Does Hollywood dehumanize Muslims and Arabs? Many writers and organizations think so. They assert that racial and ethnic stereotyping that has been otherwise abandoned by the cinema continues to apply to these groups. Columnist Jay Stone, for instance, observes that it "appears we're down to one group, the Arabs. When was the last time you saw an Arab character in a movie who was anything but one of the three Bs (billionaire, bomber, belly dancer)?"1
Hala Maksoud, president of the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee, in a complaint to NBC regarding an episode of the television series, The West Wing
, asserts that "Arabs remain fair game for the entertainment industry in this country."2
The result has been vigorous lobbying and public criticism to sensitize moviemakers to these distortions, then stop them. Faced with a barrage of criticism, the powers that be in Hollywood—who do not consider themselves qualified to test the validity of these complaints—usually concede to their critics. For example, The Sum of All Fears
a thriller by Tom Clancy, has as its villains a group of Muslim terrorists who conspire to detonate a nuclear device at the Superbowl in Denver. However, following objections from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the director of the movie derived from the book, Phil Alden Robinson, substituted European neo-Nazis for Muslims. Robinson explained in a letter addressed to CAIR that he had "no intention of promoting negative images of Muslims or Arabs" and went on the wish the group his "best" in its efforts to combat discrimination.3
Evidently, the lobbying works.
But are the complaints of bias valid? Does Hollywood treat Muslims and Arabs in an unfair fashion?
Examined closely, the critics have three main complaints.
Islamist violence is distorted
. Salam Al-Marayati, the director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, complains that moviemakers fail to put their subjects in context:
Image-makers, whether Hollywood executives or news editors, influence public opinion as much [as], if not more, than government officials. Among the important issues distorted by the image-makers is international terrorism. The State Department's 1998 report on global terrorism indicates once again that terrorist acts in Colombia far outnumbered similar incidents in the Middle East.4
In other words, Al-Marayati is saying that Muslims and Arabs are unfairly singled out.
Islamist terrorism is invented
. The critics allege that terrorism committed by Muslims and Arabs is a media invention without basis in fact. According to Jack G. Shaheen, a professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University and a leading writer on this subject,
Research verifies that lurid and insidious depictions of Arabs as alien, violent strangers, intent upon battling non-believers throughout the world, are staple fare. Such erroneous characterizations more accurately reflect the bias of Western reporters and image-makers than they do the realities of Muslim people in the modern world.5
Similarly, CAIR asserted, in relation to The Siege
, that it depicts "a series of terrorist bombings by ‘Muslims,'"6
the clear implication being that it is false to assert that Muslims are responsible for terrorism.
Muslims and Arabs never appear in sympathetic roles.
Conversely, Shaheen argues that Muslims and Arabs rarely appear as sympathetic, mainstream characters but, on the contrary, turn up almost exclusively as fanatical, homicidal terrorists.
Regrettably, the approximately five to eight million Muslims who live in the United States are confronted with a barrage of stereotypes which unfairly show them as a global menace, producers of biological weapons, zealots who issue fatwas, or burn Uncle Sam in effigy.7
Why does Hollywood engage in these alleged practices? Critics offer reasons that are mostly conspiracist in nature, relating to either the U.S. government or alleged Jewish control over the media.
Hollywood furthers U.S. government policies.
Discussing the media, John Esposito contends that portraits of Islam are generated by national-security paranoia, just as were U.S. depictions of the communist movement during the Cold War:
Fear of the Green Menace may well replace that of the Red Menace of world communism ... Islam is often equated with holy war and hatred, fanaticism and violence, intolerance and the oppression of women.8
Edward Said, university professor at Columbia, finds that Muslims and Arabs "are essentially covered, discussed, apprehended, either as oil suppliers or as potential terrorists." Rather than provide "the human density" of their lives, "a limited series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world [are] presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.
This type of claim – that movies prepare American sentiment for military hostilities abroad – has been made since by others in different contexts; for example, in reference to Tony Scott's Top Gun
Hollywood furthers Zionist policies
. The critics assert that Hollywood, in depicting Arab and Islamist terrorism, is guilty of Islamophobia and anti-Arab animus, generated for the deliberate purpose of bolstering Israel and preparing the public for anti-Arab and anti-Muslim aggression that supposedly derives from such support. Said finds that one of three factors he identifies as responsible for the U.S. media's negative stereotypes of the Middle East, which he calls a "politicized" depiction, is "the struggle between the Arabs and Israeli Zionism."11
As the arguments for Israeli democracy increase in intensity they have also tended to expand in sheer volume, so that the place of Palestinians in such public locales as the American television screen, the daily newspaper, the commercial film, shrinks to a few stereotypes –the mad Islamic zealot, the gratuitously violent killer of innocents, the desperately irrational and savage primitive.12
In the Middle East, this thesis is more unbuttoned, assuming an openly antisemitic character, as in this analysis by Tariq 'Atiya in Al-Ahram
, Egypt's leading newspaper:
It's the Jews who invented and remain in charge of Hollywood. They are also a force to be reckoned with in U.S. policy-making. And they are using exactly the same techniques that were used against them in Europe to attack Muslims. ... Hollywood increasingly acts as a curtain raiser, using the supposed make-believe of the screen to prepare people for unpalatable realities, so that people will not be too shocked when the same thing suddenly begins to happen for real.13
So much for theory. An analysis of recent films that have attracted Muslim and Arab criticism provides a rather more complex picture than one of simple bias on behalf of some interest. We look at five recent feature films (True Lies
,14 Executive Decision
,15 The Siege
,16 Three Kings
and Rules of Engagement
and some earlier ones (like The Delta Force
to understand the issues involved.
True Lies and Executive Decision
, a comedy-action-thriller, tells the story of Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a spy. This fact is unknown to his attractive but neglected wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis), whose boredom leads her to consider infidelity. Discovering this, Tasker places her under surveillance even though he should be concentrating his efforts on cracking the spy-ring of Salim Abu Aziz (Art Malik), a terrorist chieftain who heads a group called Crimson Jihad that is responsible for dozens of car and café bombings. A shady businessman named Jamal Khaled (Marshall Manesh), who bankrolls and arms Aziz, is planning to explode nuclear devices in the United States unless Washington evacuates all its forces from the Persian Gulf. The two plot-threads humorously intertwine, with Tasker's true career becoming known to his wife, who ends up having the adventure she always craved alongside Harry, who succeeds in outwitting the militants and killing dozens of terrorists in the process.
, an action-thriller, opens with the seizure, in Nicosia, of an Arab terrorist, El Sayeed Jaffa (Andreas Katsulas), "after fifteen years of unrestrained terrorism," in the words of the news report following his capture. Subsequently, a group of Arab terrorists led by Jaffa's deputy, Nagi Hasan (David Suchet), boards a civilian flight in Athens bound for Dallas and hijacks it in mid-air with 406 passengers on board. The terrorists have smuggled aboard a deadly toxin with which Hasan intends to attack the United States. The job of rescuing the flight and passengers from Hasan devolves on an inexperienced National Security officer, David Grant (Kurt Russell), and the small squad of men with him. Grant ingeniously and successfully leads the assault on the terrorists, overcoming them and bringing the plane to a safe landing. Hasan is a terrorist of frightening resolve, capable of limitless evil. At a pivotal moment in the drama, he discloses over the radio to the just-released Jaffa his intention to launch against the Americans a massive unconventional-weapons attack that could kill millions.
Allah has blessed us. A great destiny awaits us both. In a few hours you will see I have achieved a glorious victory on your behalf. All the people of Islam will embrace you as its chosen leader. I am your friend, the sword of Allah, and with it I will strike deep into the heart of the infidel.
Aziz in True Lies
and Hasan in Executive Decision
are obviously unsympathetic characters. But neither racism nor bias accounts for this; when presenting stories about terrorism, some connection to reality is required. Fictional terrorists must resemble their real counterparts; who would go to see a movie showing an international league sowing violence to re-establish the Portuguese empire, or a band of Buddhists seeking to spread their religion?
This unavoidable grounding in reality has an important consequence. It means that filmmakers are not implying that "Many Muslims and Arabs are anti-American terrorists" (which would indeed be due cause for complaint), but "Many anti-American terrorists are Muslims or Arabs," a rather different—and verifiable—proposition. Shaheen complains that True Lies
portrays "Palestinian Muslims as screaming, murderous ‘terrorists', killing innocents."20
Untrue: the film portrays screaming, murderous terrorists who happen to be Palestinian Muslims. For obvious reasons, the demands of verisimilitude would not be met if terrorists were identified as, say, Scandinavian Lutherans. By similar logic, the Special Forces operation that climaxes the action in Ridley Scott's G.I. Jane 21
takes place in Libya, rather than in Costa Rica. These depictions reflect the real existence of Muslim terrorists acting in the name of Islam who preach and practice the indiscriminate killing of Westerners. New Yorkers need no reminder of the World Trade Center bombing of 1993 and many lesser incidents; Parisians can remember the terrorist campaign of 1996; most everyone can recall the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa.
Despite their weaknesses, such critiques have nonetheless had an impact, as can be seen in The Siege
. Its producers were clearly persuaded that, in dealing with the theme of Middle Eastern terrorism, it is necessary to portray Muslims and Arabs sympathetically. An unexceptionable goal, no doubt; but what were the results and what was the reaction from Islamist groups?
starts with footage of the bombing of American military installations in Dharan, Saudi Arabia, then cuts to the successful capture of an Islamist Iraqi sheikh who has issued a fatwa
against the United States. His operatives plan to take revenge by bringing their fight to American soil. The result is a New York systematically terrorized by acts of mass-murder committed by this Islamist group. After a passenger bus in Brooklyn is seized, FBI assistant special agent Anthony Hubbard (Denzel Washington) makes common cause with CIA agent Elise Kraft (Annette Bening) in an investigation that initially appears to succeed in eliminating the terrorists. Their optimism is confounded when another terrorist bombs One Federal Plaza, the headquarters of the FBI, killing 600 people and throwing an already traumatized New York into pandemonium and hysteria. A sinister army general, Bill Devereux (Bruce Willis), obtains presidential authority to impose martial law in New York and extirpate the terrorist cell with whatever methods he can devise. In the end, Devereux tortures and kills an innocent Arab suspect while Hubbard and Kraft track down the true terrorist, Samir Nazhde (Sami Bouajila), a Palestinian teacher at Brooklyn College, whom Kraft had mistakenly trusted as a source. Nazhde is killed before he can blow up a demonstration of New Yorkers protesting martial law, and Hubbard arrests Devereux for his crimes.
The makers of The Siege
went to considerable lengths, consulting Muslim-American and Arab-American organizations in the process, to head off any implication that Muslim- and Arab-Americans are complicit in or sympathetic to the crimes of an Islamist fringe. First, they carefully emphasized Arab-American loyalty to the United States. Immediately following the first bombing, Hubbard tells his FBI task force, "Just got off the phone with leaders of the Arab community. We have their complete support and co-operation. They love this country as much as we do, they want these criminals brought to justice as badly as we do." After further bombings result in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment, a representative of an Arab defense agency, respectable and dignified in appearance, rises to declare, "Whatever injustices my people may be suffering at this very difficult moment, we will continue to show our commitment to this country." In other ways too (such as the use of fictionalized television news and commentary), the point is repeatedly made that a small, seditious minority is the problem, not Muslims and Arabs at large.
Secondly, Palestinian nationalists receive careful treatment lest viewers suspect all Palestinians of being terrorists and fanatics. Kraft, the film's heroine, tells Hubbard that her first boyfriend was a Palestinian and that she regards Palestinians as "these incredibly warm, hospitable people living in this horrible place." When Hubbard queries, "But yet you work against them?" she replies: "Only the crazies. I tend to be suspicious of all true believers." The point is inescapable: the enemy is terrorists, not Palestinians, Arabs, or Muslims as such.
Thirdly, the story boasts a significant Arab character who is sympathetically developed: Hubbard's trusted FBI colleague Frank Haddad (Tony Shaloub), a Lebanese-American. Haddad is so traumatized by Devereux's mass arrest of New York's young Arab males, including his own son that, in a dramatic scene, he throws away his FBI badge and asks Hubbard to intern him along with the others.
Fourthly, the film is implicitly critical of aspects of American Middle East policy. It emerges that the Iraqi sheikh, captured by Devereux's men at the start of the film, had been an erstwhile anti-Saddam ally to whom support had been cut off in a sudden tergiversation of policy. The true terrorist, Samir, and others trained for subversion against Saddam Husayn, now direct their skills against the United States. In short, the film places at least partial blame for Islamist terrorism on the United States, almost to the point of echoing the idea posited by certain French intellectuals that Washington is the creator of Islamism.22
Here, surely, was a story crafted to ensure that Muslims and Arabs are differentiated from the terrorists and extremists among them. Overall, to the extent that any group is shown in a negative light in The Siege
, it is the U.S. military and policy elite. Moreover, the idea that public hysteria and militarist temptation can subvert the United States and victimize Arabs is a prominent theme of the story.
For all these efforts, the end product pleased Muslim- and Arab-American sensibilities little more than had True Lies
and Executive Decision
. CAIR executive director Nihad Awad stated:
We acknowledge the intent of the film's producers . . . But the barrage of negative or stereotypical portrayals of Muslims in this film will overpower any positive message.23
CAIR also contended that the film depicted Muslims and Islam as in conflict with Western values and posing a danger to American society.24
In response to The Siege
, CAIR coordinated a "national campaign involving mosque open-houses, newspaper advertisements, and other grass-roots efforts," such as "panel discussions, art displays, videos," also providing "accurate information about Islam at a number of local theatres," all aimed at exposing the "stereotypes" contained in the film.25
CAIR was not alone in its criticism. Shaheen contends that The Siege
"not only reinforces historically damaging stereotypes, but also advances a dangerously generalized portrayal of Arabs as rabidly anti-American."26
More pungently, ‘Atiya criticizes The Siege
as indicative of "Hollywood's shift into Islamophobia overdrive" and (consistent with his Jewish-conspiracy theory of Hollywood) claims that the film must be understood as "propaganda for an actual forthcoming ‘siege' of Muslim and Arab Americans."27
Such maligning of a worthy, if cloyingly self-conscious, attempt to mollify Muslim and Arab concerns suggests that the very subject of Palestinian, Arab, or Islamist terrorism, or the state support of terrorism by Middle Eastern governments, is itself taboo. Such a position ranges far beyond the ostensible effort to establish that Muslim- and Arab-Americans are respectable and diverse people, most of whom thoroughly disapprove of terrorism.
, set during the immediate aftermath of the Kuwait War in 1991, revolves around a group of American soldiers enlisted by an officer, Archie Gates (George Clooney), in a scheme to rifle plundered Kuwaiti gold from Iraqi government installations during the shadowy moral and jurisdictional confusion of the post-Desert Storm cease-fire. The soldiers are initially uninformed and insensitive towards an enemy about whom they know next to nothing. Early in the picture, the men discuss among themselves whether it is better to describe Arabs as "towel heads" or "camel jockeys," with one soldier confused by this general derogation of Arabs, given that they went to war to save the Arabs of Kuwait. At a later stage, one of the U.S. soldiers, Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), is captured and interrogated by an Iraqi, whose brutality is slightly off-set by his account of the death of a family member in an American air-raid.
Proceeding into Iraqi territory where Americans are still notionally in control but soon to abandon the field, the men discover the hapless victims and brave rebels opposing Baghdad who stand to be slaughtered the moment American forces are evacuated. Saddam's troops stand by, fingers on triggers, ready to kill people already being starved into submission. Gates explains to his men "Bush told the people to rise up against Saddam. They thought they'd have our support. They don't know they're getting slaughtered." Confronted by Saddam's forces while raiding an Iraqi bunker for gold, the Americans shed their avarice and fall in with the rebels and their families, whom they attempt to escort to safety across the border to Iran. Their eventual success in this endeavor heartens the viewer.
In a story in which Arabs themselves are in conflict, where an Arab regime is the oppressor of Arabs, and where instances of American bewilderment and gaucherie
abound, sympathetic Arab portraits easily emerge. Also, the producers made considerable efforts to enlist American Muslim and Arab support for the movie: Warner Brothers, chastened perhaps by CAIR's protest over Executive Decision
, held a pre-release screening for a number of Muslim and Arab organizations. The offensive descriptions of Arabs early in the film ("towel heads" and "camel jockeys"), Warner Brothers successfully explained to its critics, only intended to highlight the initial insensitivity of the American protagonists.28
Accordingly, Three Kings
received an altogether better reaction from CAIR and other like-minded groups. CAIR board chairman, Omar Ahmad, stated, "We appreciate Warner Brothers' willingness to address Muslim concerns by offering a screening of Three Kings
The Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council Foundation honored director David O. Russell and a number of the film's cast in their 2000 Entertainment Media Awards.30
The praise for Three Kings
is readily understandable, for it is an unusually intelligent story. As a black comedy, rather than an action-thriller, it invites social and political commentary.
Rules of Engagement
Another action film, Rules of Engagement
, involves Colonel Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson), a decorated marine commander, who leads a platoon of marines dispatched to the U.S. embassy in Sana'a, Yemen, which is the scene of an anti-American demonstration rapidly spiraling out of control. During the rescue operation, demonstrators produce weapons and fire on the marines who, until then, had been only returning fire at a separate group of snipers. After three of his men are killed, Childers, who has witnessed this escalation in the danger to his men, orders them to fire on the crowd. Unfortunately for him, none of his surviving men are in a position to testify to this escalation, and Childers finds himself facing a court martial for illegally ordering the slaughter of eighty-three unarmed Yemeni men, women, and children. The national security advisor, William Sokal (Bruce Greenwood), further compounds his problems. Convinced of the need to produce an exemplary scapegoat in the interests of preserving harmonious relations with America's Arab allies, Sokal conspires to secure Childers's conviction by destroying the crucial videotape evidence that bears out his account and intimidating the rescued ambassador (Ben Kingsley) into falsifying his testimony. During the court-martial, however, Childers' mentor and friend, Colonel Hayes Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones), successfully defends Childers.
The film's considerable implausibilities aside, its critics objected to the depiction of a chanting, belligerent Arab mob; their use of weapons, indicating that even women and children are killers; and, as in previous cases, the absence of context that might explain the anti-American fervor of the Yemeni crowd. CAIR executive director, Nihad Awad, addressing a protest letter to then-U.S. defense secretary, William Cohen, alleged that the film
seems to justify the killing of Muslim men, women, and even children . . . It also offers a very negative image of Muslims and Islamic beliefs.31
Shaheen goes even further, describing the film as "one of the most blatantly racist movies of all time [and one which] encourages viewers to hate Muslim Arabs."32
CNN reviewer Paul Clinton asks,
Why is the embassy in danger? What has happened? Who are the people rioting? We never know, but we do know this: Those pesky, dark-eyed people in Arab dress, holding protest signs, have become international shorthand for "terrorist bad guys."33
In fact, the use of firearms by civilians is always recognized as transforming a matter of riot control into a military situation, as is stated in the actual rules of engagement rehearsed in the film's court martial. Is it illegitimate or somehow unfair to depict such a situation with particular reference to Muslim Arabs? The answer is no. Instances of gun battles waged against military forces in the midst of civilian demonstrations are not unknown (for example, there have been recent occurrences of such violence orchestrated by the Tanzim in West Bank and Gaza against Israeli forces). Depictions of violent mobs, in other words, reflect reality; to argue that showing this phenomenon is in itself reprehensible reiterates the implicit taboo on depiction of Muslim or Arab anti-American violence. For such criticism to be valid, one has to show that demonstrations against, and attacks upon, U.S. embassies in the Middle East are extremely rare, when in fact they are plentiful. Criticism alleging racism fails by the same criterion. Additionally, while Rules of Engagement
lacks a major Arab protagonist, it depicts various Arabs—particularly Dr. Ahmar (Amidou), who testifies in the court martial, and other figures such as the Arab who interprets for Hodges in Sana'a—as level-headed, dignified people.
Even in the case of an execrable action film like Menachem Golan's The Delta Force
, replete as it is with contemptuous and gratuitous stereotypes in no way integral to the story, the basic plot concerning Palestinian terrorism aimed at the West and Jews in particular cannot be faulted. Granting that the depiction of Arabs is uniformly negative, and that this is indeed worthy of criticism, it does not misrepresent Middle Eastern terrorism per se
, the people who perpetrate it, or the ideals that inspire them. The plot is directly inspired by fact. The scene in which the Arab terrorists who have hijacked a civilian airliner en route to New York compel the stewardess to identify Jewish passengers has a precedent in the 1976 Entebbe incident. Scenes in which the pilot gives a press interview from his cockpit with a terrorist's pistol pointed at his head and the dumping of a murdered hostage's body on the tarmac occurred in an actual hijacking at Beirut airport in 1985.
The Delta Force
deserves criticism for offensive representations of Arabs but not for its depiction of the conduct of Palestinian terrorists: the most infamous and memorable actions in the film involve no exaggeration or invention of events that have not actually occurred.
Dissecting a Critique
As a film very often cited as offensive by Muslim and Arab Americans, Executive Decision
affords a clear instance of the issues under discussion; it is worth examining one of its more expansive critiques in some detail, that by Shabana Mir, a Ph.D. candidate in the school of education at Indiana University. She asserts:
In Executive Decision, no profound attempt is made to explore the political, cultural and psychological roots of Middle Eastern terrorism, as it is always labeled: the only explanation we are provided with is that the terrorist is a fanatic, an extremist, and wishes to destroy the United States. National security is the dogma which induces a persecution complex that prevents comprehension of a phenomenon to whose origins the imperialist West has contributed much. The terrorist in True Lies is also dehumanized; the only participation invited from the viewer is hatred.34
This criticism is three-fold. (1) Action films fail to analyze the psychological and historical motives of their characters. Guilty as charged—that is the nature of action films. Mir requires Executive Decision
to do nothing less than offer a "profound attempt" at exploring "the political, cultural and psychological roots of Middle Eastern terrorism," something that is obviously not going to happen in this type of escapist movie. Action films have their virtues, but a profound dissection of politics, culture, and psychology is not among them. Mir in effect is trying to wish away the genre of action films; as many others have learned over the years, that is a futile hope.
(2) Islamist violence must be portrayed as a response to "the imperialist West." Mir's demand for context assumes that any exercise of political, cultural, and psychological probing would reveal that Muslim and Arab terrorism results from what the United States has done or is doing. This is an encoded call for Americans to accept blame for whatever actions Islamists take. Pleas "to explore" and provide "explanation" of terrorist motivations are in effect a shorthand for demanding radically self-critical Western introspection and acceptance at face value of Islamist apologia. 35
Accordingly, an assertion that Hollywood has a duty to depict Islamist terrorism in a sympathetic light amounts to something much larger than a plea for cultural and intellectual sensitivity, which all groups rightly demand of Hollywood.
(3) By invoking "national security," Mir conspiratorially connects the light fare of Executive Decision
to the alleged needs of Washington and the military-industrial complex. Its "dogma" has induced in Americans a "persecution complex" that conjures up imaginary enemies such as Muslims and Arabs. To mobilize public support, the authorities spread fear by integrating the imagined threat into the genres of popular culture such as action movies.
In fact, points (2) and (3) are glaringly contradictory: If Western imperialism produced Islamism, then the Islamist threat has some reality and fear of it cannot be ascribed solely to propaganda by the military-industrial complex.
Seven observations emerge from this analysis of allegations of Muslim- and Arab- bashing by Hollywood.
Muslims and Arabs are not singled out
. Hollywood action films deal heavily in stereotypes because the art of storytelling depends in large part on the success with which protagonists and antagonists are evoked. This requires verisimilitude. Inevitably, those who are portrayed in stereotypical fashion are unhappy with the results. If there have been twenty-two films since 1986 that depict American forces engaged in hostilities with Arabs,36
there have been many more films over the years depicting Italian mafias and gangsters, 37
a portrayal Italian Americans have long protested.38
Muslims and Arabs are not uniquely singled out, either with malign deliberation or ignorant carelessness, for unfavorable treatment.
Action film characters are psychologically shallow
. This genre of movie is called "action" precisely because action and spectacle—flying through the air, gunning down hordes of enemies, explosions—override all other considerations, such as character development or social commentary. Motives tend typically to comprise simplistic drives for money, love, and power, and are taken for granted, with no further analysis deemed necessary. It is untenable to expect this genre to undergo a qualitative revolution that does away with stereotypes.
The subject matter of action films is factually derived
. Action films must reflect realities with which the viewing audience is familiar. Because terrorism against Americans is carried out by Muslims and Arabs, there is a basic truth to the movies that gives these stories the authenticity that allow viewers to suspend disbelief. By analogy, there do exist organized-crime organizations centered around certain Italian-American clans. To that extent, the use of identifiably Italian characters as organized-crime figures is also grounded in reality and is thus fair game for Hollywood.
Stereotyping is common in Hollywood but tends to be factually based. There is nothing reprehensible in this. Verisimilitude is the all-important consideration and by that standard Hollywood can be vindicated. Accordingly, objections to the effect that Hollywood could not get away with substituting blacks or Jews in these movies' hateful roles miss the point. There are simply no Jewish versions of Usama bin Ladin or black versions of Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman. Should there ever be, we are likely to see their fictionalized counterparts in Hollywood movies. The genuine question—does Hollywood ignore other ethnically based terrorist and criminal groups—can be answered in the negative. Kazakhstani and Russian nationalist terrorists and mafias, for example, appear in such recent films as Wolfgang Petersen's Airforce One
and Phillip Noyce's The Saint
Muslims and Arabs infrequently appear in sympathetic roles:
This complaint has a much firmer basis.40
The solution to the problem should be readily available: to see the reality of a diverse and respectable Arab American and Muslim community reflected in film. But this is different from attempting to censor the depiction of Arab and Islamist terrorism, which is also a reality. If the requirements of action films diminish the prospects of sophisticated portrayal and context, there is no reason why non-action films need be similarly and uniformly deficient. Yet the fact remains that, to date, there have been very few films featuring sympathetic Arab or Muslim characters. Such characters as appear tend to be unpleasant people or figures of ridicule. For example, Charles Shyer's Father of the Bride II41
depicts an uncongenial, excitable, and crass Mr. Habib (Eugene Levy), the neighbor of the film's protagonists, George and Nina Banks (Steve Martin and Diane Keaton).
Films that present an Arab in a sympathetic lead-role, like Daisy von Scherler Mayer's Party Girl
which features Mustafa (Omar Townsend), a Lebanese schoolteacher, as the romantic lead, are praiseworthy but uncommon.
Hollywood is not an educator.
Hollywood, the ultimate mass-marketer, does not attempt either to educate or ennoble its audiences. Prodding or challenging the public to a new perception is an exceptional endeavor in Hollywood, and those who demand that Hollywood enlighten Americans about the Middle East must be mindful of this fact. Educating the public on an issue, if it happens at all, rarely precedes public perceptions of that issue. Films with strong political content, such as Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia
tend to emerge at a time when public perceptions of the issues involved (homosexuality and AIDS in this case) are already strongly developed, not before.
Hollywood stereotypes do not amount to defamation
. Are Hollywood's depictions of Islamist terrorism disproportionate, as alleged by Marayati? This is a trickier question than one might think. For example, is the relevant question "How many Hollywood Italians are involved in organized crime?" Or "How many organized-crime figures depicted by Hollywood are noticeably Italian?" Ethnic groups tend to focus on the first question, because their concern is to secure a favorable portrayal of their group. But that is not the job of a screenwriter. If major organized-crime families have arisen among other ethnic groups, and if Hollywood screenwriters persist in portraying all organized-crime figures as Italian, then they can indeed be accused of laziness and using out-dated stereotypes. Marayati's statistic, derived from State Department records, implies that the distortion is of this second, relevant kind. But Marayati refers only to State Department figures for 1998 on global terrorism, which cannot by themselves indicate what proportion of anti-American deaths emanate from Arab or Islamist groups. Closer inspection of the State Department figures indicate that, for the four-year period 1996-99, of the 48 Americans who died in terrorist attacks, 42 of them lost their lives in incidents carried out by Muslim or Arab terrorists.44
Movie-going audiences are most familiar with these often spectacular and well-reported attacks, and this is reflected in action films.
Sinister motivations do not underlie depictions of Arab and Islamist terrorism
. The allegation of conspiracist motives underlying the depiction of Islamist and Arab terrorism is wrong and sinister. To argue that government control or direction determines Hollywood's output is historically untrue and essentially conspiracist. Hollywood reflects the perceptions and anxieties of the times. Additionally, nothing is offered in explanation of this alleged policy imperative of manufacturing consent for State Department policies beyond assertions of generous American ignorance and aggression. Conspiracy theories that view Hollywood as a virtual public relations division of the State Department are unsustainable, as are the more extreme variations on this theme that amount to an accusation of a malign Jewish conspiracy far more sinister than any depiction of Muslims and Arabs in the cinema.
Campaigns based on such conspiracist thinking should be revealed as politically motivated attempts to manipulate American pluralist sensitivities in the service of an essentially illiberal endeavor. Specifically, attempts to smear an ethnic or religious group (namely, Jews) as the originators of an alleged campaign of institutionalized racism perpetrated with a view to consolidating a supposedly paranoid foreign policy is itself an assault on democratic values, a first installment in the quest to delegitimize Jews as citizens.
Where does this leave the campaign to indict Hollywood for malice toward Muslims and Arabs? The one area of legitimate complaint is that Muslims and Arabs rarely appear in sympathetic leading roles, as blacks and Jews have for years. Criticism aimed at rectifying this situation is justified.
Other criticisms considered here do not hold water. The depiction of Muslims and Arabs is variable and not necessarily insensitive or untruthful. Action films depicting Arab and Islamist terrorists reflect observed reality that accords with the knowledge and experience of the viewing public and are not to be condemned on that account. Accusations of a hidden government orchestration of popular sentiment lack any proof and stem from a conspiracist agenda. To accept these criticisms would be to demonize the U.S. government and Jews while valorizing Islamism and terrorists. Such an agenda is deeply hostile to civilized values.
Daniel Mandel, research associate in history at the University of Melbourne and associate editor of The Review (Melbourne), is the author of The Undercover Zionist (Scribe, 2001, forthcoming).
Jay Stone, "Billionaires, Bombers and Belly Dancers," Ottawa Citizen, Mar. 17, 1996.
"NBC Reiterates, Rationalizes Slander Against Syria," Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee, action alert, Oct. 20, 1999, at http://www.adc.org/action/1999/20oct99.htm
"Paramount Film's Super Bowl Villains Changed to Neo-Nazis; Islamic Group CAIR Had Concerns about Stereotyping in The Sum of All Fears," Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) media release, Jan. 26, 2001.
Salam al-Marayati, "Soccer Stereotypes: America's Distorted View of Muslims," June 23, 1998, at http://www.mpac.org/opinion/art015.html.
Jack G. Shaheen, "Hollywood's Muslim Arabs," The Muslim World, Spring 2000, p. 23.
"Paramount Film's Super Bowl Villains changed to Neo-Nazis," CAIR media release, Jan. 26, 2001.
Shaheen, "Hollywood's Muslim Arabs," p. 24.
John Esposito, The Islamic Threat (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 35.
Edward Said, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (New York: Pantheon, 1981), p. 26.
Paramount Pictures, 1986. See Douglas Kellner, "Towards a Multiperspectival Film Theory," Movies in Politics: The Dynamic Relationship, ed. James Combs (New York and London: Garland, 1993), p. 73.
Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978), p. 26.
Edward Said and Christopher Hitchens, Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestine Question (London and New York: Verso, 1988), "Introduction" (by Said), p. 3.
Tariq ‘Atiya, "Bruce Willis versus Bin Laden," Al-Ahram Weekly, Nov. 5-11, 1998, at http://www.ahram.org.eg/weekly/1998/402/focus.htm.
Warner Brothers, 1996.
Twentieth Century Fox, 1998.
Warner Brothers, 1999.
Columbia Pictures, 1986.
Shaheen, "Hollywood's Muslim Arabs," p. 28.
Caravan Pictures, 1997.
Laurent Murawiec, "The Wacky World of French Intellectuals," Middle East Quarterly, Mar. 2000, pp. 4-8.
"New Fox Film Puts Muslims under ‘Siege,'" CAIR News, Fall 1998, p. 1.
"Siege Film a Loser, Campaign a Success," CAIR media release, (n.d.).
Shaheen, "Hollywood's Muslim Arabs," p. 28.
‘Atiya, at http://www.ahram.org.eg/weekly/1998/402/focus.htm. Admitting that he had not even viewed The Siege, ‘Atiya contended that "the preview basically tells you all you need to know." By his own account, his chief source of information for the film was CAIR's relevant press releases.
"Warner Brothers Screens Three Kings for American Muslims," CAIR media release, Sept. 8, 1999.
"Rules of Engagement Stereotypes Muslims," CAIR media release, Apr. 11, 2000.
Shaheen, "Hollywood's Muslim Arabs," p. 28.
"Review: An Unengaging ‘Rules,'" http://cnn.com/2000/SHOWBIZ/Movies/04/07/rules.engagement/index.html.
Shabana Mir, "Muslims: Within Hollywood and Without" at http://php.indiana.edu/~smir/holly.htm.
The same argument has been extended recently to ensure that documentaries conform to a similarly politically correct slant. This emerges in Edward Said's review of One Day in September (2000), an award-winning documentary on the slaying of eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. "As history it has no status at all," avers Said, because it fails to provide the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, causing it to "eliminate the Palestinian narrative that antecedes and in some way illuminates if not the idiocy of the outrage but the desperation and horror that gave it inception and nourishment." (Edward Said, "A New Kind of Thriller," Al-Ahram Weekly, June 22-28, 2000, at http://www.ahram.org.eg/weekly/2000/487/cu3.htm.) In other words, priority must be accorded to sympathetic representations of Palestinian narratives and consequently even scholarly inquiry must be subordinated to political commitment.
Shaheen, "Hollywood's Muslim Arabs," p. 30.
Exact figures on the percentage of action films in which Arabs or Muslims play major roles are difficult to ascertain, but it is worth noting that the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDb), in its listings of the top 50 films by genre, lists 28 Hollywood productions in the action category, none of which involve Muslim or Arab antagonists, and 31 in the war category, of which one involves Muslims and Arabs (David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, Columbia Pictures, 1962). See http://us.imdb.com/Charts/Votes/action; http://us.imdb.com/Charts/Votes/war. These statistics cannot accurately inform us of recent trends or the thrust of less popular films, but are nonetheless instructive.
Terry Golway, "Italian Americans Are Making It Clear that They Are Fed up with the Culture's Cartoon-Like Treatment of their Lives," Mar. 27, 1999, at http://www.sicilianculture.com/news/iasfedup.htm.
Paramount Pictures, 1997.
Shaheen, "Hollywood's Muslim Arabs," p. 25.
Touchstone Pictures, 1995.
First Look Pictures, 1995.
Tristar Films, 1993.
"Patterns of Global Terrorism," annual reports for 1996-99 of the Coordinator of the Office for Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State, at http://www.state.gov/www/global/terrorism/annual_reports.html. The simple break-down of anti-American terrorist incident figures, on which Marayati implicitly relies, is misleading, inasmuch as a large number of these attacks are low-level acts committed in Columbia, often against the multinational oil pipeline, which is deemed an American target.