Palestine and the ‘Humanisation’ of the Historical Arab in Hollywood : Still Racism by any Other Name?

Palestine and the ‘Humanisation’ of the Historical Arab in Hollywood : Still Racism by any Other Name?

Abstract: Using two recent Hollywood blockbusters (‘Kingdom of Heaven’ and ‘Munich’) as case-studies, Seyfeddin Kara draws parallels between the traditional presentation of racial minorities in Western cinema and the representation of Palestinians in Hollywood today.


Presentation of racial minorities in Western movies has been attracting the interest of contemporary scholars like Downing and Husband (2003), Larson (2006), Twitchin (2002.) These scholars have carried out deep and comprehensive studies regarding racism in Western movies which have revealed that racial minorities are often represented in a very negative way. These studies were heavily influenced by Said’s (1979) groundbreaking work that carefully examined the historical basis of the perception of the “Western supremacy” over the Eastern people.

The finding of these works demonstrate that there are two different forms of racism that take place in Western movies. The first is the explicit form of racism that explicitly targets racial minorities and represents them through the lenses of the colonialist worldview, thus stereotyping them as ‘uncivilized’, ‘lazy’, ‘criminal’, ‘unscrupulous’ and ‘untrustworthy’ people. The second is the implicit form of racism. In this type of racism, despite the fact that racial minorities are ostensibly represented in positive ways, they are either given limited or passive appearance in the movies that is dictated by their relation to the main characters of the movie. Or they are simply considered to be ‘natural accessories’ that fill the background decoration of the scenes. However, since this racism is not overt, most of these movies have received a warm reception from the public as well as members of racial minorities.

While acknowledging the significance of these works, it should also be noted that these works are seldom concerned with the representation of Arabs and Muslims in Western movies. Further, most of the works that have been carried out in this field have so far focussed only on overt misrepresentation of Arabs and Muslims. (Shaahen; 2003, Semmerling; 2006, Ameli at all 2007). Therefore, this paper aims to demonstrate the covert misrepresentation of Arabs and Muslims in Western movies. This paper will follow the patterns of the previous works on racial minorities and will try to apply them to the case of the representation of Arabs and Muslims.

The author of the paper is aware that the terms ‘Arab’ and ‘Muslim’ are representing two different notions. ‘Arab’ has a racial connotation and ‘Muslim’ has a religious connotation. Thus, misrepresentation of the former is in the boundaries of racism and misrepresentation of the latter is religious discrimination. However, there is a strong perception in the West that considers the two identical. Therefore, in this paper these words will be referred as they are used in the West.

The paper will be divided into two parts. The first part will discuss the theory of the covert misrepresentation. During this discussion three key concepts, namely ‘power and narrative relations’, ‘selective exclusion’, and ‘elite racism’ will be examined. The second part will study two contemporary Hollywood movies, Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and Munich (2005) in order to demonstrate practical aspects of the theory. The criteria for the selection of these movies are, first of all, based on their warm reception amongst the Muslim and Arab viewers and the harsh critiques that are directed against these movies by the Western media. Secondly, apart from the fact that these two movies depict Muslims; they are both related to the issue of Palestine. Thus it will give us a better opportunity to compare them.


Power and Narrative Relation

Coulthard (1985) mentions the general concurrence amongst all linguists that “human communication must be described in terms of at least three levels –meaning, form and substance or discourse, lexico-grammar and phonology[1] (p.1). Further, Firth (1951) argued that language is fundamentally a way of behaving and making others behave and therefore ultimately the linguist must concern himself with the verbal process in the context of situation. He also stressed the significance of the context and argued that language is only meaningful in the context of the situation.

Fowler (1985) defines power as ‘the ability of people and institutions to control the behaviour and materials of others’. As one of the central elements of expressing power, he studies linguistics as practice of power and mentions that certain systematic or lexical choices can present a biased view as the ‘reality’, thus promoting the ideology of dominant power. In the same line, Larson (2006) points out the relation between the media and power. She maintains that media is “part of a cultural discourse that reinforces a hierarchy found in” ‘white’ dominated society. (p. 14). Needless to say this hierarchy privileges the dominant power. Furthermore, Larson (2006) argues that:

“this privileging can be seen in a variety of ways, for instance, by creating a hierarchy of characters in stories, making some more important than others. The important ones get to speak and make things, and the viewer sees the action from their points of view… When racial-minority groups’ action and relations to others are shown on film, they are presented or seen not as political acts and decisions but as something “natural.” Producer and viewers of these images might not even see this because their roles and stories told in films seem so common or “normal.”” (p.15).

Larson (2006) also notes that by excluding racial minorities or representing them in limited ways in television and film, the dominant culture subordinates these groups. Thus negative perceptions of racial minorities become part of the collective consciousness that suggests that racial-minority groups are responsible for their own miserable conditions and justifies this subordination. Further, Larson (2006) believes that this subordination is achieved through their omission. In other words, whites are told that “these people are not important” or whites tell the others (non-white) that “you are not important.”

However, it should be noted that according to Larson, the particular negative images used in television and film were not created on the spot; instead they have strong historical background; “they come from a long legacy of social inequality and oppression, and their retelling strengthens these beliefs in white supremacy.” (p.15).

As a matter of fact this subordination does not only target racial minorities but females who live in the white male superior world also equally suffer. In this regard Messner at all (1993) analyzed the coverage of American television’s black male’s and female’s athletic events. According to the findings of the research, unlike white male athletes, female athletes and black male athletes were often called by their first names, and all the female athletes and black male athletes were called ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ respectively.

Larson (2006) mentions a deliberate and conscious construction of movie themes that are designed to serve the interests of the dominant group. According to Larson (2006)

“Narratives make sense of experiences by putting events into a sequence that tells a story about what happens and why. They identify certain people, behaviours, and values as wrong and right, as important and unimportant, and provide moral. Films work out problems by focusing on individual characters. Who those characters are, what they do and say, and what happens to them in the story all convey the dominant ideology of the film,” (p.18).

Selective Exclusion

Larson (2006) mentions ‘selective exclusion’ of ethnic minorities in American Movies. African-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans were for a long period deliberately excluded from television and movies, and Asian-Americans were deliberately excluded by being relegated to secondary, unimportant or stereotyped genres, roles and stories. For instance, for many years blacks were excluded from romance and family dramas on TV; Westerns, detective series and shows. They only occasionally appeared in musicals, variety shows and comedies. Further he mentions that “black characters are usually shown in the context of their relationships with whites rather than with each other” (p.25) (i.e. Driving Miss Daisy, 1989). Thus they indicated that blacks exist as long as they have good relations with whites. Black actors played sidekick roles to white males in the 1980 detective movies and the white women in the 1990s. In these movies, black characters were emotionally and sexually passive and they engaged in less action. In addition Larson (2006) points out that even civil rights movement films which are supposed to indict racism were racist by exclusion of black characters and by giving central roles to white male characters, thus presenting the events from their point of view.

For instance, see The Long Walk Home (1990), set in Montgomery, Alabama, during the bus boycott of 1955. The movie, rather than being story of Odessa, a young African-American maid who decides to walk in support of the bus boycott, is the story of a white woman’s political transformation. Another example is Mississippi Burning (1988). Larson considers it “a simplistic film that fictionalizes the FBI’s investigation into the murders of three real-life civil right workers. The film does not tell the story of black experiences under segregation because it is preoccupied with “good whites” battling “bad whites.” In addition she argues that “History is distorted through its storytelling, characterization, and visual framing. It puts black activism in the background and makes the FBI the crusaders for racial justice, when in reality the agency worked against the civil rights movement more than it did for it.” (p.25).

Hartman at all (1974) argues that

“the colored people in American and British films until the 1960s were very largely supporting parts, or they were extras. Quite often their presence was justified because of the geographical location of the film. For example, in films set in the American Deep South they were cast as maids, butlers, field workers and slaves. In the North they would occupy service jobs like train attendants, waiters, or shoe-shine boys. A predominant part of the Negro image in the cinema of the `30s, `40s and `50 was a reiteration of the Sambo stereo-type.” (p.191-192).

Furthermore, Harman at all (1974) argues that in most of the scenarios, the coloured peoples’ status in British films has been determined by the internal logic of the location. For example

“in Africa he was often the faithful ‘boy’, quick to obey ‘Bwana’, or in safari dramas Africans were the porters who carried the equipment and who could be relied upon to run off at some point because of their abject terror at the prospect of entering a taboo area. The superstition and temerity of the natives was often used as valuable counterpoint to the rationality and courage of the white man. Coupled with the prescribed inferior status of the Africans, this juxtaposition further contributed to the equation of non-white with inferiority. In India, the range of themes again tended to result in Indians being cast as extras to fill in background as markets traders, tribesman or soldiers. Even when the part carried some status such as a rajah or prince, it was seldom a major role in the context of the film. In the event that an Indian occupied a substantial part, then there was a strong likelihood that the actor would be a suitable made-up white.” (p.192-193)

Elite Racism

Dijk (1991) argues that “Experiences and analyses by minority groups as well as other, scholarly, evidence have repeatedly shown that the dominant media in various degrees have always perpetuated stereotypes and prejudice about minority groups.” (p.11).

In this regard Dijk mentions the concept of “elite racism”. It is a specific kind of racism that takes place by reproduction of racism by the media. According to this theory, because of their position, “white elites” are able to reproduce their special set of racial ideologies and practice it on the population. According to this argument, despite the fact that racism is in the interest of the whole white group, in reality, it will mostly benefit the (powerful) elites. Since the dominant white media and their ideologies are unwaveringly related to these political, social, and corporate elite groups, it is crucial for the mass media to “mediate, legitimate or directly support” the ideology of the “elite power”. For Dijk (1991)

“specific and autonomous media power in this case is defined by the fact that in present-day societies the mass media have nearly exclusive control over the symbolic resources needed to manufacture popular consent, especially in the domain of ethnic relations. This means that anti-racist ideologies can be successfully marginalized and thus excluded from popular opinion formation.” (p.43).

Dijk (1991) further mentions that any group or proposal that advocates the reducing of white group control, and especially of “political and corporate control”, is likely to be targeted with the media’s own, “symbolic strategies.” These attacks might be verbal abuse or more subtle forms of marginalization, such as limiting access, biased reporting and quotation, or discrediting. Therefore Dijk (1991) suggests that it might be viable to argue that

“the right-wing Press especially, the main opponents will generally be the following: Politically, the radical left; ethnically, the most militant minority groups (for example, young black males); socially, pro-minority welfare organizations; and culturally, those who are symbolic competitors for the definition of the ethnic situation, for example, anti-racist educators, scholars, writers, as well as some politicians.”(p.44).


Kingdom of Heaven

Khatib (2006) notes that “Cinema, as a powerful tool of cultural production, stands at the heart of representation of the modern Middle East. One of the most salient angles of this representation is cinema’s engagement with the depiction of politics in the region.” (p.1).

According to Pecora (1989), the “representation” and “reflection” that the movies emanate is deeply attached to the “reality” and “historical background”. Hence, the movies, the cinema industries, and political events have interwoven relations that are portrayed by power and knowledge relations.

Shaaheen (2003), in his comprehensive and meticulous study, examines 900 Hollywood movies in which the Arabs are portrayed. In his book that he presents his study, Shaaheen asks the question of “What is an Arab?” The overall impression that he gets from these 900 movies is that “Arabs are brute murderers, sleazy rapists, religious fanatics, oil-rich dimwits, and abusers of women” (p.2).

Indeed Kingdom of Heaven (2005) does not represent the same vilification of the Arabs. It is an epic story that takes place during the 12th Century crusades. A French blacksmith, Balian of Ibelin, travels to Jerusalem for redemption but his destiny makes him the defender of the holy city against Saladdin, the famous Kurdish king. Though it is a historical movie, it tries to connect history to the present political situation in Palestine from the perspectives of the main characters.

The main character of this movie is the son of Godfrey, Balian who is going to Jerusalem accompanied to his father. His aim is to seek redemption after killing a priest who had insulted his wife. The father who was fatally injured while he was protecting his son talks about Jerusalem as a “new world” where people are valued according to their own persona. Godfrey urges his son to serve the King of Jerusalem as the city is the fulfilment of the ultimate utopia of mankind where Muslims and Christians live together in peace. He calls it “Kingdom of Conscience”, “Kingdom of Heaven”.

The first encounter in his travel to the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ between Balian and the Muslims takes place at Messina, port to the Holy Land. Balian, while standing on the top of the bastions of the port with his friend, hears a call to prayer while looking at some people who pray down at the cliffs. With a visible ignorance he asks his friends “who are those men”. His friend replies back “Muslims”. Astonished Balian continues questioning his friend, “and they are allowed their prayers?” Then his friend explains to him that as long as they pay their tax, there is no problem. Then Balian makes his final comment about the Muslim prayer: “it is like an uprising”.

The second encounter takes place after Balian’s ship is hit by a storm that leaves him and a horse as the only survivors. However, the horse runs away and Balian tracks her in the desert. He soon finds the horse but two Arab men claim it from him, a master and his servant. Balian will later find out that the person who he thought be the servant, Nasir, is in reality the master himself but has designed this plan to test Balian. He now either has to fight or disclaim the horse. It is his first encounter with the Muslims in the Arab lands and the reception is not very warm. The disguised servant is a very aggressive person who repeatedly insults Balian and attacks him. Despite the attempts of Nasir who had in fact designed the whole plan, in a fair battle Balian kills one of the best Arab warriors and spares Nasir’s life. Then Nasir guides Balain to Jerusalem where he frees him and gives him the horse as an indication of his nobleness. In return Nasir tells him “Your qualities will be known among your enemies before ever you meet them” indicating forthcoming conflicts.

After his meeting with King Baldwin IV, Balian travels to his fathers’ land Ibelin wherein a good number of Christians, Muslims and Jews reside in peace and harmony. However, the only problem in this fertile land as Balian puts it, “what we do not have is water”. So he decides to digs wells and organizes people of the land to get together and work for their own good. After painstaking collective work they eventually succeed in bringing wealth and prosperity to the land. It was the materialization of the earlier observation and discourse of the movie which convinced Balian that such an ideal can be achievable. However, the implication of it was this ideal can be better achieved under the leadership of the Europeans, as Balain, a Western mechanic, was able to mobilize the people of the land and had knowledge of digging wells and building necessity infrastructure to distribute the water to the land.

The very same evening when Balain and his guest Sibylla, who is the sister of King Baldwin and arranged wife of Guy, are having a discussion on the dedication of Balain to his land, they watch together a group of Muslims praying their congregational prayer. However, as it was the case at the earlier scene in Messina in contradiction to the Muslim tradition, they pray separately from each other. Having observed them Balain comments that “they try to be one… one heart, one morality”. However, Sibylla, being from the land and knowing more about Islam retorts: “Their prophet says “submit” Jesus says “decide””. Summarizing the whole philosophy of the two religions while comparing them to each other. Submission versus choice. In other words dogmas against free will. However, since Sibylla is from the East, she is not immune from this ‘submission’. When Balain asks her about her decision on Guy, she realizes this and tells her story about how her mother married her to Guy when she was 15. In comparison with other Hollywood movies, the movie represents a decent image of Muslims who do not go on the rampage randomly killing people. In fact, Muslims are given credit throughout with references about their good treatment towards members of other creeds. Especially in the final scene of the movie, when Saladdin lifts up the cross after the surrender of the city. Due to this lenient approach to Islam, the movie was harshly criticized by some of the academics and writers. One of them was Jonathan Riley-Smith, a Crusades historian who was quoted by the Daily Telegraph as describing the movie as “rubbish”, “ridiculous” and commenting “It’s Osama bin Ladin’s versions of history; it will fuel Islamic fundamentalism”.

However, these references are superficial and do not reflect the situation of the Muslims objectively. The main characters are European Crusaders and the Arabs are only visible when/if they have a relationship with the main characters. Otherwise they are only visible as background accessories that fill the markets, shops, battlefields and streets. There is no individual attention to their emotions and ideas that are not related to the main characters of the movie. The Arabs are completely passive and reactionary. Despite the fact that the movie had a Muslim scholar to consult about Muslim traditions and the Crusades, the Muslim traditions are wrongly represented. The movie revolves around the good and bad Crusaders and their struggle to gain control of Jerusalem.


For Khatib (2006) Hollywood’s representation of the Arab-Israeli conflict revolves around three major themes: “the construction of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as an ethnic conflict; the establishment of physical and ideological borders between Israelis and Palestinians, which entails the construction of each side as a predominantly homogeneous group; and the representation of the United States as a godfather whose role infantilizes both Israel and Palestine.” (p.108). He goes further to say that “Hollywood constructs the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as an ethnic relying on the use of ethnic myth in the representation of Israel. Not only do Israelis in the film share a common ethnic myth, but Jews worldwide are portrayed as sharing this common sentiment and history and even origin, with no distinction between Zionist and non-Zionist.” (p.110)

Munich, released in 2005, can be a good example of the above mentioned arguments. Despite the fact that the movie claims that it approaches the conflict from a neutral perspective, the covert representation of the Palestinians portrays a very negative image. In particular, the great emphasis on the personalities and emotions of the Mossad agents presents the whole conflict from the perspective of Israel. There is a very little reference to the Palestinians; however, they are the outsiders and thus there is no mention of their emotions and they are never allowed to express themselves thoroughly. They just appear in the movie when Mossad agents are supposed to have a connection with them.

The movie is based on a real event that took place in 1972. A group of Palestinian gunmen, members of Black September, took hostage and killed the Israeli athletics team at the Munich Olympics. The movie is a fictional depiction of the event and the assassination campaign of Israel in retaliation. The main character of the movie is Avner, an Israeli born Mossad agent with a German background who was chosen to lead the assassination squad.

The scene after the bloody massacre of Munich shows the Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and other government ministers and officials sitting around a table discussing revenge options against the Palestinians. The speech of Golda Meir represents the anger of the Israelis: “It’s the same as Eichmann”, referring to Karl Adolf Eichmann, a high ranking Nazi officer who was known to be the “architect of the Holocaust” and was kidnapped from Argentina by the Mossad, smuggled to Israel, tried and hanged in 1962. “We say to these butchers, “You didn’t want to share this world with us, then we don’t have to share this world with you.” Then she turns to the Attorney General and asks: “There’s legitimacy for this.” Then she continues, “Ambushed and slaughtered again. While the rest of the world is playing games, Olympic torches and brass bands and dead Jews in Germany. And the world couldn’t care less.” After random interruption of the others in the room she continues, “These people … They’re sworn to destroy us. Forget peace for now. We have to show them we’re strong. We have laws, we represent civilization. Some people say we can’t afford to be civilized. I’ve always resisted such people.

After a short break, an expression of anger appears on her face as she remarks “But I don’t know who these maniacs are or where they come from. Palestinians? Who are Palestinians? There are no such people. They’re not… recognizable. You tell me, what law protects people like these? Today I’m hearing with new ears.” She then makes her concluding remark, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values. I have made a decision. The responsibility is entirely mine.” There is no other voice to be heard in the room but the voice of Meir that longs for revenge.

The answer to Golda Meir’s arguments comes with the assassination of Zwaiter, the first victim of the Mossad assassination team. He was tragically killed after giving a talk about his translation of the Arabian Nights. Hans, Karl and Steve, the other members of the assassination team sit in a room and watch the news about three Black September members who were responsible for the Munich murderers, being freed in Libya. The television screen show an enormous crowd rejoicing the arrival of the Black September members. On the TV, one of the members of Black September speaks with a heavy Arabic accent: “the Israelis kills the Arabs in Egypt, In Jordan, in Syria and every country they find”. After a short focus on the room, a member speaks in Arabic and his lawyer translates into English: “we have made our voice heard by the universe or the world who was not hearing before”.

The scene then changes to the office of Mahmoud Hamshari’s apartment. Mahmoud is unaware that he is the next target of the assignation campaign and explains the statements of the Black September members to a disguised Mossad agent: “What he meant by this is that the world will begin hearing us. We are for twenty-four years the world’s largest refugee population, our homes taken from us, living in camps, no future, no food, nothing decent for our children.” Then his wife interrupts him and says “It did not begin in Munich. And where does it end? How will it ever end?” Perhaps this is the most meaningful statement that is made in the entire movie; however, it is too short and does not go further than that.

At the acme of the movie, when the Mossad assassination squad travels to Greece for killing their important target, they accidentally meet a group of PLO members in a safe house, where Avner has a lengthy conversation with Ali, a young PLO member. The Mossad team pretend to be members of different European leftist groups. It is the only time Israelis and Palestinians come face to face and question each other. The conversation reflects the view of both sides and shows their emotional, but not intellectual, justification for the conflict. Having listened to Ali’s ideas about a Palestinian state, Avner scorns him “This is a dream. You can’t take a country you never had”. This is Avner’s most ‘forceful’ argument that there has never been a Palestinian country in history. Ali has nothing to say about this in response but simply insults Avner back saying, “You sound like a Jew”.

Then another ‘forceful’ argument comes from Avner: “You’re Arabs. There are lots of places for Arabs.” There is again no answer from Ali but to insult Avner as a being a “Jewish sympathizer” and making racial comments about Avner’s German background, reducing the issue to a racial issue. “You are a Jewish sympathizer. All you Germans are soft on Israel, you give us money but you feel guilty about Hitler, and the Jews exploit your guilt. My father didn’t gas any Jews.


Of course the two movies make some good points as in the case of young Palestinian Ali who says that his father “didn’t gas any Jews” so he should not suffer for what the Europeans did to the Jews during the Second World War. Or the good image of the Muslims in Kingdom of Heaven in comparison to other Hollywood movies. However, they are implicitly misrepresented by excluding them from the main characters and giving them passive roles. This negative representation of Muslims is very identical to the racism against ethnic minorities in Western movies.

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[1] Italics from the original text.
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