Professional wrestling remains one of the most uniquely problematic forms of entertainment. The presentation of racial stereotypes and caricatures that would be unthinkable for most standard TV shows are not even an oddity in pro wrestling. This becomes more true the further back in time you go.
For the WWE, one of the most egregious and continuous offenses is their treatment of Muslim characters. This has been an issue since as far back as the 1980s and continues into the 2020s. By presenting their audience these stereotypes, pro wrestling is serving as a form of propaganda; consciously or not, their characters reinforce prejudices that the audience may have against Muslims.
I want to put in a disclaimer, first; the problem lies not with Muslim performers themselves who are put into stereotypical roles, but rather the promotion that chooses to present them in that way. The performers ultimately do what keeps them employed, and while their decision to lean into stereotypes is harmful, their actions are the symptoms of a much larger disease.
The first part of this series will focus on the Triangle of Terror, the heel trio of Sargeant Slaughter, General Adnan, and Colonel Mustafa (more commonly known as the Iron Sheik).
The Iron Sheik
The Iron Sheik, played by Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, is one of the most notorious heels in all of professional wrestling. The character, like Vaziri himself, comes from Iran.
The Sheik is the epitome of the “foreign heel” trope. He denounces the United States in every city he visits, carrying an Iranian flag with him and proclaiming the superiority of his home country over the US. It’s a very cliche trope that was extremely common in the 1980s and occasionally appears in the 2020s (i.e., Anthony Ogogo, WALTER).
Iron Sheik garnered the most heel heat he could by building on the political tensions of his time. All of these tensions obviously stemmed from the Cold War. This is what made the tag team of Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff, a Russian heel, as effective as it was. The Sheik would infamously declare, “Iran number one, Russia number one, USA… hack-pooie!” and then spit toward the ground.
The primary role of a foreign heel is to put over the hometown hero. The Sheik did exactly that when he faced Hulk Hogan at Madison Square Garden in 1984, dropped the WWF title to Hogan, and consequently aided in kick-starting “Hulkamania.”
The main issue with Iron Sheik in terms of Islamophobia in the WWE is that the Sheik was the most prominent— and perhaps the only— representation that Muslims had in American pro wrestling at the time. When the only Muslim featured on TV is the anti-American foreign heel, it perpetuates the idea that Muslims are inherently un-American.
Before turning heel, Sgt. Slaughter dressed as a G.I. and continuously announced his love for the US. It wasn’t a ground-breaking gimmick of any sort, but it made him popular enough for G.I. Joe and Hasbro to reach out and offer him a contract to their action figure line. Sgt. Slaughter, despite the unnerving name, was a well-liked American patriot.
Things took a sharp turn in July of 1990 when Slaughter infamously betrayed America and declared his support for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. This politicized gimmick only became more heated as the invasion of Kuwait devolved into the Persian Gulf War, the first war that the US found itself in since Vietnam.
The WWF leaned into this turmoil overseas and used it to garner heel heat; Sgt. Slaughter adamantly supported Saddam Hussein, who “personally” sent him a pair of boots to wrestle in. He delivered a message to Saddam Hussein during an interview with Gene Okerland:
“I pledge that my career will follow your lofty standards. Just as you conquered Kuwait, I, Sargent Slaughter, will wear these boots, I will wear your gift, and I will conquer the World Wrestling Federation’s Champion, the Ultimate Warrior!”
He went on to pledge that he’d go to Baghdad after his victory and have a celebratory parade with Hussein.
His gimmick is building on Americans’ fear of foreign invasion. This fear, historically, always leads to a spike in xenophobia, a potentially deadly disease that’s haunted America since its creation.
The wrestler behind the character General Adnan is an Iraqi man named Adnan Al-Kaissie. He was introduced in 1990 by Sgt. Slaughter as “the only man [he] takes orders from.”
The crowd immediately booed General Adnan as he started to make his entrance. Brother Love, who was hosting the pair for an interview segment, commented that Adnan “bears a striking resemblance to Saddam Hussein.” This comparison was apt for the time as America was in the midst of the Persian Gulf war against Hussein’s Iraq after his annexation of Kuwait. In his debut segment, Adnan only spoke Arabic when asked a question by Brother Love. Despite his audience not being able to understand him, they booed anyway; a man associating with Sgt. Slaughter and speaking in Arabic was enough to warrant that reaction.
Adnan is an interesting character to study since the man behind the gimmick had real anti-American sentiments at the time. In an interview with VOC Nation, he said about his character, “that was legit, there was no bull***t about it. I am from Baghdad, Iraq. They bombed my country and they killed my family. They killed relatives from my family. Now (they are trying to) take Kuwait from Baghdad and they killed soldiers too. I mean I was really pissed.”
I obviously can’t speak on how Adnan feels. What I will say, though, is that professional wrestling is perhaps the least productive space to air grievances that blend the political with the personal. The WWF didn’t put General Adnan in a position where his anger would garner sympathy; rather, it essentially exploited this anger and used it to isolate Adnan from the WWF audience.
The Triangle of Terror forms
With the introduction of Colonel Mustafa, the repackaged character of the Iron Sheik, the Triangle of Terror was officially born. To this day it remains one of the WWE’s most politically-charged acts.
The faction stirred up controversy that sometimes broke through the barriers of sports entertainment. For example, WWF once photoshopped a picture of Sgt. Slaughter and Adnan to appear as though they had their arms around Saddam Hussein in a friendly photo-op. Television network producers contacted WWF to tell them to never air the photo again or else their programming would be canceled.
Slaughter also had plans to burn an American flag in the ring in the lead up to a match against Hulk Hogan, but ultimately the WWF decided against it. One can only imagine the attention that would’ve garnered. It would’ve superseded the bounds of “heel heat” entirely.
Why They Matter
Media alters public perception. This is why it’s important to note as well that the Triangle of Terror were the only representation of Islam in the WWE.
The idea of the foreign invader alone helps to reinforce a sense of hyper-nationalism by perpetuating the notion that the world is against the United States. Furthermore, the continuous association of Islam with terrorism fuels the extreme xenophobia and islamophobia that persists throughout America today.
While the athletes play a role in this, most criticism should ultimately fall on McMahon and the WWE, who craft storylines around xenophobia and thus create an environment where foreign wrestlers essentially need to lean into stereotypes to find success.
The political climate of the US has drastically changed since the 1990s. In the next installment of this series, we’ll take a look at how the WWE fared in a post-9/11 world, and how they effectively leaned into the extreme islamophobia that was rampant throughout the United States.