advantage. “The Syrian government was well-aware of the Islamophobic environment in the United States and Europe,” Hussain said. “It fully capitalized on the clash of civilizations narrative, which is an oft-repeated mantra by the American Right, to position itself as a bastion of secularism and freedom resisting against Islamist terror.”
When right-wing populism across Europe is rising at an alarming rate and anti-Muslim attacks have reached their highest peak since 9/11, it would be prudent for members of the media and entertainment industry to recognize that even well-intentioned efforts can play into harmful caricatures that only perpetuate orientalist stereotypes, which they may otherwise oppose.