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© 2022 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
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The year 2001 has been considered a turning point in the rapid increase of Islamophobia and Islamophobic depic - tions in Western media, especially concerning Arab and Muslim populations. This phenomenom largely stems from the tragic events of 9/11 that resulted in the dissemination of the ideology of the Global War on Terror. While ex - tensive scholarship and research has examined stereotypical representations of Arabs and Muslims, Iran has been less of a focus. 1 One of the consequences of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was the consolidation of public impres - sions in the West of Iran as a backward, fanatical, and repressive society. 2 Such impressions have continued in Western cinematography in the post-9/11 era by depicting Iran as a fundamentalist state in films like   Not   Without   My   Daughter   or The   Stoning   of   Soraya   M , and television series propagating the War on Terror like Homeland or 24 . In order to examine whether Hollywood, American television, and independent cinema not only portray Iran and its people in an Islamophobic and Iranophobic manner but also whether such portrayals relate to U.S. foreign policy actions over the previous twenty years, I analyzed fifteen films and four television series produced between 2003-2019. 3 I sought to analyze the ideology of these films and TV programs on the micro-level (e.g. dialogue, cultural representations of Iran, character description, and plot development) as well as the macro-level (e.g. sociopolitical context of the films’ narrative and production time, peak of negative representations, and differences between the conglomerate media industry and independent productions). The findings of my ongoing study suggest that depictions and image constructions of Iran have been associated in the collective consciousness of American culture with the ideological doctrine of the clash of civilizations, the development of Iran’s nuclear facilities, the complicated foreign affairs between Iran, the U.S., and Israel, and the oil crisis of 1973. A significant number of films affiliate Iran and Islam with terrorism ( Homeland , Syriana , Argo ) and human rights violations ( The Stoning of Soraya M ). Several typical examples of Iranphobia in Western cinema can be found in the film Argo, which depicts the 1980 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Iran and won multiple Academy Awards, includ - ing the award for Best Picture presented by Michelle Obama. In Argo, there is no context explaining the motivations of the Iranian people for taking over the U.S. embassy. Unlike the film’s American characters, who have names, family or community bonds, and motives for their actions, Iranians are simply portrayed as an angry mass of violent men and chador-clad women. Nor are the Persian slogans being chanted by Iranians translated for an English-speaking audience. Yet, when an element of the story appearing in Persian is deemed important to the advancement of the plot (e.g. a threat or attack is imminent), an English translation is provided by the film’s American characters, who seem to command the language. The depiction of the Iranian state in other artistic productions has been no more flattering. In Homeland , a series favored   by   Barack   Obama   and Hilary Clinton, Iran is depicted and described as an archterrorist state and the masterminds behind orchestrating an attack on CIA premises with a network of terrorists resembling al-Qaeda. 4 Even when Iran is not directly linked to terrorism, images of violent demonstrations and severe state oppression predominate in films like Argo and a series like Tehran . Elsewhere, like in the series The West Wing and Veep, Iran is depicted as a faraway place stuck in the past, with its capital city Tehran appearing on screen as a technologically underdeveloped city, indirectly promoting the superiority of American technological achieve - ments. 5 All these images shape the portrait of a country perceived as radicalized or backward and, most importantly, in need of Western intervention to progress. Such narratives endorse American soft power and a neocolonial view of Iran that helps legitimize U.S. foreign policy. There have been cinematic and television portrayals with neutral or positive Iranian characters, however, these usually fall under the category of post-racial media representations. Such repres - entations include Muslim characters compliant with Western norms, those who maintain religious practices that are not demonstrably evident, or characters depicted as victims of suffering and ridicule. 6 For example, in the third season of Homeland, Farah, a CIA analyst with Iranian heritage, had to endure ridicule from the head of U.S. Intelligence Services Saul Berenson for wear - ing a hijab, which he considered an insult to the people who died at the fictional attack on the CIA. 7 The implication is that had Farah not worn a hijab, her presence as a Muslim would have been fully accepted due to the absence of any outward cultural display of her religion. Many positive and neutral cinematic or television portrayals of Iran make frequent reference to the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC) and their great kings, like Cyrus and Darius, in an attempt to revive the dynasty’s pre-Islamic glory and differentiate ancient Persia from modern Islamic Iran. For example, in the 2015 film September   of   Shiraz , a prisoner in the newly formed Islamic Republic wonders if anyone remembers the time when the country was governed by just rulers, to which another replies: “Cyrus the Great. We were all equal. Muslim, Christian, Jew…didn’t matter. We were a great empire.” Of course not all Hollywood depictions of ancient Persia are positive. Films like 300   (2006) or The   300   Spartans (1962) tend to present Persia as a totalitarian empire combating Greece, a synecdoche for the West, who is seeking to preserve the ideals of freedom and democracy. One of the truly rare films associating Iran and its people with positive connotations was the 2019 film The   Operative , which addressed issues rarely discussed in Western cinema, like economic sanctions against Iran and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. While negative representations of Iran increased after 9/11, it is worth noting that the peak of such cinematic portrayals took place between 2005-2015, that is, a period incorporating only three years of the Bush presidency and nearly the entire two terms of Barack Obama’s presidency. It is quite possible that the increase in Iranophobic depictions can be attributed to the elec - tion of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), who was both frequently ridiculed in the international media and under whose presidency Iran’s nuclear program developed significantly, leading to a spate of economic sanctions imposed by the Obama administration and the European Union. Indeed, the majority of the UN Security Council’s resolutions against Iran took place during the same time period (2006-2015), making a linkage between the enforcement of economic sanctions against Iran and the country’s negative representations by the Western media possible. When the Iranian nuclear agreement was signed in 2015, and economic sanctions began to drop, the more biased cinematic portrayals of Iran decreased, demonstrating once again that the image construction of Iran in the entertainment industry is often in-line with American foreign policy. No matter its ebbs and flows, cinematic and media representations of Iran must be viewed critically. They have the potential to shape public opinion by reflecting the political stimuli of a certain era or by propagating favored government policies, thereby acting as agents of soft power.
Visual Representations of Iran in Western Media after 9/11
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© 2022 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
The year 2001 has been considered a turning point in the rapid increase of Islamophobia and Islamophobic depictions in Western media, es - pecially concerning Arab and Muslim popula - tions. This phenomenom largely stems from the tragic events of 9/11 that resulted in the dissem - ination of the ideology of the Global War on Terror. While extensive scholarship and research has examined stereotypical representations of Arabs and Muslims, Iran has been less of a focus. 1 One of the consequences of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was the consolidation of pub - lic impressions in the West of Iran as a backward, fanatical, and repressive society. 2 Such impres - sions have continued in Western cinemato - graphy in the post-9/11 era by depicting Iran as a fundamentalist state in films like    Not    Without My   Daughter   or The   Stoning   of   Soraya   M , and television series propagating the War on Terror like Homeland or 24 . In order to examine whether Hollywood, American television, and independent cinema not only portray Iran and its people in an Islamophobic and Iranophobic manner but also whether such portrayals relate to U.S. foreign policy actions over the previous twenty years, I analyzed fifteen films and four television series produced between 2003-2019. 3 I sought to ana - lyze the ideology of these films and TV programs on the micro-level (e.g. dialogue, cultural repres - entations of Iran, character description, and plot development) as well as the macro-level (e.g. so - ciopolitical context of the films’ narrative and production time, peak of negative representa - tions, and differences between the conglomer - ate media industry and independent productions). The findings of my ongoing study suggest that depictions and image constructions of Iran have been associated in the collective consciousness of American culture with the ideological doctrine of the clash of civilizations, the development of Iran’s nuclear facilities, the complicated foreign affairs between Iran, the U.S., and Israel, and the oil crisis of 1973. A significant number of films affiliate Iran and Islam with terrorism ( Homeland , Syriana , Argo ) and human rights vi - olations ( The Stoning of Soraya M ). Several typical examples of Iranphobia in Western cinema can be found in the film Argo, which depicts the 1980 seizure of the U.S. em - bassy in Iran and won multiple Academy Awards, including the award for Best Picture presented by Michelle Obama. In Argo, there is no context explaining the motivations of the Iranian people for taking over the U.S. embassy. Unlike the film’s American characters, who have names, family or community bonds, and motives for their actions, Iranians are simply portrayed as an angry mass of violent men and chador-clad women. Nor are the Persian slogans being chanted by Iranians translated for an English- speaking audience. Yet, when an element of the story appearing in Persian is deemed important to the advancement of the plot (e.g. a threat or attack is imminent), an English translation is provided by the film’s American characters, who seem to command the language. The depiction of the Iranian state in other artistic productions has been no more flattering. In Homeland , a series favored    by    Barack    Obama and Hilary Clinton, Iran is depicted and described as an archterrorist state and the masterminds behind orchestrating an attack on CIA premises with a network of terrorists resembling al- Qaeda. 4 Even when Iran is not directly linked to terrorism, images of violent demonstrations and severe state oppression predominate in films like Argo and a series like Tehran . Elsewhere, like in the series The West Wing and Veep, Iran is de - picted as a faraway place stuck in the past, with its capital city Tehran appearing on screen as a technologically underdeveloped city, indirectly promoting the superiority of American technolo - gical achievements. 5 All these images shape the portrait of a country perceived as radicalized or backward and, most importantly, in need of Western intervention to progress. Such narrat - ives endorse American soft power and a neoco - lonial view of Iran that helps legitimize U.S. foreign policy. There have been cinematic and television por - trayals with neutral or positive Iranian charac - ters, however, these usually fall under the category of post-racial media representations. Such representations include Muslim characters compliant with Western norms, those who main - tain religious practices that are not demon - strably evident, or characters depicted as victims of suffering and ridicule. 6 For example, in the third season of Homeland, Farah, a CIA analyst with Iranian heritage, had to endure ridicule from the head of U.S. Intelligence Services Saul Berenson for wearing a hijab, which he con - sidered an insult to the people who died at the fictional attack on the CIA. 7 The implication is that had Farah not worn a hijab, her presence as a Muslim would have been fully accepted due to the absence of any outward cultural display of her religion. Many positive and neutral cinematic or televi - sion portrayals of Iran make frequent reference to the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC) and their great kings, like Cyrus and Darius, in an at - tempt to revive the dynasty’s pre-Islamic glory and differentiate ancient Persia from modern Islamic Iran. For example, in the 2015 film September    of    Shiraz , a prisoner in the newly formed Islamic Republic wonders if anyone re - members the time when the country was gov - erned by just rulers, to which another replies: “Cyrus the Great. We were all equal. Muslim, Christian, Jew…didn’t matter. We were a great empire.” Of course not all Hollywood depictions of ancient Persia are positive. Films like 300 (2006) or The    300    Spartans (1962) tend to present Persia as a totalitarian empire combating Greece, a synecdoche for the West, who is seek - ing to preserve the ideals of freedom and demo - cracy. One of the truly rare films associating Iran and its people with positive connotations was the 2019 film The   Operative , which addressed is - sues rarely discussed in Western cinema, like economic sanctions against Iran and the assas - sination of Iranian nuclear scientists. While negative representations of Iran increased after 9/11, it is worth noting that the peak of such cinematic portrayals took place between 2005-2015, that is, a period incorporating only three years of the Bush presidency and nearly the entire two terms of Barack Obama’s presid - ency. It is quite possible that the increase in Iranophobic depictions can be attributed to the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), who was both frequently ridiculed in the interna - tional media and under whose presidency Iran’s nuclear program developed significantly, leading to a spate of economic sanctions imposed by the Obama administration and the European Union. Indeed, the majority of the UN Security Council’s resolutions against Iran took place during the same time period (2006-2015), making a linkage between the enforcement of economic sanctions against Iran and the country’s negative repres - entations by the Western media possible. When the Iranian nuclear agreement was signed in 2015, and economic sanctions began to drop, the more biased cinematic portrayals of Iran de - creased, demonstrating once again that the image construction of Iran in the entertainment industry is often in-line with American foreign policy. No matter its ebbs and flows, cinematic and media representations of Iran must be viewed critically. They have the potential to shape public opinion by reflecting the political stimuli of a certain era or by propagating favored government policies, thereby acting as agents of soft power.
© 2022 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
Visual Representations of Iran in Western Media after 9/11
Written by
Ph.D. candidate- Ionian University, Greece
If you are interested in contributing an article for the project, please send a short summary of the proposed topic (no more than 200 words) and brief bio to submissions@911legacies.com. For all other matters, please contact inquiry@911legacies.com.
CONTACT