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'Dune' appropriates Islamic, Middle Eastern tropes without real inclusion, critics say

“It’s like ... our homes and foods and songs and languages are just right for Western stories, but we humans are never enough to be in them," one critic said.
Image: Javier Bardem as Stilgar in a scene from "Dune."
Javier Bardem as Stilgar in a scene from "Dune."Chia Bella James / Warner Bros.

When Timothée Chalamet’s character Paul first lands on the “Dune” desert planet Arrakis, the son of Duke Leto Atreides is naturally greeted with a crowd. Onlookers, called Fremen, in dark head and face coverings shout in a tongue almost identical to Arabic. Women ululate in the background as they first lay eyes on their white “chosen one,” their future leader. 

"Dune" uses explicit Islamic imagery and cultural elements, experts say. But the main cast doesn’t feature a Middle Eastern or North African, aka MENA, actor in a prominent role.

“It’s an erasure,” said Serena Rasoul, a casting director and founder of Muslim American Casting. 

Viewers were quick to point this out on social media in the days after the film’s release in theaters and on HBO Max.

“If you all love Dune so much please think about supporting Muslim/SWANA SFF writers and stories instead,” one user tweeted. 

For Rasoul, the setting, the garb, the use of Arabic and Muslim religious constructs throughout the film were more than enough to feel a distinct cultural influence.

“You don’t cast MENA or Muslim actors, yet you profit off their culture,” she said. “That’s where it’s painful for us as creatives. ... It means that we are not good enough to be part of the film.”

This vaguely Middle Eastern aesthetic set in a sandy terrain is not something new to American media, said Ali Karjoo-Ravary, assistant professor in Islamic studies at Bucknell University in a Slate column, "Is 'Dune' a white savior narrative?"

"The image of an Arab-ish crowd or veiled wailing women, not to mention when it’s injected with violence, has a history that is steeped in the dehumanization of entire peoples," he wrote.

Despite the shortcomings, Rasoul acknowledged that “Dune” is a complex work that doesn’t fall completely into orientalist tropes. She also nodded to some diversity in the cast, which features Black and Asian characters in a few prominent roles.

But she said the lack of actors of MENA descent or Islamic faith is a hole that’s hard to ignore, and the extracted elements feel like fetishization.

“It’s like we’re stuck in this creative colonialism,” she said. “Where our homes and foods and songs and languages are just right for Western stories, but we humans are never enough to be in them.”

It highlights the narrow set of roles that Muslim actors in Hollywood seem to fit into and the underlying Islamophobia in Hollywood, Rasoul said. Muslim characters in U.S. movies and TV shows tend to be relegated to specific tropes, if included at all.

As a casting director working with a predominately Muslim roster, she’s become intimately familiar with the limited opportunities available to them. The “terrorist” role, now phasing itself out in Hollywood, dominated for a long time, she said. It’s giving way to new tropes — the “good Muslim, bad Muslim” roles, for example, or the “rebelling, liberated Muslim woman” who takes off her hijab. Then there are the trauma roles that are usually set during wars or post-colonialism. 

Hardly any media includes a Muslim in a lead role simply living life, she said. 

“It’s just this pervading rejection of our existence,” she said. 

Chalamet’s character as a “white savior” is something that bothered Rasoul, as well. She’s familiar with the source material for "Dune" and author Frank Herbert’s inspirations behind the character of Paul. He was intended to be a “Western” man, which itself feeds a savior narrative. 

“To some audiences, that implies that it is a white man who has these messianic impulses to control other societies and inflict himself upon the environment,” she said. But, she noted, “there’s diversity in the West too,” so Herbert’s “Western” description didn’t necessarily need to be interpreted as “white” on screen. 

With the second installment of "Dune" scheduled for 2023, Rasoul said she hopes the cast will reflect the MENA culture they portray. Muslims are part of the present and future, she said, and she wants that shown in media. 

“We want to be included, but we also want to be centered,” she said.