“Are you an Egyptian superhero?” asked a young Egyptian girl in Cairo during Disney’s latest Marvel product, Moon Knight. “I’m” replied Layla El-Faouly, imposing in a white and gold winged suit. With those two words, Layla, Disney, and Marvel made history, and we finally got an Arab superhero on screen. And it’s a woman.
From an offset perspective, the new Disney+ series is steeped in ancient Egyptian mythology and modern culture. Even Abdel Halim Hafez, one of the most famous musicians in the Arab world, whose music is featured in the opening scene of the first episode. The ending credits are also full of Arab talent: “Moon Knight” is directed by Mohammad Diab, edited by Ahmed Hafez, and music composed by Hersham Nazih. There are also Arab actors in the lead roles, such as Egyptian Palestinian May Calamaway as Layla and Egyptian British Khalid Abdalla as Salim.
Calamawy said recently: “I can’t speak for every Arab woman or every Egyptian woman…I just want all Arab women to see this and feel like a superhero and that they have such a massive space.”
This space doesn’t always exist. As an Iraqi who grew up in the West, I don’t recall ever being positive on screen. I take it for granted that Middle Eastern characters are somehow associated with “terrorism”. As a child, these negative perceptions can be confusing and disruptive as you try to figure out your role in society. They can convince you that, as an Arab, it is your responsibility to prove your innocence in everyday social interactions, such as going through airport security.
Nor is this negative impact limited to Arab or Muslim self-image.
It is well documented that the media plays an important role in shaping social opinion. In the years following 9/11, the continued connection between Arabs, Muslims, and “terrorism” in the media has undoubtedly helped shape current prevailing attitudes toward these groups in the West. Twenty years later, 53 percent of Americans still have a negative view of Islam.
There is no denying that Islamophobia has risen rapidly in the West after 9/11. But long before that, there was a devastating Arab presentation on the screen. In his book Reel Bad Arabs, Jack Shaheen analyzes over 1,000 films made between 1986 and 2000 featuring Arab characters. He found that only 12 performances were positive, 53 were neutral and 935 were negative. In these films, Arab characters are often relegated to stereotypes – “terrorists”, misogynists or oil chiefs. They help move the plot forward, but are rarely portrayed as real people with complex feelings, thoughts, and motivations.
After 9/11, production companies doubled down on this Islamophobia. Fox’s “Twenty-Four” features recurring Middle Eastern characters with a storyline tied to “terrorism,” much like Showtime’s “Homeland.”
After 2003, the Iraq War has become a popular topic of discussion in American film and television dramas. But Iraqi characters rarely feature prominently in these shows, and are almost never portrayed head-on. In fact, the only Iraqi character I can remember from that era was Sayid Jarrah on ABC’s hit show “Lost” – for some reason, played by a British character with a ridiculous accent. Indian actor. Of course, he’s not just someone who happens to be from Iraq – he’s a former torturer of dictator Saddam Hussein.
This dehumanization of Arabs has made it easier for the American public to support Washington’s brutal wars in the Middle East. In a 2015 poll, 30 percent of 530 Republican primary voters said they would approve of bombing Agrabah, the fictional city in Disney’s Aladdin. That movie opens with the lyrics “I’m from a land…if they don’t like your face, they’ll cut off your ears…it’s barbaric, but hey, this is home”. Watch the original Aladdin from 1992 and you’ll notice that most of the characters on the street are portrayed as savage, sword-wielding snake charmers, speaking in obscure accents.
So it’s no surprise that when former US President George W. Bush announced his decision to invade Iraq in 2003, 72 percent of Americans expressed support for his move.
This decades-long dehumanizing effect was also on display in the Ukraine war earlier this year, with several journalists declaring they were shocked to witness the war in “a relatively civilized, relatively European” country with “Iraq or Afghanistan”.
Negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims pushed by the media also increase support for discriminatory laws and policies – Donald Trump wins his presidency Promised to introduce a “total and complete ban on Muslims entering the United States.”These harmful depictions also contribute to hate crimes around the world, such as mass shooting Masjid al-Noor and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019.
The negative portrayal of Arab and Muslim cultures in the Western media has also led many young Arabs and Muslims in the West to become increasingly alienated from their native cultures. This has led to the emergence of a new type of TV show and film in which young “Western-minded” Muslims try to escape the grip of their culture. In such movies and TV shows, like Netflix’s Elite or Apple TV’s Hala, there’s usually a pretty dramatic hood removal scene.Or, as Rami Yusuf once putwho declares “Hey Mom and Dad, I want to go white!”
That’s why unapologetic Arab characters in Western productions, like Layla in Moon Knight, are a welcome change. We have reason to believe that we will soon start seeing more positive Arab and Muslim characters in Western movies and TV shows. In November, Disney announced a new initiative to change the way Muslims are depicted in its films. Also last year, Netflix announced that Abubakr Ali would be the first Arab Muslim actor to star in the series in a comic book adaptation. And, over the summer, Disney let its global audience experience Eid America, written and directed by the mighty Aqsa Altaf. Hearing my niece say “she’s like me” is such a heartwarming moment after seeing the protagonist struggle with a Muslim holiday in the West.
In the real world, Arab superheroes do exist. Remember, just a few years ago, it was Arabs and Kurds – including many female superheroes who looked like Laila – to protect their region and the rest of the world from ISIL Violent and gave up his life. So, it’s about time we see more positive Arab and Muslim role models like Laila on TV.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial position.