WASHINGTON — A GROUP of foreign-service officers was discussing movies after a friendly dinner here when the Arnold Schwarzenegger spy movie "True Lies," came up in conversation.
In the film, a group called "Crimson Jihad" tries to blow up Miami. The portrayal of Muslims as maniacal and bumbling, several officers felt, hearkened back to the grotesque Hollywood film images of blacks, Jews, and Asians typical in earlier eras. "Muslims are the last group you can still make fun of and not be politically incorrect," concluded one.
Today, despite multicultural awareness and education, stereotypes of Muslims persist in popular media. Islam is often equated with violence; Muslims are reduced to film clips of fist-shaking extremists. Yet the image misrepresents the majority of Muslims in the US - who are successful, educated, and socially conservative.
These stereotypes proliferate in ways no longer found with other minorities. Last summer, for example, the San Diego Business Journal issued instructions that photos of Muslims not be placed on Page 1 because they seemed "un-American."
A commercial billboard on a turnpike in Cincinnati advertised pizza by showing a huge photo of an Arab sheik. Next to him were the words: "Some people will never taste LaRosa's. Pity them."
The image of Islam has been evolving since the early 1980s, when then-President Reagan wrongly stated that Muslims believe they reach heaven if they kill a Jew or Christian. But studies show plenty of ignorance of Islam. A survey last May of seven major daily papers found the coverage of Islam "predominantly negative" and "grossly misrepresentative." The survey, coordinated at New York's University of Rochester, found that "Islam is a high-profile religion in the print media ... consistently associated with extremist militant acts.... Few articles address Islam as a religion that is diverse in communities, in practice, and in values."
Experts attribute a rise of "hate crimes" against Muslims last year to negative stereotypes in the media.
The reason for stereotyping, say experts, is fear. Images of Iranian radicals outside the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 and mug shots of bearded men staring flatly off Page 1 after the 1991 World Trade Center bombing leave a greater impression, say, than the Indian civil engineer or Malaysian shopkeeper who lives down the street.
Moreover, since the end of the cold war, Islam is increasingly described by a coterie of writers and policymakers as a new seedbed for anti-Western aggression, replacing communism.
Some journalists have made a virtual industry out of this view. The most prolific is Steven Emerson, whose film "Jihad in America," shown recently on PBS, describes America as a training ground for Islamic terrorism. Muslims almost universally know and loathe Mr. Emerson's work, calling it biased and distorted.
Perhaps the most vivid example of Muslim stereotyping played out last year in the 40 hours after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City - prior to the capture of Timothy McVeigh. Both the media and official sources fingered Muslims for the bombing that killed 169 people. The Muslim community was subjected to an enormous outpouring of vitriol and accusation.
CBS news, for example, led its report the night of the event saying the bombing "has Middle East terrorism written all over it." It quoted Emerson saying, "Oklahoma City ... is probably considered one of the largest centers of Islamic radical activity outside the Middle East." Talk radio hosts and newspaper columnists were more pointed. New York Newsday's Jeff Kamen, for example, recommended surveillance of "foreign nationals living here" and advised that special forces be empowered to "shoot them now, before they get us." A.M. Rosenthal of The New York Times, days after Mr. McVeigh was arrested, offered that "most other attacks against Americans come from the Middle East."
According to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics, Middle East-based terrorism in the US is very low compared with that of other groups. Only three incidents (one of them the World Trade Center bombing in New York) were recorded in the past 10 years.
The media riptide from the bombing had a sobering effect on the Muslim community. Some 227 incidents of harassment ranging from verbal threats to assault on Muslims were reported. "We all phoned each other for support. I'll never forget it," says Omar Dajani, owner of Falafel King restaurant in Orlando, Fla.