The Arab Image
16 March 2006
Negative Muslim portrayal in the Western Media...
Beginning in 1896, Hollywood began saturating world viewers with hideous feature films which portrayed Arab Muslims and their descendants as sub humans - sand niggers, lecherous sheikhs, and terrorists. More than one thousand pre-9/11 Hollywood movies reveal that Arabs are the most maligned group in the history of Hollywood. Inherent in Hollywood’s continuous demonisation of all things Arab is this message: We Americans despise you and your religion!
Consider Hollywood’s role in preparing the way for the war in Iraq. Image makers did not churn out overt propaganda, but helped condition audiences to perceive Arabs - and by extension all Muslims - as unrelenting enemies of Western values. In cinematic terms, America first went to war in Iraq in 1943; the movie Adventure In Iraq features the US Air Force staging a \"shock and awe\" bombing of Iraq’s pro-Nazi \"devil worshipers.\"
Adventure in Iraq and other Hollywood movies continue to advance this other anti-Semitism in spite of the fact that Arabs, like Jews, are Semites sharing a common genetic makeup. I use the word ‘other’ not because anti-Semitism against Jews is passe’ (it isn’t) but because the most damaging films directed against Arabs were released in the last third of the twentieth century, at a time when Hollywood was eliminating stereotypical portraits of other groups such as Asians, Blacks, and Latinos. Regrettably, it remains acceptable to keep advancing anti-Semitism in movies provided the Semites are Arabs.
Declaring war on Iraq, said President George Bush and his advisors, was in direct response to the September 11, 2001 tragedy, nineteen suicidal Arab Muslim terrorists attacked the Pentagon and destroyed the World Trade Center. The terrorists and their fanatic handlers slaughtered about 5,000 people from more than 60 nations. Now we are engaged in a force of arms war in Iraq as well as force of facts to crush the guilty. The administration has launched an information war, complete with government sponsored media campaigns designed to reinvent America in the eyes of 1.2 billion Muslims. The purpose of our government’s PR campaign? To crush big-time the myths that this conflict has anything to do with Islam against Christianity, or Arabs against the West. Instead, this war, believes the President and his supporters, has everything to do with exterminating the lunatic fringe responsible for 9/11 and other terrorist actions.
Political leaders, image-makers and journalists must not allow themselves to fall into the stale trap - \"seen one, seen ‘em all.\" They should not attribute the actions of the lunatic fringe to the vast majority of peaceful Arabs and Muslims. No individual, no nation should cast judgment on an entire race, culture, nation or religion based on the heinous acts of some fanatics. These fanatics no more represent Muslims than the Ku Klux Klan represents Christians.
On a canvas far broader in terms of ethnic coverage than its title indicates, my book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, paints the dangers of rigid and repetitive stereotypes when we lump \"those people\" together indiscriminately. For a full century before September 11, 2002, America’s bogeyman was the Arab. Both nationwide and globally - Hollywood’s movies are exported to 150-plus nations - entertainment shows projected hate-filled images depicting an entire people as demonic and less-than-human. In the process of disparaging a people and their faith, defamation itself gained strength by impacting viewers in the Middle East, as well as extending its ruinous power far beyond the people it was defaming.
For instance, here in America, in spite of the impressive and responsible rhetoric of President George Bush and Mayor Rudy Giuliani not to target Americans of Arab heritage and American Muslims, we witnessed vicious outbursts against \"look-a-likes,\" more than 700 hate-crimes and the killing of several innocents.
No doubt about it: image-making affects thinking and stereotypical profiling injures the innocent. For nearly three decades, I have studied how Arab peoples are depicted, giving special emphasis to \"entertainment\" images of television programs and motion pictures. My research offers convincing evidence that lurid and insidious portraits are the media’s staple fare. Almost all of Hollywood’s portraits of Arabs are dangerously threatening. From 1896 until 2001, reel Arabs have been repeatedly projected as the cultural \"other\" bent on terrorizing civilized Westerners. Film-makers have collectively indicted all Arabs as Public Enemy No.1. Movies display them as anti-Christian bombers, billionaires, buffoons, Bedouin bandits, belly dancers, bundles in black, beasts of burden or black magic vamps. Rarely are Arabs seen as ordinary neighbors with families, people who practice law, drive taxis, heal the sick, or teach youngsters. Think about it. When was the last time you saw a movie or TV show depicting an Arab or an American of Arab heritage as a regular guy? The absence of positive, realistic images nurtures suspicion and stereotype.
Most Americans have difficulty distinguishing between Arabs and Muslims. The term ‘Arab’ is essentially a linguistic category referring to about 265 million people from Arabic-speaking countries. ‘Muslim’ is a purely religious distinction, referring to 1.1 billion Muslims, most of whom are Indonesian, Indian and Malaysian. Only 12 percent of the world’s Muslims are Arabs. Yet, media images are almost always hostile when it comes to Arab Muslims. As a result, the Arab Muslim lacks a human face. For all the prejudiced , during the Gulf War and following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, all Arabs, including some of the 3 million Americans with Arab roots became \"camel jockeys,\" \"rag heads,\" and \"sand suckers.\" Whenever there is a crisis in the Middle East Arab Americans are subjected to vicious stereotyping and incidents of violence and discrimination.
Investigating Hollywood’s Arabs, beginning with my 1978 Wall Street Journal essay and up to and including my books The TV Arab (1984), Arab and Muslim Stereotyping In American Popular Culture (1999) and my current book, Reel Bad Arabs (2001), were solo efforts. It hasn’t been easy. What prompted me to continue was not only to contest the injustice of vilifying an entire people but the fact that images teach youngsters whom to love, whom to hate. Visual impressions are as enduring as prehistoric rocks; they seldom wither away.
With my children, I have watched animated heroes Heckle and Jeckle pull the rug from under \"Ali Boo-Boo, the Desert Rat,\" and Laverne and Shirley stop \"Sheik Ha-Mean-ie\" from conquering \"the U.S. and the world.\" I have read more than 250 comic books like the \"Fantastic Four\" and \"G.I. Combat\" whose characters have sketched Arabs as \"low-lifes\" and \"human hyenas.\" Negative stereotypes were everywhere. A dictionary informed my youngsters that an Arab is a \"vagabond, drifter, hobo, and vagrant.\" Whatever happened, my wife wondered, to Aladdin’s good genie?
To a child, the world is simple: good versus evil. But my children and others with Arab roots grew up without ever having seen a humane Arab on the silver screen, someone to look up to or to pattern their lives after. To them, it seemed easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a screen Arab to appear as a genuine human being.
In my new book, Reel Bad Arabs, I analyze upwards of 1,000 feature films, the vast majority of which bombard audiences with rigid, repetitive and repulsive depictions. From 1896 (Fatima) until 2001 (The Mummy Returns) film makers have failed to project real Arabs as normal, everyday folks. Instead, hundreds of movies collectively indict reel Arabs as Public Enemy #1. Movies imply that Americans are at war with all Arabs, forgetting the fact that out of 21 Arab nations, America is friendly with 19 of them. Films also falsely imply that the Holy Qur’an and Islam, a faith embraced by more than one billion people, advocate violence.
Why is it important for the average American to know and care about the Arab stereotype? It is critical because the dislike of \"the stranger\" image, which the Greeks knew as xenophobia, forewarns that when one ethnic or racial or religious group is vilified, innocent people suffer. For example, following the 9/11 tragedy, two thousand-plus hate crimes, several deaths and the federal government’s secret internment without trial more than eleven hundred people of Middle East origin. The onslaught of the reel Arab conditions how young people perceive themselves and how others perceive them as well. Explains one Arab American college student: \"The most common questions I was asked [by classmates] were if I had ever ridden a camel or if my family lived in tents. Even worse, I learned at a very young age [that] every other movie seemed to feature Arab terrorists.\"
I recently asked 293 secondary school teachers from five states -Massachusetts, North Carolina, Arkansas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin - to write down the names of any humane or heroic screen Arab they had seen. Five cited past portraits of Ali Baba and Sinbad; one mentioned Omar Sharif and \"those Arabs\" in Lion of the Desert and The Wind and the Lion. The remaining 287 teachers wrote \"none.\"
Nicholas Kadi, an actor with Iraqi roots, makes his living playing terrorists in such films as the 1990 release Navy SEALS. Kadi laments that he does \"little talking and a lot of threatening - threatening looks, threatening gestures.\" On screen, he and others who play Arab villains say \"America,\" then spit. \"There are other kinds of Arabs in the world,\" says Kadi, \"I’d like to think that some day there will be an Arab role out there for me that would be an honest portrayal.\"
The Arab remains American culture’s favourite whipping boy. In his memoirs, Terrel Bell, Ronald Reagan’s first secretary of education, writes about an \"apparent bias among mid-level, right-wing staffers at the White House\" who dismissed Arabs as \"sand niggers.\"
At a recent teacher’s conference, I met a woman from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, who told me about the persistence of discrimination. She was in the process of adopting a baby when an agency staffer warned her that the infant had a problem. When she asked whether the child was mentally ill, or physically disabled, there was silence. Finally, the worker said: \"The baby is Jordanian.\"
To me, the Arab demon of today is much like the Jewish demon of yesterday. We deplore the false portrait of Jews as a swarthy menace. Yet a similar portrait has been accepted and transferred to another group of Semites - the Arabs. Print and broadcast journalists fail to challenge this stereotype. They need to reveal more humane images of Arabs, a people who traditionally suffered from ugly myths. Others could follow their lead and retire the stereotypical Arab.
The Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s not only helped bring about more realistic depictions of various groups, it curbed negative images of the lazy black, the wealthy Jew, the greasy Hispanic, and the corrupt Italian. These images are mercifully rare on today’s screens.
Conscientious image makers and citizens worked together to eliminate the racial mockery that had been a shameful part of the American cultural scene.
It would be a step in the right direction of movie and TV producers developed characters modeled after real-life Arab Americans We could view a White House correspondent like Helen Thomas, whose father came from Lebanon, in a movie like The American President (1996), a heart surgeon patterned after the real-life Dr. Michael DeBakey on TV shows such as E. R., a lawyer such as Ralph Nader on Law and Order, a Palestinian teacher like Columbia University’s Edward Said in Dead Poet’s Society (1989), or a heroic air force pilot, like Colonel James Jabbara, Korea’s first jet ace. As motion pictures are the most powerful teaching tools ever created, we need to examine how image-making affects thinking, and how insidious myths and stereotyping helps shape policy. In the spirit of fairness, Hollywood should begin portraying all Arabs as neither saints nor devils, but as fellow human beings, with all the potentials and frailties that condition implies. Producers should recognize that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are religions of peace, advocating that all humankind is one family in the care of God.
The time is long overdue for the industry to shift gears and start churning out movies that help enhance tolerance and unify people. In this hour of global crisis, Hollywood’s image-makers should keep in mind that xenophobia and prejudice are the flip sides of harmony and togetherness.
by Jack G. Shaheen
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