Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s “Invasion!”
Articles, Essays, Volume 3

Mass Media Muslims: A Three Lens Theory of Representation

Mass Media Muslims: 
A Three Lens Theory of Representation
By Jamil Khoury
Arab StagesVolume 2, Number 1 (Fall 2015)
©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

I think a lot about the representation of Muslims, particularly the representation of Muslim diasporas, and especially the representation that occurs on stage. But what happens on stage rarely begins on stage. Images have a way of filtering up, gestating first in mainstream media before seizing dramatic license. The mass media manufactures Muslims, and playwrights—ideally—provide context. So indulge me in a little theorizing and a propensity for thinking in threes. You’ll see what I mean in a moment.

Let’s begin by analogizing twentieth-century representation of gay men and lesbians with twenty-first-century representation of Muslims. Let’s presume we are referring to North American representation. And, for the sake of subjective clarity, let it be known that I am a theatre producer, a playwright, a cultural activist, a gay man, a mixed blood Arab American of Syrian Christian heritage married to a Pakistani American Ismaili Shi’a Muslim. In other words, my household is an ISIS/Al Qaeda worst-case scenario. We’re a Wahhabi nightmare. We’re not supposed to exist. Now that I got that out of the way, on to the analogy.

Historically (and some may argue to this day), gay men and lesbians were represented through three lenses: psychology, religion, and law. As objective categories, psychology, religion, and law may seem innocuous enough, but as tools for defaming and injuring queer people, they are, in fact, quite lethal.

Psychology told us we were crazy, pathological, incapable of sustaining relationships, prone to self-destructive behaviour, and that we were indulging an addiction rooted in childhood trauma. Our love was impulsive, never “real.” If we were men, we had overbearing mothers and distant fathers. If we were women, we had had bad experiences with men.

Religion told us we were sinners, we were evil, we defied nature, threatened families, signified social decadence and moral decay, we were incompatible with righteous living, and we were plague carriers—stricken ill through divine retribution. Not even God liked us.

The law told us we were criminals, social deviants, predators, susceptible to blackmail, corrosive to morale, gender non-conforming, of compromised citizenship, indecent and obscene, and we posed a grave danger to children. Just ask the late Alfred Hitchcock about gay men and criminality!

Psychology, religion, and law essentially branded gay men and lesbians; and society and public policy embraced the brand, hook, line, and sinker. We led tragic lives that begat tragic ends. Murder, suicide, or AIDS. Take your pick.

Building on these examples, I would argue that Muslims today are also represented through three lenses. Those three lenses are national security, patriarchy, and liberalism.

Discourses on national security tell us, implicitly and explicitly, that Muslims threaten us. Muslims are violent. Muslims will kill us. They’re prone to terrorism. They blow things up. Muslims pose an existential threat to our nation and to our way of life. Even a liberal Muslim and a moderate Muslim are but extremists-in-waiting.

Patriarchy, we are told, has a best friend in Islam. So much so that Islam and patriarchy are commonly conflated. Think male subject, female object, and our subject is possessive, controlling, and cruel. There may be misogyny and sexism in all religions, but Islam is patriarchy on steroids. If men beat and rape women, then Muslim men beat and rape women even more. Common wisdom purports a consensus: Islam is bad news for women, Muslim women are universally oppressed, and Muslim feminists are rarely to be found.

El Guiindi: Back of the Throat

Then there is liberalism with its emphasis on liberty, equality, civil rights, electoral politics, freedom of religion, protected speech, and that never ending tête-à-tête between individual desires and collective responsibilities. In popular culture, Islam gets depicted as the antithesis of liberalism: not only incompatible with liberal values, but at war with those values. And this adversity is not simply ideological, or even theological; it may in fact be biological. Muslims possess an innate, inborn aversion to all things liberal. They are, by nature, authoritarian, tyrannical, void of empathy, averse to self-criticism and introspection, volatile, and understanding only of force. Pluralism, power sharing, tolerance for opposing viewpoints, and respect for the other are all signs of weakness in the “Muslim mind.”

Now I am well aware that the politics of challenging Muslim representation can quickly devolve into the politics of proscribing and policing Muslim representation, which is a death sentence for artists of all backgrounds. Counter-representation relies on dominant representation as its canvas. We are still simply responding. The challenge becomes to respond less and to create more, and to stop ceding power and legitimacy to narratives that reinforce people’s worst fears about Muslims. Not as an exercise in “celebrating” or “purifying” Muslims, not as an apology or act of redemption, not as a nod to political correctness, but as a commitment to our own artistic integrity, and to the recognition that with representation comes responsibility.  For example, if towards the end of a play, a Muslim male character beats up a woman or commits an act of terrorism (or both!), be very wary.  Intentionality matters and it is painfully transparent.

What is exciting to me is how we as theatre artists address these lenses of national security, patriarchy, and liberalism. I’m not saying that we can’t apply these lenses to Muslim characters or to plays that are somehow about Muslims. Judging from my theatre company’s production history, I’d be an absolute hypocrite to suggest that. And of course we can’t ignore the cultural zeitgeist, with all its fears and phobias. But being the good liberals that we are means we’re sometimes susceptible to the allures of an unexamined liberal racism: first humanize the Muslim character, then demonize him; make him nuanced, then make him predictable; make us like the brown man, then make us fear him. Certain audiences may eat this up, but as an artistic director, these are tropes I avoid. Muslim playwrights, in particular, should avoid pandering to audiences’ worst fears about Muslims in hopes of attracting mainstream approval. Exploiting one’s “insider status” and “lived experience” as cover for making gross generalizations about Muslims is bad practice. Criticize, call out, air dirty laundry, demand change, by all means, but success needn’t come at the price of “authenticating” arguments peddled by those who inflict harm on Muslims.

I want theatres to support playwrights in creating new narratives about Muslims, and to pay attention to existing narratives that already acknowledge, interrupt, and subvert my three lenses. Egyptian-American playwright Yussef El Guindi and Tunisian-Swedish playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri succeed brilliantly at this, wielding tremendous irony, deception, and poetic j ustice along the way. El Guindi and Khemiri never shy from interrogating the relationship between the profiler and the profiled, ascribing sympathy and suspicion to both, and enabling their characters to compete for our benefit of the doubt. They confront the threat of Islamist terrorism, be it real or imagined, through the complex, self-conscious vantage points of the Muslim suspect and those trained to detect him. By illuminating a “Western gaze” over the gender politics and perceived anti-liberalism of Muslim communities, and by casting a watchful eye over colonial impulses within Western feminisms, these artists deconstruct and expose the folly of a “with us or against us,” “clash of civilizations” sort of world. El Guindi’s plays Back of the Throat, Our Enemies, and Language Rooms and Khemiri’s plays Invasion! and I Call My Brothers all stand out as prime examples.

Surely there is room for a plethora of Muslim representations, emanating from mass media to Broadway to storefront theatres. And it is all too often the dearth of representation and its incumbent burdens of representation that focus our attention on the negative, stereotypic, and formulaic. After all, representation we fear or condemn today may seem banal or ahead of its time a generation from now. But there’s no reason why the evolution we have witnessed in queer representation cannot have parallels in Muslim representation, albeit on its own terms. With conscientious artists leading the charge, my triumvirate of Muslim representation—national security, patriarchy, and liberalism—will be rendered reactive, reductive, and woefully dated. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

Jamil Khoury’s “Mass Media Muslims: A Three Lens Theory of Representation” first appeared in alt. theatre: cultural diversity and the stage (summer 2015), a professional theatre journal published by Teesri Duniya Theatre in Montreal, Canada. Khoury is the Founding Artistic Director of Chicago’s Silk Road Rising.


Arab Stages
Volume 2, Number 1 (Fall 2015)
©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

Founders: Marvin Carlson and Frank Hentschker

Editor-in-Chief: Marvin Carlson

Editorial and Advisory Board: Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Dina Amin, Khalid Amine, Hazem Azmy, Dalia Basiouny, Katherine Donovan, Masud Hamdan, Sameh Hanna, Rolf C. Hemke, Katherine Hennessey, Areeg Ibrahim, Jamil Khoury, Dominika Laster, Margaret Litvin, Rebekah Maggor, Safi Mahfouz, Robert Myers, Michael Malek Naijar, Hala Nassar, George Potter, Juan Recondo, Nada Saab, Asaad Al-Saleh, Torange Yeghiazarian, Edward Ziter.

Managing Editor: Meir A. Farjoun

Assistant Managing Editor: Nina Mercer

Table of Content

  • The 2015 Egyptian National Theatre Festival by Dalia Basiouny
  • Damascus Theater Laboratory by Waseem Al Sharqy
  • The Birth of Modern Iraqi Theatre: Church Drama in Mosul in the Late Nineteenth Century by Amir Al-Azraki and James Al-Shamma
  • Theatre as an Optimistic Political Act: Lebanese Theatre Artist Sahar Assaf by Michael Malek Najjar
  • A Feminist Tuberculosis Melodrama: Melek by Painted Bird Theatre by Emre Erdem
  • Much Ado About “Theatre and Censorship Conference” by Dalia Basiouny
  • Mass Media Muslims: A Three Lens Theory of Representation by Jamil Khoury


  • Issam Mahfouz’ The Dictator presented in New York by Marvin Carlson
  • An 1868 Egyptian Helen of Troy play published by Marvin Carlson
  • Nahda: Five Visions of an Arab Awakening
  • Malumat: Resources for Research, Writing/Publishing, Teaching, & Performing Arts compiled by Kate C. Wilson

Book Reviews

  • Muslim Rap, Halal Soaps, and Revolutionary Theatre by Karin van Nieuwkerk, ed. – A book review by Marvin Carlson
  • Arab American Drama, Film and Performance: A Critical Study, 1908 to the Present – A book review by George Potter
  • Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora – A book review by Michael Malek Najjar

Short Plays

  • Out of Control by Wael Qadour
  • The Village of Tishreen by Muhammad al-Maghut

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

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