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Arab Images in Movies Matter

“With violent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians again raging in the Middle East, their media images assume even greater weight and loom especially large,” wrote Howard Rosenberg in the Los Angeles Times.

Rosenberg’s words resonate eerily because they were published on July 30, 2001. Just over a month later, terrorists attacked New York and Washington. And in recent weeks especially, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has frustrated the world.

As Americans process news images from the Middle East, they will likely be influenced by movie images. And for the last several years, Arab-Americans have increasingly spoken out about their portrayal in Hollywood.

Movies like “True Lies” (1994), “Executive Decision” (1996) and “Rules of Engagement” (2000) have drawn criticism from groups like the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (www.adc.org).

In 1998, the ADC criticized “The Siege,” starring Bruce Willis and Denzel Washington, for its representations of Arabs. “ADC is concerned that the film’s plot will perpetuate negative stereotypes and fuel anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment among the public,” read an ADC press release.
In “The Siege,” terrorist attacks on New York prompt the U.S. government to declare martial law. Arab-Americans in the city are detained on suspicion of being terrorists.

Lawrence Wright, the screenwriter, responded to Arabs’ criticism of the movie in the New York Times: “I understand their anxiety and paranoia about the way Hollywood has depicted Muslims and Arabs. They’re absolutely right. Arabs have been scapegoated. It’s disgraceful. And yet that’s just what this movie is about. It’s all about what happens when you blame a group for the violence of individuals.”

Now, ADC’s Web site offers discussion questions for educators: “What are the images of Arabs that we see most frequently on TV, in the movies, in books? Make a list of images and ideas which students associate with Arabs. How many positive Arab or Arab American characters can students identify on TV, in movies?”

Jack Shaheen, former CBS news consultant on Middle East affairs and professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University, has authored several books on media images of Arabs: Arab and Muslim Stereotypes in American Popular Culture, The TV Arab, and Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.

Throughout his career, Shaheen has examined the “B” syndrome of Arab portrayals in media. That is, Arabs are most often portrayed as bombers, belly dancers or billionaires.

The Los Angeles Times’ Rosenberg, again writing prior to Sept. 11, noted that “the 1993 World Trade Center bombing was no dream and that Arab terrorists are no fantasy. History and news headlines tell us they are every bit as real and scary as Italian mobsters. The issue is balance. Arabs are depicted as disgusting or they’re invisible.”

Rarely does Hollywood offer a positive portrayal of Arabs. In Shaheen’s survey of over 900 films for Reel Bad Arabs, he found that the “vast majority” of portrayals are negative.

When the ADC protested “Rules of Engagement” at a Washington, D.C. cineplex, it circulated a leaflet blasting the movie, saying the film could “only be considered in the same light as other films whose purpose is to deliberately and systematically vilify an entire people.” For examples, the leaflet cited “Birth of a Nation” and “The Eternal Jew,” according to Cincinnati City Beat.

Some suggest that Hollywood’s negative portrayals of Arabs are linked to Jewish influence in the film industry.

J.D. Hall, a Muslim actor and scriptwriter, told the New York Times: “I don’t want to paint all Jews with one broad brush but there’s a Zionist element that is definitely against Islam, and to the degree you sympathize with that element, if you have the power to portray Muslims, that portrayal is not going to be favorable.”

Others, however, say the Middle East conflict has not necessarily been transposed to Hollywood. The New York Times article goes on to suggest that the problem may stem more from the fact that most Americans haven’t bothered to gain firsthand knowledge about Islam or their Arab-American neighbors.

Still others say that somebody has to be the villain.

“The collapse of the Soviet Empire left Hollywood with a bit of a problem,” wrote the Middle East Times. “The New World Order needed a New World bad guy. The strange, bearded, hand-chopping mystery men from the East fitted the role perfectly.”

Thus, Arabs joined a long list of favorite Hollywood villains that has included Native Americans, Germans, Japanese and African-Americans.

Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.