Soccer stereotypes: America's distorted view of Muslims
By Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles
June 23, 1998

I watched the World Cup soccer game between Iran and the United States, and could not believe what I saw. The pregame show featured commentators spouting phrases like "holy war" and interviews with former American hostages held in Iran. Post-game analysis included a quip by Brent Musberger that Iranian newspapers could headline their stories about the match "Great Satan Gets a Soccer Lesson."

Whatever happened to separating sports from politics?

Watching the game underscored for me how distorted a vision Americans have of the Iranian people -- as well as others throughout the Muslim world. Take the Iranian athletes, representatives of a country we have feared for the last 20 years. Iran. The global menace. The pariah state. The exporter of terrorism.

No one on the Iranian team looked even close in appearance to the stereotypical image of Muslims as violent religious fanatics. Actually, some of them could have posed for GQ. Yet every movie I see with an Iranian or Arab character depicts them in need of a shower and a shave, ready to blow up the world. All that stops them is being outwitted and outclassed by some American Rambo. The Iranians carried no guns. In fact, they came onto the field carrying flowers.

The sad truth is that we Americans have been held hostage by image-makers here (and in Iran) who continue to bombard us with fears and prejudices. Image-makers, whether Hollywood executives or news editors, influence public opinion as much, if not more, than government officials. Among the important issues distorted by the image-makers is international terrorism. The State Department's 1998 report on global terrorism indicates once again that terrorist acts in Colombia far outnumbered similar incidents in the Middle East. For example, since 1980, 85 U.S. citizens have been kidnapped by terrorist groups in Colombia, a fact virtually unknown to Americans.

Yet terrorist in the minds of many Americans has become a code word for Arab or Muslim.

The bias is evident in Europe as well. Before the World Cup commenced, French authorities rounded up some 80 Muslims, fearing terrorist attacks during the games. Indeed, violence has hit the streets of France, but it was British hooligans and German skinheads who have been at fault. Should we call them "Christian terrorists?" When public officials speak to Muslim groups they rarely conclude without establishing that Muslims are good people, law-abiding citizens -- blah, blah, blah. It is very odd to hear folks try to convince us that we are normal. The media is the problem, they say. Then I talk to journalists, and the government is to blame.

We are all to blame.

The public's inability to distinguish personal behavior from religious values results in placing religion on trial. Image-makers see Muslims as having captured the market on violence and fanaticism. They overlook the religious backgrounds of the masterminds of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, genocide in Rwanda, the killing fields in Cambodia.

To add to the confusion, we encounter real people who happen to be followers of Islam, such as those playing on the Iranian soccer team, and we say, `Wait a minute. What I see now and what I have seen on television or read in the newspaper are not the same.' Anticipating the showers of gunfire etched in our minds from movies and headlines, we are surprised to see these Iranian tough guys offering ceremonial kisses and embraces to our athletes. In the end, we are all slaves of our own misconceptions and of the past -- understandable for the uneducated but inexcusable in the one remaining superpower, the world's leading nation as we lurch toward the 21st century.

It is time to free ourselves of the media distortions and see people for who they really are. Failure to do so threatens us all -- Americans and Iranians alike.

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