Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place / Where the caravan camels roam / Where they cut off your ear / If they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but, hey, it’s home! Paroles d’Aladdin (Disney)
En lisant le Coran et les paroles du Prophète Mahomet, on peut facilement voir que l’Islam est une religion de paix et d’amour, mais il semble qu’Hollywood n’a ni accès facile aux ressources de base sur l’Islam ni n’est capable de les interpréter correctement. Ekrem Dumanli
Les Arabes sont le groupe le plus dénigré de l’histoire d’Hollywood. Ils sont dépeints, fondamentalement, comme des untermenschen moins qu’humains, un terme employé par les Nazis pour discréditer les bohémiens et les juifs. Ces images sont avec nous depuis plus d’un siècle. Jack Shaheen
Dans tous les films qu’ils font, chaque fois qu’un Arabe prononce le mot Allah? Quelque chose explose. Eyad Zahra (jeune réalisateur)
Danseuses du ventre, cheiks milliardaires, terroristes …
Telle est la question qui ne manque pas de se poser à la lecture des ouvrages (« TV Arab », « Reel Bad Arabs », repris l’an dernier dans un documentaire) que le consultant libano-américain Jack W. Shaheen a consacrés à l’étroitesse du répertoire à laquelle Hollywood ou la télévision américaine (et leurs patrons juifs!) ont réduit une civilisation qui a tant apporté et continue à tant apporter au monde.
Et d’abord pour commencer l’esclavage des Africains, l’étoile jaune, le ghetto des Juifs …
Hollywood’s depiction of Arabs has eased the path for U.S. administration policy. Decades of portraying Arabs and Muslims as the enemy « made it that much easier for us to go into Iraq », he said. « There were very few people protesting. The images help enforce policy.
images and words teach us whom we should love and whom we should hate, » he said, « and those images for decades have taught us to hate, fear, and despise all things Arab and Islam. » Then he laid out a few questions: « Did all of these images have an impact or make it that much easier for all of us in the United States to go about entering Gulf War I?…Had we been preconditioned to a point that we saw all Arabs as close to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden and even Ayatollah Khomeini–even though he is Iranian, but most Americans think Iranians are Arabs…? »
« If you look at today’s image of Arabs and yesteryear’s image of Jews, you will see the images as identical, » he said. « The only difference is that the Arab wears a robe and headdress and the Jew wears a yarmulke and a black cloak, but the attributes and the anxiety and the propaganda are exactly the same. The Jew back then was portrayed as someone who was gonna corrupt Europe with his banking money and seduce women, and whose religion is different.
. « Why can’t we humanize Palestinians just as we humanize Israelis… Isn’t the life of a Palestinian child media-wise, Hollywood-wise, politics-wise,… as valuable as [that of] an Israeli child; and if the answer is yes, why can’t we see that on the silver screen? »
Exceptions like Babel or Paradise Now – movies that clearly show a very different image of Muslims – do have a positive impact. But often the independence of these productions means that, sadly, many people will never be able to see them.
You have also drawn a comparison with how the Nazis used film for anti-Semitic propaganda?
There are many similarities between the stereotypes of Arabs in film and the way Joseph Goebbels portrayed « the Jew » – for example exaggerating so-called physical characteristics, « their » control over « our » oil or « our » money, « their » seduction of « our » women. You could make a short powerful film by putting these stereotypes side by side – it would make a good tool to confront Dutch politician and anti-Islamic filmmaker Geert Wilders.
« Just as we shouldn’t link Islam when an Arab Muslim kills someone, we shouldn’t link Christianity or Judaism when those terrorists kill innocents. »
« Every group has among its members a minority of a minority committing heinous acts. Yet the overwhelming majority of all people are regular, peace-loving individuals who vigorously object to violent crimes. »
The TV Arab
Jack G. Shaheen. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1984. 146 pp. $14.95 (cloth), $6.95 (paper).
Reviewed by Eric Hooglund
February 4, 1985
American television viewers sometimes see « Arab characters » in one of their favorite programs. Inevitably, the Arabs are depicted as « bad guys » trying to harm or trick the hero or heroine. This negative portrayal, according to Professor Jack Shaheen of the University of Southern Illinois at Edwardsville, is not balanced by the presentation of any positive Arab characters. Indeed, no other ethnic group is the subject of such uniformly unflattering stereotyping on television. The unfortunate consequence is that television-fostered myths about Arabs become the distorted perception of what Arabs are like to millions of Americans.
Between 1975-76 and 1983-84, Dr. Shaheen examined more than 100 different television shows featuring an Arab character to document the TV image of Arabs. The results of his research, summarized in The TV Arab, demonstrate how pervasive and persistent are the negative stereotypes of Arabs. He found that television’s depiction of Arabs relies upon « four basic myths: » Arabs « are all fabulously wealthy; they are barbaric and uncultured; they are sex maniacs with a penchant for white slavery; they revel in acts of terrorism. » It is also easy to recognize « TV Arabs » because they are always dressed oddly: In belly dancing costumes, headdresses « which look like tablecloths pinched from a restaurant, » veils, gowns and robes, and sunglasses. In short, Arabs are portrayed as people who neither look nor act like Americans.
Cartoons & Educational TV: Equally Offensive
Dr. Shaheen found that the TV Arab is most commonly featured in entertainment programs. Children, for example, can watch their favorite cartoon characters outwit and/or vanquish animated versions of the Arab stereotype. Thus, the Superfriends, Popeye, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Scooby-Doo, and other well-known cartoon heroes all contribute to instilling negative images of Arabs in young minds—images that are reinforced by the more « realistic » adult-centered programs. Unfortunately, even educational programs for children can help perpetuate stereotypes. « The Electric Company, » for instance, has used the villainous Arab motif in the character of Spellbinder, a turbaned magician whose appearances are preceded and accompanied by Arabic music.
Episodes of the popular detective and police programs also have relied upon the TV Arabs for constructing plots. These shows have projected some of the most negative aspects of the Arab stereotype: Arabs are all billionaires, belly dancers or terrorist bombers. Less noxious, but equally stereotypical Arabs have abounded in the comedy programs. Indeed, Dr. Shaheen believes that humor at the expense of Arabs has been so pervasive on television that « The comedy of the Seventies and Eighties might well be dubbed the era of the Arab joke. » In all the comedies involving Arabs, the Arabs are depicted « as objects to be mocked. »
While the image of Arabs presented in entertainment programs has been uniformly negative, Dr. Shaheen found that recent television documentaries have attempted to present a more accurate portrayal of Arabs. It has been difficult, however, for TV producers to accept that the TV Arab is a stereotype and, thus, even serious programs which are replete with stereotypes are not recognized as being distorted. This was especially true of the British docu-drama « Death of a Princess, » which aired on PBS stations in 1980 and was represented as an authentic glimpse into Saudi culture, when in actuality it was a mixture of fact and fiction. Nevertheless, both commercial and public television have telecast a few genuine documentaries which have been notable efforts to depict Arabs as people with feelings, concerns, and problems similar to those of any other ethnic group.
Trying to Sensitize the TV Industry
While the main focus of The TV Arab is a review of the Arab image as presented on television, throughout the book Dr. Shaheen describes his efforts to meet with program producers and others in the television industry to sensitize them both to the prevalence and harmful consequences of the Arab stereotype. The author believes not only that the negative and inaccurate images should be eliminated from programs but, equally important, that there be conscientious efforts to feature positive Arab characters on television. One very easy way to do this, Dr. Shaheen says, would be to incorporate Arab American heroes and heroines into popular shows. In some cases this would mean simply encouraging stars such as Jamie Farr and Vic Tayback to acknowledge their Arab ethnic heritage during several episodes. These seemingly easy changes have not taken place, however, due to the persistence of the Arab stereotype itself and the perception of television people that there really are not many viewers who are concerned about the TV Arab. Thus, the most important lesson that readers can take from The TV Arab is to follow Dr. Shaheen’s own admirable example and inform the networks that there are thousands of Americans who are offended by the television image of Arabs and who would welcome more accurate and more humane depictions.
Eric Hooglund is Director of Research at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).
In this meticulously researched book, Shaheen (Reel Bad Arabs) spotlights anti-Muslim and Arab stereotypes and probes the intersections of popular culture and foreign policy.
The author investigates the close ties between Hollywood studios and Washington and recounts how, historically, the strategic stereotyping of populations has been used to garner popular support for governmental policies, citing the career of Leni Riefenstahl and speeches by Lenin and Goebbels to illustrate film’s long history as a propaganda vehicle.
« Dr. Jack Shaheen does it again. The accomplished author, professor and media veteran sifts through hundreds of hours of film to give us clear cut examples, as well as keen insight, into Hollywood’s obsession with bad Arabs and murderous Muslims post 9/11.
Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs After 9/11 is a fascinating social study on the relationship between racism and cinema, and ultimately, how popular entertainment has the power to propagate damaging images of misunderstood cultures or destroy them. Shaheen deftly demonstrates that Hollywood’s greatest enemy is not the Muslim or Arab, but the ignorant stereotype. » — Lorraine Ali,
Critic accuses Hollywood of vilifying Arabs
Thu May 1, 2008
BEIRUT (Reuters) – American films and TV dramas shot since the September 11 attacks have reinforced screen images of Arabs and Muslims as fanatics and villains, ingraining harmful stereotypes, argues an author on the subject.
In his book « Guilty — Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11 », Jack Shaheen praises some post-September 11 films for offering a more sympathetic image of Arabs and Muslims, who he argues have been castigated for decades by Hollywood.
But he says that too many have portrayed them in ever darker shades, criticizing films including « The Kingdom » (2007) and « The Four Feathers » (2002) and condemning the creation of a new « Arab-American bogeyman » in TV dramas such as « 24 ».
« In the United States, you can say anything you want about Islam and Arabs and get away with it. In other words, as someone said, ‘You can hit an Arab free’, » said Shaheen — also author of « Reel Bad Arabs — How Hollywood Vilifies a People ».
Shaheen, an American of Lebanese descent, has examined the treatment of Arabs and Muslims in some 1,000 films, including more than 100 shot since September 11.
From action movies such as « True Lies » (1994) to comedies including « Father of the Bride Part II » (1995) and Disney’s animated « Aladdin » (1992), Shaheen identifies films that have perpetuated damaging stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims.
« The images have remained primarily fixed and have only been changed in the sense that they have become more vindictive and damaging, » he told Reuters in an interview in Beirut.
« What enables these images to persist and prevail? One of the primary reasons is silence, » said Shaheen, a retired professor of mass communications who worked as a consultant on « Syriana » (2005) and « Three Kings » (1999).
« There’s nobody in authority, no political leader, no Hollywood personality who has taken a stand and said that demonizing Arabs and Muslims is the same as demonizing Jews or blacks or Asians or any other racial or ethnic group. »
« SELECTIVE FRAMING OF RADICALS »
In « Guilty », Shaheen credits films including « Babel » (2006) and « Rendition » (2007) for « more complex, even-handed Arab portraits ». But « very few people are listening », he said.
« It’s been very difficult, it’s like being a salmon trying to swim upstream.
« What is done is selective framing of radicals: people saying ‘death to America’. You cannot deny the reality — there are people who really want to kill Americans. But those are basically the only images we see. »
He describes last year’s « The Kingdom » — an action movie about FBI agents hunting terrorists in Saudi Arabia — as one of the most damaging depictions of Arabs of recent times in which « even Arab children cannot be trusted ».
Shaheen also charts a new trend of turning American Arabs and Muslims into « the new bogey person » and criticizes the TV drama « 24 » for its « vicious images of loathsome Muslim Americans as well as Americans with Arab roots ».
Hollywood’s depiction of Arabs has eased the path for U.S. administration policy, he argues. Decades of portraying Arabs and Muslims as the enemy « made it that much easier for us to go into Iraq », he said. « There were very few people protesting.
« The images help enforce policy, » he said. « As the policy becomes more even-handed, perhaps films will reflect that.
« Plato said: ‘Those who tell the stories rule society’. Nothing has changed, and the story tellers of today have a tremendous impact on the world as we perceive it. »
(Editing by Paul Casciato)
‘Reel Bad Arabs’ Takes on Hollywood Stereotyping
Saturday, June 23, 2007
LOS ANGELES — A full house has turned out at the Directors Guild of America for the L.A. premiere of the new documentary « Reel Bad Arabs, » which makes the case that Hollywood is obsessed with « the three Bs » — belly dancers, billionaire sheiks and bombers — in a largely unchallenged vilification of Middle Easterners here and abroad.
« In every movie they make, every time an Arab utters the word Allah? Something blows up, » says Eyad Zahra, a young filmmaker who organized the screening this week with the support of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
The documentary highlights the admittedly obsessive lifework of Jack Shaheen, a retired professor from Southern Illinois University, the son of Lebanese Christian immigrants and the author of « TV Arabs, » « Reel Bad Arabs » and the upcoming « Guilty? Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11. »
In his tireless quest for evidence — any evidence– of Arab stereotyping, Shaheen has viewed (and reviewed in his books) thousands of movies and TV shows. What he has found, the 71-year-old academic says, are the most maligned people on the silver screen. It is a diss that dates back to the earliest days of cinema and continues today with popular television shows such as « Sleeper Cell » and « 24, » which Shaheen calls the worst of smears, « because it portrays American Arabs as the enemy within, like, ‘Look at the terrorist — hey, he’s my next-door neighbor!’ «
In the documentary, Shaheen shows dozens of film clips to illustrate his point. Arab women? Hip-swiveling eye candy of the oasis or « bundles in black. » If Arab men are not presented as buffoons, or smarmy carpet-dealers, or decadent sheiks (and oh, how the oily sultans are smitten with the blond Western women!), then they are basically your bug-eyed hijacker-bomber.
« And not only are the Arabs dangerous, they’re inept, » says Shaheen, pointing to the head villain, called Salim Abu Aziz, in James Cameron’s « True Lies, » whom Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character kills — by launching him to his maker on the back of a missile.
We all love Omar Sharif in « Lawrence of Arabia, » but Shaheen mostly ignores the positive. Here in Los Angeles, the audience groans and tsk-tsks when a clip from the James Bond film « Never Say Never Again » shows the blond and partially disrobed Kim Basinger being auctioned off to dirty, grasping Arabs with bad dental work. And the audience laughs when a couple of Libyan yahoos with machine guns suddenly show up (why?) in a VW van (why?) in « Back to the Future » to blast away at Christopher Lloyd’s Dr. Brown, because it is just so absurd.
« When I saw these movies as a kid, sometimes I laughed, but now you kind of cringe, » Omar Naim, a director (« The Final Cut » with Robin Williams), says after seeing the documentary. For example, Shaheen includes the scene from « Raiders of the Lost Ark » in which Indiana Jones is confronted by the sword-wielding Arab, and then just shrugs and shoots him. « That’s a funny scene, » Naim says, « and if there were more normal Arabs in the movies, we could all laugh at him and not think, wait, is Indiana Jones racist? »
Seriously, check out the hook-nosed Jamie Farr as the hand-licking sheik in « Cannonball Run II. » There is also a scene from « Father of the Bride Part II » that features Eugene Levy as the thickly accented Mr. Habib, who rips off poor Steve Martin (though if you live in L.A. you’d get that Levy was doing a Persian, not an Arab). But Shaheen suggests imagining Mr. Habib as a Jew and see if it’s still funny.
And why did Disney’s Oscar-winning « Aladdin » begin with the song lyrics: « Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place / Where the caravan camels roam / Where they cut off your ear / If they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but, hey, it’s home! » (The lyrics were changed but only after protests from Arab Americans.)
These are the buffoons. The more serious baddies appear in bad films such as « Black Sunday » (Middle East terrorists attack Super Bowl using the Goodyear blimp) and « Death Before Dishonor » (Middle East terrorists attack U.S. embassy). And then there is the work of Israeli film producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, who brought you Chuck Norris in « The Delta Force, » in which Arab terrorists swarm (and are squashed) like insects, bringing to mind treatment of the Japanese in World War II films.
The Defense Department, Shaheen says, has assisted in the making of some particularly insulting anti-Arab fare, such as « Iron Eagle » (kid flies jet to save dad from radical Middle Eastern state), « Navy Seals » (Charlie Sheen tags and bags Middle Eastern terrorists) and Shaheen’s choice for most inflammatory work, « Rules of Engagement, » released in 2000, in which armed women and children lay siege to the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, based on the story by the former Navy secretary and now junior senator from Virginia, Jim Webb, and starring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones.
And thus we have the Timeline of International Villainy. To create drama, especially in action and war movies, Hollywood needs bad guys, and in their time, the Japanese and Germans, and later the Koreans and Vietnamese, served that role. For a long while, commies were useful foils (with their taste for world domination, nukes and vodka), but with the end of the Cold War, the Soviets became the Russians, and the Russians only worked if they were gangsters, and Hollywood already had the Italians to do that job. Colombian drug traffickers were employed as handy replacements, but then coke just felt . . . dated. Transnational corporate evildoers are okay, if not that sexy. But there just has been something about those Arabs. They’ve got legs.
In an interview before the premiere, Shaheen says that the OPEC oil embargo, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis all conspired to cast the Arab as film villain beginning in the 1970s. « We pray and we kill, » Shaheen says of the depiction. Like other stereotypes on film — of blacks, Jews, gays, Latinos, Native Americans — Arabs are now in the crosshairs.
« The Arab serves as the ultimate outsider, the other, who doesn’t pray to the same God, and who can be made to be less human, » says Shaheen, who argues that movies and TV shows do matter — that they shape public opinion at home and abroad. « Do you have any idea what it must be like to be a young person watching this stuff over in the Middle East? » he says. And if you ask Shaheen who even cares about an old Chuck Norris film, he answers, « Have you ever looked through a TV Guide? These movies are on television constantly. The images last forever. They never go away. »
The 50-minute documentary, for which Shaheen is looking for a distributor, is making the rounds at film festivals, and Shaheen says he would like to see it aired on public television. A DVD can be purchased through the Media Education Foundation.
In the Q&A session after his documentary, Shaheen explains that he is not advocating a politically correct scrubbing of all portrayals of Arab Americans and Arabs — even as terrorists. The problem is balance, he says.
Meaning? Hollywood still shows black pimps and Latino gangbangers, but pop culture has also made some room for Will Smith and « Ugly Betty. » « I’ve seen the Arab hijacker, but where is the Arab father? » Shaheen says. What we need, he says, seriously, is a sitcom called « Everybody Loves Abdullah. »
Voir de même:
Internationally-acclaimed media critic warns about Arab and Muslim stereotyping
American University of Beirut
Internationally acclaimed Arab-American author and media critic Jack Shaheen said in an AUB lecture that Arabs have been portrayed as « sub-human » in American popular culture for at least 30 years.
Shaheen who was hosted by the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud Center for American Studies and Research (CASAR), presented a lecture in West Hall on April 22 entitled « Hollywood’s Reel Bad Arabs: Problems and Prospects. » He also signed his latest book, Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11 at the AUB bookstore on April 23.
Professor Jack Shaheen, who is an Oxford Research Scholar and former CBS news consultant on Middle East Affairs, has regularly lectured and written on how the damaging racial and ethnic stereotyping of Asians, blacks, Native Americans and others injure innocent people. He is the recipient of two Fulbright teaching awards and holds degrees from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Missouri. He has published five books on negative stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs in American popular culture and has received several awards including the University of Pennsylvania’s Janet Lee Stevens Award; the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s Lifetime Achievement, and the Pancho Be Award for « the advancement of humanity. »
« We are very fortunate to have with us today Dr Jack Shaheen, » said CASAR Director Patrick McGreevy after introducing the speaker.
Shaheen began his lecture by reminiscing about his one-year stint AUB as a Fullbright scholar in 1974, crediting the University, his students here, and colleagues with inspiring him to choose to study negative stereotyping of Arabs, a field, which according to him, still receives little attention. « It was here, at this university, that I began for the first time to look at Arab images in American popular culture, » he said, noting that up to that time he had been focusing on theory and public broadcasting for children. « What took me away from, what I call, a traditional track was this university and my students who provided me with the opportunity to see a reality that I had been denied, that I had been deprived of. »
When he went back to the United States in 1975, he « rushed to the library » to look for articles and books on the Arab image in American pop culture. « And I found nothing, » he said. So he wrote an article about the TV Arab.
« But it took three years and about 50 rejection letters before an American publication would publish an article on how TV projected Arabs, » he noted.
This only strengthened his resolve. And Shaheen ended up spending a lifetime studying the negative impacts of Arab stereotyping in TV dramas, documentaries, sitcoms and film.
« I walked away with this conclusion: Arabs are the most vilified people in the history of American cinema, and that the stereotype has been with us for more than a century, » he said. « And yes, these pervasive images function…as a poisonous virus which infiltrates the hearts and minds of audiences worldwide. »
Shaheen added that the antidote for this « virus » is known, yet people choose to ignore it. Moreover, they insist that such stereotyping is harmless, he said. « The issue of entertainment as having any political impact is met with yawns of indifference, » he said. That these images on television, in film, in comic books, in video games, in all aspects of American popular culture are considered to be « harmless entertainment stuff » rather than acting as a force [that] influences public opinion and that in turn has an impact on public policy. »
Yet, Shaheen’s research has shown him that cinema is a tool for political propaganda. » He quoted late Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin and Nazi information ministers as saying that cinema is the most important propaganda tool. Finally he quoted Chief Dan George, a native American actor who refused to play stereotypical roles. « When you talk to people you get to know them, » George had said. « When you don’t talk to them, you don’t get to know them and the thing you don’t know strikes you with fear. And you destroy the thing you fear. And you destroy the thing you fear. »
Shaheen noted that in his latest book, Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict… which was released about two months ago, all the films he had studied had been produced and released before 9/11. « In other words, images and words teach us whom we should love and whom we should hate, » he said, « and those images for decades have taught us to hate, fear, and despise all things Arab and Islam. » Then he laid out a few questions: « Did all of these images have an impact or make it that much easier for all of us in the United States to go about entering Gulf War I?…Had we been preconditioned to a point that we saw all Arabs as close to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden and even Ayatollah Khomeini–even though he is Iranian, but most Americans think Iranians are Arabs…? » Shaheen also noted that stereotyping « selectively frames a people in a certain manner and repeats those images and only these images again and again… We practice in a sense the sins of omission and commission. »
For example, he said, seldom is an Arab family featured in a movie–a family with an Arab man who gets along with his wife and has picnics with his children and has a primarliry normal healthy life. « So the exclusion of Arab families, and children, with the exception of Palestinian children throwing stones in Gaza… is also an example of selectively framing, » he said, adding: « We first kill people with our minds before we kill them with our weapons. »
Research shows that Arabs are « primarily portrayed as sub-humans, as aliens, » said Shaheen: Gulf Arabs are billionaires who do « terrible things » with their money; women are subservient and mute or buxom belly-dancers; the Arab man is alternatively a Bedouin bandit who rides camels and lives in tents or a « buzzing bargainist, » or more recently, a terrorist.
« Yet we all know that most Arabs have never ridden a camel, slept in a tent, abducted blondes, set up harems, owned oil wells or murdered anyone, » Shaheen said.
For him, the « corrupt » Arab stereotype has replaced the « dirty » Jew of yesteryears.
« If you look at today’s image of Arabs and yesteryear’s image of Jews, you will see the images as identical, » he said. « The only difference is that the Arab wears a robe and headdress and the Jew wears a yarmulke and a black cloak, but the attributes and the anxiety and the propaganda are exactly the same. The Jew back then was portrayed as someone who was gonna corrupt Europe with his banking money and seduce women, and whose religion is different. »
He then showed a clip from the movie: « Reel bad Arabs » Shaheen argued that movies recurrently depict Palestinians as terrorists, making them all seem evil. « Why can’t we humanize Palestinians just as we humanize Israelis… Isn’t the life of a Palestinian child media-wise, Hollywood-wise, politics-wise,… as valuable as [that of] an Israeli child; and if the answer is yes, why can’t we see that on the silver screen? » he asked.
Shaheen added that by dehumanizing Arabs and dissociating them from the American citizenship, it is possible to vilify them. He also acknowledged that the absence of an Arab and Muslim lobby in Hollywood makes all this stereotyping much easier for producers and writers.
Nevertheless, something can still be done, Shaheen told the audience.
« I am arguing for an Arab-American entertainment summit where image makers in the Arab world and the United States meet and discuss mutual stereotypes and misperceptions [similar to the Russian-American entertainment summit of the 1980s, which had some very good results.], » he said.
Moreover, rich Arabs who are building amusement parks featuring American heroes should consider including some Arab superheroes in those theme parks, he said. « I don’t understand. Why keep it strictly American when it’s in an Arab country? »
In closing, Shaheen hoped to see more research on this topic as well as courses that would elucidate the problem. In the words of Khalil Jibran, « Civilizations need not clash, but rather blend, » he said. « In The Prophet, [Jibran] reminds us that we are all children of the Holy Spirit: I love you when you kneel in your church, prostrate yourself in your mosque, when you pray (in a synagogue). »
Factory of stereotypes
Jack Shaheen’s book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People appeared just a few months before 11 September 2001. The impact that the 9/11 attacks had on the « dream factory » in the following six years is described in his latest book, Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11. The documentary version of Reel Bad Arabs was released last year. Shaheen spoke to Bart Griffioen about his work.
In Reel Bad Arabs you use a great number of examples to illustrate Hollywood’s long history of dehumanising Arabs. How would you describe the ways Arabs are portrayed?
From the first silent movies right through to blockbusters like Back to the Future and True Lies there is a constant factor when you look at the way Arabs and Muslims are portrayed. It is the image of the mean villain – the over-sexed Bedouin bandit, the sheikh with his big beard and curved sword, or the violent terrorist.
Women from the Middle East fall into one of two categories – either the submissive slave or the mysterious belly dancer out to seduce us. In recent years however, they have often been portrayed as terrorists too. They are all classic examples of « the Other », as Edward Said has described in his book Orientalism.
What are the most striking examples of this stereotyping?
They are innumerable. Take Walt Disney’s animated film, Aladdin, a huge box office success in 1992 which was seen by millions of children around the world. In the opening song we hear, « I come from a land, from a faraway place where the caravan camels roam, where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home. »
Or see, for example, the racism in Rules of Engagement in which a bloodbath among demonstrating civilians in Yemen caused by US soldiers is justified, because an investigation shows that the dead women and children themselves started the shooting. The seriously injured little girl with whom we initially sympathise is hereby transformed into a terrorist too.
Of the films reviewed for Reel Bad Arabs, you assess about 900 as negative and only 12 receive a positive assessment. Has this difference changed much since the beginning of the « war on terror »?
Of the hundred new movies I describe in Guilty I would call 20 « balanced » at most. The other 80 show a continuation of the Islamophobic trend. The Kingdom – by the same makers as Rules of Engagement – is simply one of the latest examples. In it Arabic children are portrayed as terrorists again.
The roots of this stereotyping go back much further than 9/11. Hollywood’s imagery has made it a lot easier for US governments to ideologically justify wars: the absurd link between Saddam Hussein and Hitler, the racism of US soldiers towards Iraqis and Afghans, the establishment of the Patriot Act and so on.
All these things were made much easier because for years Hollywood has systematically helped to embed prejudices like these in people’s minds. Think of the famous statement by Jack Valenti, one of the most powerful bosses in the US film industry, that Hollywood and Washington are « sprung from the same DNA ».
You were an adviser on the making of Three Kings and Syriana, two movies that show a different side of the Middle East. The post-9/11 era has produced more critical films like Michael Moore’s work and the anti-racist Oscar winning Crash. Are these just exceptions or is there more going on?
These films do US reality more justice, but I wouldn’t call them more than sparks. The mainstream media would rather keep these progressive movies quiet. Overall the exceptions confirm the rule, despite the amount of attention they sometimes get. As far as that’s concerned, the real extremists continue to dominate the airwaves.
We shouldn’t forget that in dozens of US TV shows there is still ample room for prejudices about Muslims, and that’s what people see at home. Anti-Arab films like Iron Eagle and Navy Seals from the Cold War era are still rerun on TV. All this keeps feeding the paranoia about everything that just looks Arab. Exceptions like Babel or Paradise Now – movies that clearly show a very different image of Muslims – do have a positive impact. But often the independence of these productions means that, sadly, many people will never be able to see them.
You have also drawn a comparison with how the Nazis used film for anti-Semitic propaganda?
There are many similarities between the stereotypes of Arabs in film and the way Joseph Goebbels portrayed « the Jew » – for example exaggerating so-called physical characteristics, « their » control over « our » oil or « our » money, « their » seduction of « our » women. You could make a short powerful film by putting these stereotypes side by side – it would make a good tool to confront Dutch politician and anti-Islamic filmmaker Geert Wilders.
I believe we should extend our resistance against the discrimination of Jews, blacks and Latinos, to Muslims and Arabs. I am an optimist by nature, but this is a huge task when you look at the control the studio bosses have over the distribution of ruling ideas. That’s why filmmakers too have a great responsibility to counteract this ideological warfare.
Will Hollywood apologize to Muslims?
15 February 2009
Numerous criticisms have been voiced that the US media — especially its cinema sector and TV networks — tend to create image templates. This is true. Hollywood’s role in portraying Italians as mafia types, Asians as sneaky, blacks as bad, Indians as unmannerly, the Spanish as bribe takers, Latin Americans as drug sellers, etc., is undeniable.
Yet, no nation or community has suffered the level of injustice Hollywood has been inflicting on Muslims. In Hollywood films, Muslims — mostly Arabs — are presented as people who hijack planes, set bombs, kill people, etc. — in a word, as terrorists. This template is designed mostly for the middle class. The role tailored for women of the same class portrays women who are oppressed by men and those who are adept at belly dancing, though still suppressed and knowing no love. We may also encounter wealthy characters in these films. They tend to be lustful, fat and passionate types who do not know how to spend their millions.
Jack G. Shaheen is the main opponent of this mentality, which creates a characterization through the repeated reinforcement of biases and preconceptions. His book, titled « The TV Arab » and published in 1984, created debates in US media. Before writing his book, Shaheen surveyed the Arab image in 100 popular TV programs over a period of eight years. The image portrayed in 200 scenes was shocking. The programs, watched by 150 million people, all presented the same image. One could not find a single good characterization of Arabs. The author rightfully asked: Is it any different from the characterization of blacks as lazy, the Spanish as dirty and untidy, the Jews as ambitious or the Italians as mafia types?
Such objections, it seems, are forcing Hollywood to adopt a much more reasonable position.
Hollywood’s bias against Muslims is well known, so I am not inclined to further substantiate this thesis. It is also obvious that just complaining about this issue without doing anything is no remedy. As it has made no investment in the filmmaking sector, the Muslim world cannot possibly sound convincing when it accuses Hollywood of portraying Muslims negatively. In the final analysis, the one who invests will reap the results. It is inevitable that those who refrain from investing in cinema, theater, TV and similar sectors will pay a big price. Of course, Muslims are right in asking, « Why do you always portray us as villains? » But such protests should stay there.
Thankfully, reactions from civilians, academic criticism and conscientious circles are forcing Hollywood to rectify its stance. This change is also visible in books Shaheen has written. In « Reel Bad Arabs » (2001), he acknowledges this improvement. While he was previously concerned with the images in all TV programs and films, in his books he focused his attention on Hollywood films. Shaheen surveyed 900 films and found only 12 positive Muslim characters while 50 characters were balanced types in terms of being good or evil.
As a matter of fact, Hollywood — and perhaps the entire Western world — does not know much about Islam and Muslims. For instance, it is a common mistake to equate Arabs with Muslims and vice versa. In 1996, famous standup comedian Jay Leno was hosted by CNN’s Larry King, who asked him an interesting question: Did he ever regret ridiculing people during his shows and subsequently apologize to them? « I had said something about Iran or so. When Arab-Americans reacted, I invited them, talked with them and apologized, » he replied. The apology was praised at the time, but his equating Iranians with Arabs was found odd. Not many in the West are aware that Turks are Muslims, as are many Malays, Indonesians, Indians, Pakistanis, etc.
It is not easy for Hollywood to correctly understand Islam
Upon reading the Quran and Prophet Muhammad’s sayings, one can easily see that Islam is a religion of peace and love, but it seems that Hollywood neither has easy access to basic resources on Islam nor can it interpret them correctly. The campaign launched against Muslims, particularly post Sept. 11, has evolved into Islamophobia. The US invasion of Iraq had a negative effect on Hollywood, preventing it from producing films in an objective manner and free from bias. Considering this, we need to mention Jean-Michel Valantin’s book « Hollywood, the Pentagon, and Washington: The Movies and National Security from World War II to the Present Day. » Valantin lists a number of examples showing the close relations between Hollywood’s stereotyping and US foreign policy and how this works systematically in many genres, ranging from drama to comedy. What I mean is that the normalization of Hollywood’s ongoing creation of biases and negative images was blocked by political issues. The Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq war led to the re-creation of the image of Arabs as terrorists, which was in turn used as justification for the illegitimate war being fought in Iraq.
Nevertheless, Hollywood cannot forever maintain this strategy of collectively portraying Muslims as terrorists. This is because it is incorrect. Determined to go after this issue, Shaheen wrote « Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs After 9/11 » in 2008 to keep the issue in the oven. This issue is a fertile field for many more studies.
Scenes that will reinforce the negative images are engraved in people’s minds through repetition, but eventually the other side of the story is brought to the agenda. Scenarios that may have sounded impossible in the past are now popping out of their heads one by one. In this respect, two recent films are of particular importance: « Traitor » and « Rendition. »
« Traitor » was directed and adapted by Jeffrey Nachmanoff. The plot starts with the murder of a Sudanese child’s father in a terrorist attack. The child (Samir) turns into a very devout person. After Samir’s family moves to Chicago, he joins an Islamic terrorist organization. However, he is viewed with skepticism both by the organization and by the Americans. Samir is a good Muslim and is against all forms of terror. We see this Sudanese man both as a terrorist and as an agent in the sentence « truth is complicated. » In the final scene, Samir reads a verse from the Holy Quran: » … whosoever killeth a human being … it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind. » (5:32) This scene reminds one of a scene from « Body of Lies. » As you might remembers, in « Body of Lies, » Leonardo DiCaprio, after being tortured, says to the sheik who recites a verse from the Quran on holy war, « You interpret the Quran incorrectly. » He then recites a verse on peace.
« Rendition » (2007) exhaustively questions Sept. 11. In the film, directed by Gavin Hood, an Egyptian boy is arrested on suspicion of terrorism and sent to the country (South Africa) where the bombed attack was carried out. Ibrahim, a chemical engineer, is questioned under heavy torture and his rights are sacrificed in the name of « national security » and « counterterrorism. » One striking scene is that between the official heading the security forces (Meryl Streep) and a young politician who has a bright career ahead of him as a senator. When the politician says, « Let me send you the US Constitution so that you can read about the rights and freedoms of people, » he gets the reply, « Let me send you the minutes of Sept. 11. » The film clearly shows that Ibrahim is held under arrest out of deep suspicions, but that in fact he is innocent.
Hollywood must apologize to Muslims
Biased attitudes toward Muslims had in the past been portrayed in a number of films, but there was a break. In « The Long Kiss Goodnight » (1996), the US intelligence service devised a plot involving Arabs. An Arab was to be killed and then be placed in a trailer truck which was to explode in Canada and « Muslim terrorists » were to be blamed. When a female agent who lost her memory asked « Why? » during torture, she gets the reply, « In the attack against the Twin Towers, a witness insistently accused the CIA, but no one listened to him even though he was telling the truth » — an interesting detail. The attacks in question were not the Sept. 11 attacks, but those conducted in 1999 at the World Trade Center. When she insistently asks « Why?, » she is told, « In order to ensure the passage of the intelligence budgets by the commission. » There are abundant examples. In « Flightplan » (2005), a mother blames Arabs for the kidnapping of her child, but toward the end of the film, she discovers the truth and apologizes to them. A number of films can be mentioned along these lines.
Hollywood must apologize to Muslims since no community can be collectively labeled as evil or portrayed so forever. But there is a catch: If Muslims can explain themselves better and work to eliminate bad apples, this process may be expedited. Today, there are good intentioned moves, but there is still a long road that a film sector which feeds on the realities of life must take.
Voir de même:
Arabs suffer in the hands of Hollywood
Thursday, March 21, 2002
It’s rare that a reunion with an old friend turns into a column.
But I’m happy to give Jack Shaheen the platform, even if all he wanted was to catch up over tea at Tully’s last Sunday.
We go back 15 or 20 years. Shaheen used to teach communications at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. I used to run the daily newspaper in Edwardsville, a « Leave It to Beaver » sort of Midwestern town 20 miles from St. Louis, Mo.
A distinctly soft-spoken man whose grandparents came to this country from Lebanon, Shaheen is probably America’s best-known expert on how Arabs are portrayed in the media. Were he more a rowdy provocateur, the issue that defines his essence might already have passed into posterity or, given our narrow tendencies, at least to another group yearning for fairer treatment.
But Shaheen strikes such a non-confrontational pose, it’s as if he decided long ago that ranting and raving — even speaking in a loud voice — would only nurture America’s cliched image of the hostile Arab infidel. And so his earnest mission goes, advancing on the Hush Puppies of quiet persistence, lest his message be derided by cynics as the hysterical harangue of a demagogue.
Retired from the classroom and devoting his time now to writing and lecturing, Shaheen was in Seattle last weekend to speak at the fifth Arab Film Festival. It was a timely invitation. Shaheen’s new book, « Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, » is an exhaustive survey of more than 900 movies, most of them American made, that contain portrayals of Arabs, from the briefest cameo appearances to relatively major roles (though you’ll have a tough time finding an Arab or Arab-American character as hero or heroine). Of these, Shaheen says only a dozen portray Arabs positively, with about 50 more offering a measure of balance.
The rise of television in the latter half of the 20th century mirrors the film industry’s record, Shaheen says, and though his book « The TV Arab » is now nearly 20 years old, he sees no reason to celebrate TV as being any more evolved than film.
As he says in « Reel Bad Arabs, » the people who control the entertainment industry are slow to change when they recognize a profitable opportunity. « Seen through Hollywood’s distorted lenses, » Shaheen writes, « Arabs look different and threatening. Projected along racial and religious lines, the stereotypes are deeply ingrained in American cinema. From 1896 until today, filmmakers have collectively indicted all Arabs as Public Enemy No. 1 — brutal, heartless, uncivilized religious fanatics and money-mad cultural ‘others’ bent on terrorizing civilized Westerners, especially Christians and Jews. »
Same goes for TV, and these days Shaheen is particularly down on CBS, a network he once served as a consultant. Without much prompting, Shaheen will talk about how « The Agency, » « JAG, » « The District » and « Family Law » have treated Arabs this season. In a word: badly.
And then there’s the TV movie, « The President’s Man: A Line in the Sand, » which CBS aired in January — far enough from Sept. 11 to seem respectable, close enough to play on America’s media-fed phobias. In it, Chuck Norris played a government agent who thwarts a bombing on U.S. soil by — surprise! — Arab terrorists.
The art-imitating-life question comes easily to mind here, but Shaheen effectively dismisses it by pointing out that Arabs were the bad guys long before we all knew Osama bin Laden’s name. The tragedies of Sept. 11 obviously haven’t helped, but it’s instructive to wonder how we would describe the attackers had they not been linked to bin Laden. If they were from Ireland, for instance, would we in the media call them Euro-terrorists? Had they been on the lunatic fringe of a religion other than Islam, would we call them, say, Christian terrorists? Jewish terrorists?
My gut says we wouldn’t.
« And we shouldn’t, » Shaheen asserts. « Just as we shouldn’t link Islam when an Arab Muslim kills someone, we shouldn’t link Christianity or Judaism when those terrorists kill innocents. »
Rhetorical questions don’t end prejudice all by themselves, however. Deep thinking has to make the transition to thoughtful writing, which is hard work.
« Convenient stereotypes make everyone’s job easier, » Shaheen writes. « Rather than having to pen a good joke, the writer inserts a stumbling, bumbling sheikh. Looking for a villain? Toss in an Arab terrorist. We all know what they look like from watching movies and TV. No thought required. »
But the hardest part may be persuading audiences that, just as other groups have managed to give Hollywood a sensitivity check, Arabs and Arab Americans deserve a fair shake, too. This, Shaheen admits, would require many to abandon the notion that « if one is no longer allowed to feel superior to Asians, Jews, Latinos or blacks, at least we can feel superior to those wretched Arabs. »
The stereotyping will end, Shaheen believes, when the Arab American community marshals sufficient clout to get the entertainment industry to open its eyes to the damage it does. And he’s not suggesting Arabs should never be the villains.
« The key is balance, » he says. « Every group has among its members a minority of a minority committing heinous acts. Yet the overwhelming majority of all people are regular, peace-loving individuals who vigorously object to violent crimes. »
Not lost on Shaheen is the fact that many studio and network chieftains are Jewish. He believes some of them do have agendas, even if these strategies merely involve looking the other way when their so-called creative types perpetuate an ugly stereotype.
Fortunately, protest is a proud American tradition. Early in the past century, Jewish Americans, Irish Americans and African Americans all objected to cinematic typecasting, and slowly they got results. Shaheen, an inordinately patient man, is convinced Arab Americans eventually will find a way to persuade the film and TV industries to balance the scales, to portray one Michael DeBakey, the famous heart surgeon, for every Osama bin Laden, the lunatic terrorist. Or one « regular guy who works 10 hours a day, comes home to a loving wife and family, plays soccer with his kids » for every « crazed terrorist, airplane hijacker or camel-riding Bedouin. »
Whaddya say, film and TV people? It’s a reasonable request.
That way, the next time Jack Shaheen and I run into each other, we can talk about old times.
Aladdin, Al-Qaeda, and Arabs in U.S. film and TV
Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
* Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People by Jack G. Shaheen (New York: Olive Branch Press, 2001) 574 pages
* Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, directed by Sut Jhally, DVD, 50 min., Media Education Foundation, 2006
“Arabs are the most maligned group in the history of Hollywood. They are portrayed, basically, as sub-human untermenschen, a term used by Nazis to vilify Gypsies and Jews. These images have been with us for more than a century.” — Jack Shaheen
Shaheen’s new documentary Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, released in conjunction with his book of the same title, takes up the issue of Arab representation in U.S. media. His film effectively demonstrates the influence of Victorian-era Orientalist narratives on the depiction of Arabs in Hollywood cinema, which presents them as backwards, violent, mystical, lascivious, hateful, prejudiced, and misogynistic.
Hollywood cinema has played into near-mythological stereotypes about Arabs, which imply that the Middle East is a land of cultural otherness, full of people who cannot be understood in Western terms and thus should not be thought of as human. From the early 1900s when Edison in the United States and Pathé and Gaumont in France were making films, film has used as a narrative convention that Arabs occupy a mystical land of harsh deserts, tropical oases, genies, magic carpets, thieving bandits, decadent sultans, conniving sheiks, and sensual harem girls. Today, such scripting survives in popular children’s films like Disney’s Aladdin, but it has been usurped in large part by the new popular myth: that of Arabs, or Muslims in general, as terrorists who may not only be plotting the destruction of the West from the Middle East but may even be plotting the United States destruction from the suburban townhouse next door (e.g., as in Fox TV’s 24).
These media stereotypes have a malleability that allows for their manipulation by politicians and policy makers to construct a narrative justifying U.S. imperialism. In these ideological narratives, Arab culture doesn’t matter; what matters is spreading “freedom” and “democracy,” which become nothing more than useful keywords justifying Western hegemony and U.S. cultural exportation and domination. Jean-Luc Godard once replied, when asked why U.S. films are the most popular in the world,
“Because Americans tell the best stories. They can invade a country and immediately construct a narrative justifying it.”
In fact, the WMDs for which the U.S. went to war with Iraq can almost be termed a MacGuffin, one of Hitchcock’s non-existent plot catalysts, which merely serves to launch the story and has no significance in and of itself. What has more consistently served to win U.S. public acceptance of the invasion of Iraq — begun March 19, 2003 — were the continually negative images of Arabs in Hollywood film and television, which gained new acceptance in the aftermath of 9/11.
Arabs, and Muslims in general, have been culturally coded as “others,” a dislocated social position which many politicians and media producers have used to position Arabs as phantom enemies, as scapegoats for latent U.S. xenophobic tendencies. In this regard, Hollywood filmmakers have often used Arabs in narratives in very much the same way as Nazi propagandists portrayed Jews in the 1930s and 40s.
If many politicians have capitalized on negative media representations of Arabs for imperialist ambitions, then we have a causation paradox. Which came first? Is it the neoconservative desire to construct a phantom enemy against whom U.S. values become defined in a mythological battle between good vs. evil, east vs. west, and, yes, Christian vs. Muslim? Or is it that the stereotypical narratives came first and policy makers used available stereotypes for political ends? We cannot answer that with certainty.
Nevertheless, we can trace shifts in patterns in media stereotyping. Now, while discerning viewers may shudder at the idea of African American actors relegated to playing main servants in Hollywood films through the 1950s, condemn Westerns for glorifying genocide of Native Americans, and loathe a frequently appearing Jewish pawnbroker stereotype — most disgusting in Alec Guinness’ Fagin in David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948) — viewers easily accept as justifiable that Jack Bauer hang the Muslim terrorist who nuked Los Angeles in Season 6 of 24 or marvel at the lush visuals, catchy show tunes, and indeed casual racism of Disney’s Aladdin. As Shaheen describes the easy cultural reduction to stereotype,
“All aspects of our culture project the Arab as villain. These are stereotypes which rob an entire people of their humanity.”
My essay offers an analysis and critique of Shaheen’s documentary and the particular aspects of that prejudice on which he focuses in order to survey the history of Hollywood’s racist portrayals of Arabs and Muslims.
Myths of Arabland
Cultural identity partly derives from geography so that landscape often points to patterns of economic and social activity. Rivers, such as the Huang and the Nile, have fostered the agrarian economies as well as transportation networks. An island country like Japan often becomes a prime hub of sea-bound trade networks, with fishing playing a large role in local food production. However, topographic-ethnic associations can also lead to reductive connotations. The Inuit people traditionally have lived within the Arctic Circle in frigid, ice-filled tundra environments, but when such an association leads mainly to imagery of Inuits living in igloos and ice fishing, the complexity of a great people’s culture gets reduced to what is little more than Rankin Bass imagery. (Image 1) Worse yet, geography may be used metaphorically to take on a personified quality that translates into attitudes toward that part of the world. When Africa means the “Jungle,” that’s not just a landscape but a state of mind. Thus Conrad’s Heart of Darknes, links cultural “backwardness” to geographic “backwardness” and finds Western morality impossible in a realm of incessant Darwinian struggle.
Such pejorative association between topography and cultural identity shapes the mise-en-scene and is the initial locus of much of Hollywood’s negative portrayal of Arabs. As Shaheen puts it,
“The depiction of Arabs always begins with the desert.”
As with depictions of Africa where the jungle connotes both danger and cultural “backwardness,” the “hostility” of the desert environment often translates into attitudes about the people who live there. (Image 2) Certainly many parts of the Arab world do feature desert landscapes. However, any uniform marriage of people and place in terms of the connotations of « desert » would ignore both physical and cultural variety, including the modern urban environments of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the Mediterranean climate of Tunisia, Libya, and Lebanon, the fertile fields of the Nile Valley, the rugged plateaus of Kurdistan, and the mountains of Morocco.
Looking at this kind of reductionism in more cultural terms, Hollywood not only gives Arabs a Muslim identity but all-too-often gives Muslims an Arab identity, when in reality Arabs make up only about 1/3 of the total worldwide Muslim population of over one billion people. Narratively linking Muslims with the desert sets in place an even more sweeping misperception of the great faith’s cultural diversity and complexity. How could tying Islam to those living in the desert relate to the experience of Muslims living in sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans, central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, or Indonesia — regions that don’t feature deserts as prominent topographical features? For example, Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, is primarily tropical in its climate, with mountains, the rainforest, and the sea as the most prominent geographical landmarks. For Hollywood films to create a link between landscape and religion shows a profound ignorance of the world. (Image 3)
“We inherited the Arab image primarily from Europeans.”
Shaheen is referring here to 19th century Orientalism, a movement inspired in part by British and French acquisition of lands in the Middle East and North Africa. European cultural production, both artistic and popular culture, included a plethora of fantastical travel writing which emphasized the exoticism of the Middle East through mythopoetic stereotypes that revealed little about the actual local culture but attracted rich European tourists. In the visual arts, Eugene Delacroix’s Orientalist paintings portrayed Arab culture as beyond decadent, with lascivious sultans wearing vibrant colors and sensual silk while surrounded by scantily clad harem girls. (Images 4-6) Delacroix also frequently depicted Arab sexuality as paired with death as in The Death of Sardanapalus (1827). (Images 7-8) These exotic stereotypes were transmitted to United States where they found a parallel cultural foothold, especially in the early 20th century when dime novels promoted ethnocentric adventure narratives about the “superior” Western culture taming the U.S. West and its Native American inhabitants. The dimestore novelists attached a similar xenophobic sense of “otherness” to the Middle East, to Native Americans, and to Asians, especially the Chinese. And Columbia University Professor Edward Saïd demonstrated the ways that these stereotypes persist today, even in academic analysis:
“All academic knowledge about India and Egypt is somehow tinged with, impressed with, and violated by 19th century Orientalism.”
Characterizing this “otherness” is the sense that Arabs are “backwards.” As a character relates about her fictional Middle East-inspired country in the Elvis Presley movie Harum Scarum (1965):
“When you cross the mountains of the moon into our country, you will be stepping back 2,000 years.”
Shaheen argues that the mythopoetic trappings of Arab culture as depicted in Hollywood films have become so rigidly codified that they have an amusement park-like uniformity:
“We have this fictional setting called Arabland, a mythical theme park. And in Arabland, you have the ominous music, you have the desert as a threatening place, we add an oasis, palm trees, a palace that has a torture chamber in the basement.”
In a common mise-en-scene, opulent, palatial interiors reveal a cruel, bloated pasha reclining on cushions and surrounded by harem maidens. The pasha possesses an unquenchable appetite for the flesh and requires sensual handmaidens and harem girls to appeal to his lascivious desires. (Images 9-10) However, as in the movie Samson Against the Sheik (1962), the Arab harem maidens don’t attract the pasha’s attention as much as the blonde European girl does, so he must abduct and ravish her against her will.
The codified trappings of Arabland which Shaheen identifies as the “Instant Ali Baba Kit” include costuming women in belly-dancing outfits and transparent pantaloons, while giving the male villains long, curved, scimitars. Since Arabland is clearly a mystical land, its inhabitants ride on magic carpets, and snake charmers hypnotize deadly cobras with eerie flute music. These trappings are not merely found in Classical Hollywood films that demonstrate an Orientalist influence like The Thief of Baghdad (1924 and 1940) or The Garden of Allah (1936), or films featuring Jamie Farr, but in even more recent fare including the 1992 Disney blockbuster Aladdin. Aladdin, in fact, continues the stale Orientalist fantasy, portraying all Arab men as either street thugs, pickpockets, emasculated palace guards, beggars, sultans, or sorcerers. (Image 11) A male character early in the film even declares to his master upon stealing a jewel,
“I had to slit a few throats, but I got it.”
The men are short and stocky with thick lips, missing teeth, heavy, menacing brows, and hooked noses, while the hero Aladdin and heroine Jasmine look like suburban, white, U.S. teenagers. (Image 12) Arabs are shown as gratuitously cruel, with characters making several references to beheading. One Arab merchant even tries to cut off Jasmine’s hand when she doesn’t have money to pay for an apple she gave to a hungry boy. (Image 13) Few U.S. film critics mentioned the visual stereotyping in the villains’ the heroes’ facial characteristics except for Roger Ebert who asked,
“Wouldn’t it be reasonable that if all the characters in this movie come from the same genetic stock, they should resemble one another?”
« The film recycled every old degrading stereotype from Hollywood’s silent, black and white past.”
In this vein, Aladdin opens with the expository song “Arabian Nights” which includes the lyrics »
“Oh, I come from a land
From a far away place where the caravan camels roam
Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face
It’s barbaric but, hey, it’s home.”
The stereotypes in Aladdin also draw upon anti-Semitic imagery for inspiration, most notably those from the anti-Semitic Disney animated short The Small One (1978), a children’s Biblical tale, about the donkey who would carry The Virgin Mary to Bethlehem to give birth. That film features a musical number called “Clink-Clink, Clank-Clank,” about Jewish moneylenders’ fetishistic “love of money.” Over and over, three dancing moneylenders sing the lyrics “Clink-Clink, Clank-Clank/ Put the money in the bank,” while cruelly humiliating the young boy who is trying to sell his donkey. (Image 14) Almost impossible to watch and despicable for its stereotypes, The Small One has been covered up by Disney executives. In that film, in particular, Jewish merchants are portrayed with almost exactly the same facial characteristics as the Arab villains have in Aladdin and similarly possess both a love of money and penchant for cruelty. (Image 15). (Image 16).
Of course, cartoonish anti-Arab stereotypes like those in Aladdin have long found a home in animated cartoons. The Warner Brothers’ cartoon Ali Baba Bunny (1957, Chuck Jones) begins with buffoonish « villain music » playing over a shot of a bearded, mustache-twirling Ali Baba looking through beer bottles as if they were binoculars while palm trees wave in the background and a subtitle declares him to be “The Mad Dog of the Desert.” (Image 17)
“The Arab is a one-dimensional caricature, cartoon cutouts used by filmmakers as stock villains and as comic relief…and so over and over, we see Arabs in movies portrayed as buffoons, their only purpose being to deliver cheap laughs.”
Shaheen says this while discussing feature fiction. He points to the cartoonish deployment of Arabs in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg), especially the scene where Indiana Jones shoots the menacing Arab wielding a scimatar, a death meant to be a joke. (Image 18) The Joey Heatherton film The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington (1977) also features a cartoonish Arab character, Sheik Ali played by Jerry Fischer, who admits that he has had sex with both dogs and sheep, taking the lascivious Arab stereotype to new depths of depravity. James Cameron’s live-action cartoon True Lies (1994) also features Arabs cast in the role of villain/buffoon, this time in their modern iteration as terrorists. Not only does True Lies subject the audience to Jamie Lee Curtis’ pole-dancing, but it features Arab terrorists who are not only dangerous, but also incompetent, bungling fools. One scene features a terrorist who is prepared to detonate a nuclear bomb in Miami with one turn of a key…but has forgotten the key.
Then there’s actor Jamie Farr: the man has turned playing Arab buffoons into a cottage industry. To name but one example, Farr plays “The Sheik” in Cannonball Run 2 (1981), where he spouts lines like, “I have a weakness for blondes and women without mustaches,” and, “Have you ever considered joining a harem?” while groping and ogling the white U.S. women around him. (Image 19) He is also depicted as being inordinately stupid and incapable of realizing the value of money, demanding to reserve,
“Twelve suites! Better yet, the whole floor!”
The lascivious Arab carries across many Hollywood films:
* In Jewel of the Nile (1985) Sheik Omar manipulates Kathleen Turner into coming to “Arabland” with him, where he promptly imprisons her and subjects her to his gross passions;
* Protocol (1984) revolves around a Sheik’s infatuation with Goldie Hawn.
* In the fake-James Bond film Never Say Never Again (1983) Kim Basinger is abducted by Arab terrorists, tied to an auction block, stripped down to her underwear, and sold-off to ravenous Bedouin.
* In Sahara (1983), Brook Shields is sold into slavery and bought by a perverse Arab sheik who sexually assaults her while she cries, “Get away from me you dirty creep!”
* Neil Simon’s Chapter 2 (1970) begins with a character asking Paul Newman, “How was London?” to which he replies, “Full of Arabs.”
In regards to the Simon film, Shaheen asks,
“What if he had said [in Chapter 2] ‘full of blacks,’ ‘full of Jews,’ or ‘full of Hispanics’? I mean that’s ridiculous, why do we say these things?”
In many films like Chapter 2, which have nothing to do with the Middle East, Hollywood includes Arab stereotypes and slurs. Shaheen points out that one of the most gratuitous examples of Arab stereotyping occurs in Disney’s Father of the Bride Part II (1995) where a domineering, sleazy-looking, broken-English-speaking, rich Arab businessman named Mr. Habib tries to buy Steve Martin’s house. Habib’s submissive wife tries to speak up at one point, and he shouts gibberish at her to make her shut up, recalling the The Garden of Allah where gibberish was meant to stand in for Arabic. (Image 20) Not only does this characterization connote Arab men treating their wives poorly, it also draws upon degrading anti-Semitic moneylender stereotypes in the scene where Habib has brought a wrecking ball to destroy Martin’s house unless Martin pays him an extra $100,000 to buy back a home which he has owned for only one day. (Image 21) This scene and this stereotypical character were wholly gratuitous in the film, since previous versions of Father of the Bride like the 1950 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Spencer Tracy never featured such stereotypes. Likewise, the slave traders who kidnap Russell Crowe in Gladiator are Arabs. Or in Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future (1985), the plot is about a time-traveling mad scientist, but the film inexplicably begins with inept Libyan terrorists trying to gun down the protagonists. As Shaheen puts it,
“This movie wasn’t about the future. It was the same old stereotyping from the past.” (Image 22-23)
Arab women onscreen
In contemporary social terms, throughout the broader Arab world women are attending higher education at the same rates as men. In one exemplary endeavor, Qatar is opening up University City, a massive college campus bringing in the best professors and researchers from U.S. universities to instruct the next generation of young Arab men and women. In fact, female enrollment in University City is, so far, even greater than that of men. In the Muslim world, women are taking jobs in business, communications, social planning, engineering, and government, and while Americans constantly upbraid a Muslim country like Pakistan for its treatment of women, Pakistan has elected a female Prime Minister, when the United States has never had a female President.
Admittedly, the Muslim world confronts many unresolved issues related to women’s rights. In Saudi Arabia, the religious police enforce a law that women wear the abaya in public and that they not leave home without written permission from a man. Women there are not allowed to drive, associate with a man other than their husband or a close relative, or vote. In Afghanistan under the Taliban, religious authorities forced women in public to wear the burqa under penalty of corporal punishment or even death. In Pakistan, sexist rape laws shift blame onto the victim if she were not escorted by a man and a rape victim herself can be stoned for the crime committed against her. Few Muslim countries have many female politicians. For example, Bahrain elected its first female MP in 2006. That same year, women ran for MP slots in Kuwait, but none won. However, women hold 22.5% of the seats in the United Arab Emirates legislature, higher than the global average of 17.5%. The Tunisian parliament is 23% women. Even though in parts of the Muslim world (such as in Saudi Arabia and Iran), strict interpretations of Islamic law severely restrict women, Islamic law there still gives women certain rights they lacked in pre-Islamic societies. As Islamic history professor William Montgomery Watt suggests:
“At the time Islam began conditions for women were terrible — they had no right to own property, were supposed to be the property of the man, and if the man died everything went to his sons. Muhammad improved things quite a lot. By instituting rights of property ownership, inheritance, education, and divorce, he gave women certain basic safeguards. So, in such a historical context, the Prophet can be seen as a figure who testified on behalf of women’s rights.” 
Hollywood has never reflected these complexities of women’s experiences in the Muslim world preferring to instead typecast them in the roles of harem girl, belly dancer, oppressed wife, and burqa-wearer. In Hollywood films like Protocol (1984) or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Muslim women are always seen in the shadows, completely covered in black, marginalized from the male populace on screen, but also marginalized from the narrative action, reduced to nothing more than being receptacles for Westerners’ sympathy. Furthermore, the social assumption in the United States that Arab women have be cover themselves with headscarves and burqas in the Middle East stands in stark contrast to the way that Hollywood frequently presents Arab women in the most sexualized light. Foremost among these sexualized depictions is the belly dancer, who has turned up in films from feature film’s very beginning as a cheap erotic spectacle for the attention of the male gaze. The belly dancer scene also reinforces characterizations of Arab men as lascivious. These sensual portrayals have a long history and are, as Shaheen puts it,
“inspired by early images of the Orient, as the place of exoticism, intrigue, and passion.” (Images 24-25)
Recently the female Arab character has had more agency in Hollywood films, but as blood-thirsty terrorists. Such is the plotline, for example, in Death Before Dishonor (1987) and Never Say Never Again (1983). (Images 26-27) At least this way they are portrayed as having some power, as opposed to what Shaheen calls the “bundles in black,” women — usually extras — completely covered from head to foot in black garments or burqas. (Image 28) Both the belly dancer and the bundles in black posit Arab women as submissive and subordinated to men, casting men in the role of misogynist oppressor.
Arab threat: Mideast politics and Hollywood
“Washington and Hollywood spring from the same DNA.”
Jack Valenti, longtime President of the Motion Picture Association of America, declared this about both industry ties to politics and the kinds of representations most commercially viable in film. Indeed, Hollywood narratives are inextricably tied into politics. Often, hegemonic and counter-hegemonic forces struggle over how a script will fit into the prevailing political atmosphere, whether it will fit into mainstream expectations or whether it will stand in opposition to the establishment. Sometimes a Hollywood film can popularize a particular social issue, spurring new social awareness — as the films Philadelphia (1993) and And the Band Played On… did in raising public and governmental awareness of the AIDS crisis. Hollywood films can play an important agenda-setting role but more commonly they react to the government’s messages, tacitly reinforcing them. If the Department of Homeland Security’s raising of the terror threat level doesn’t instill enough fear, then another season of 24 is just around the corner to make Americans suspect their neighbors and look over their shoulders for terrorists. Hollywood and Washington reinforce and react to one another.
Hollywood’s image of Arabs and Arab-Americans owes a lot to U.S. foreign policy over the past sixty years, and contemporary U.S. foreign policy finds easy reinforcement in the images Hollywood creates. While the mystical “Arabland” has accompanied Hollywood filmmaking from the very beginning, images of Arabs and Muslims as terrorists are a postmodern phenomenon. In Reel Bad Arabs, Shaheen identifies three events responsible for this change in the perception of Arabs:
1. The Palestinian/Israeli conflict has proven the United States always supports Israel.
2. The Arab Oil embargo of the 1970s angered Americans due to rising gas prices.
3. The Iranian Revolution negatively affected U.S. perception of Muslims when Iranian students took U.S. diplomats hostage for over one year.
These events helped frame how Arabs and Arab-Americans would be viewed in U.S. media. Interestingly, the image of the sheik changed the most. The Arab Oil Embargo of the 1970s raised the spectre of the fantastically wealthy sheik, with millions of dollars in his bank account from oil money and diversified investments in worldwide companies including U.S. corporations. Within this ethnocentric view purveyed by U.S. media was the presumption that, despite their vast oil wealth, Arab sheiks craved the respectability derived from of U.S. capitalism and were thus would heavily buy into U.S. businesses. Thus in a film like Rollover (1981) a wealthy sheik is determined to use his money to buy up as much of the United States’ financial resources as he possibly can in a bid to take over the world. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Steven Spielberg, 1989) the fantastically rich sheik wants to translate his wealth into prestige as valued by the West. When Nazis want to buy his help, they give him what he wants most, a Rolls-Royce. (Image 29) These 1980s anti-Arab fears paralleled concurrent fears of Japan as an economic superpower with the potential to eclipse the United States, a fear seen in films like Rising Sun (1993) that assumed Japan’s surging economy went hand-in-hand with a sinister plot for global domination.
One of the serious flaws in both his book and documentary is the way Shaheen dwells on Sidney Lumet’s film Network (1976) as presumably anti-Arab. Indeed, in one scene, a corrupt network executive rants to “mad man of the airwaves,” talkshow host Howard Beale, that “the Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back.” As Beale sits enraptured, he agrees to talk about how Arabs are “buying up America” on his show. In his book and documentary, however, Jack Shaheen manipulates the sequence of events to make it appear that Beale’s famous, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore,” monologue, with loyal TV watchers shouting the same from their apartment balconies, comes right after his on-air speech about Arabs. That is not the case. Beale’s “mad as hell” mania is already in full swing well before he targets the Arabs. And in no way does the script glorify Beale’s eventual rant against Arabs but uses that speech to indicate that this madman is now just a shill for the network’s corporate hierarchy, a mouthpiece spouting corporate propaganda given to him by a sinister executive. If anything, Lumet is commenting that television will perpetuate racism because fear sells, a point with perhaps even greater relevance in this age of twenty-four hour cable news where it sells to constantly “raise the threat level.”
Sometimes we can be so determined to make a point that we can consciously or unconsciously rearrange facts to give greater weight to our argument. Here Shaheen clearly implies that one of the most famous scenes in movie history is created at the expense of Arabs, when that in fact is not true. Shaheen says referring to the Nazi’s scapegoating of Jews earlier in the century:
“This kind of anger, the anger born of fear, all of it in response to a perceived conspiracy and threat by a specific group of people, well, we’ve seen and heard this before,”
Regrettably, he makes this point as a voiceover in his documentary, heard as we see images from Network of the famous scene of people on their balconies shouting in unison, “I’m mad as hell…” Since he incorrectly links up fear and hatred of Arabs with the “mad as hell” speech and Lumet’s film as a whole, it’s even more dishonest for Shaheen to make a voiceover comparison between Network and the Nazis and then dissolve from a scene from Network to a clip of Nazi propaganda.
Despite the unfortunate choice of comparing Network to Nazi propaganda, Shaheen does make a good point, however, about how xenophobic views of Arabs in the mainstream U.S. media seek to create a level of fear about a scapegoat, and that this scapgoating is not unlike the mechanisms that the Nazis used in anti-Semitic propaganda. At the core of their anti-Semitic media campaigns in films, radio broadcasts, speeches, and posters, the Nazis emphasized what they perceived to be the economic threat of Jewish people. The Nazis painted all Jews as scurrilous moneylenders and pawnbrokers who did whatever they could to rob and swindle non-Jewish people and who also secretly worked as Soviet infiltrators to bring down the West. Why the Nazis thought that Jewish people would automatically be communists since they had already stereotyped them as rapacious, swindling capitalists seems nonsensical, but such propagandistic amalgams show how fear and hatred always override logic. (Image 30-31) Today’s ideological construction of Arabs unfortunately resembles Nazi stereotyping of Jews seventy years ago. Whereas the Nazis vilified the Jewish pawnbroker, today’s Hollywood plays off the Arab trader stereotype, someone willing to sell his own mother or, in the words of a character early in Disney’s Aladdin, “to slit a few throats” to make a profit. As Edward Saïd notes,
“So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Moslems and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.”
Terror, Inc. — demonizing Palestinians and Muslims
Perhaps the most focused connection between Washington and Hollywood, between foreign policy and media representation, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, the U.S. government has never wavered in its support for the fledgling nation, with each successive Presidential administration hosting Israeli leaders and donating billions of dollars in aid to the Israeli government. However, Washington has consistently ignored the plight of the Palestinian people who have lived as refugees since Israel’s founding. The Jewish state was founded as a haven for Jews wishing to leave Europe in the wake of the Holocaust and to live in a state run by Jewish people, the likes of which hadn’t existed since the Kingdom of Israel’s takeover by the Roman Empire. In concept, it’s a wonderful example of self-determination and self-rule. However, Israel’s ethnocratic intentions did exclude from the very outset a place for the Palestinian people who were the majority under British rule before Israel’s founding. In fact, most Palestinians have been living as disenfranchised refugees within special zones of Israel, a problem compounded by the fact that Israel’s Arab neighbors have admittedly done little to take in Palestinian refugees or provide economic assistance.
Part of the mutual exclusion has to do with obstacles to diplomatic solutions on both sides. After Israel’s Arab neighbors immediately declared war on the new country the day it was founded, it was very difficult, even after the armistice in 1949, for any serious diplomatic discussion. In fact, Palestinians had fared little better under Jordanian rule of the West Bank up through 1967 than they have under Israel ever since. Israel was willing for twenty years to allow Jordanian oversight of Palestinians, even letting the capital city of Jerusalem be split between themselves and Jordan, meaning that Jewish people were denied access to holy sites in the parts of the city they did not control.
Part of Israel’s current reluctance to create a Palestinian state today is due to Hamas’ influence on the Palestinian government, having won representation in a 2005 electoral landslide. Also inhibiting conciliation is what Israel considers an insurmountable problem, ongoing suicide bomb attacks — which for many disaffected Palestinians seems their only recourse in their fight for independence, to kill themselves along with others. The ideal solution might require a strong Israel combined with a strong, independent Palestinian state. Some have suggested a single secular state incorporating the Palestinian territories and Israel with equal rights for all groups; however, such a strategy would invalidate the original Zionist movement.
Washington never too the plight of the Palestinian people seriously until 2008 when George W. Bush declared he hoped to see a Palestinian state created by the end of the year. How serious he is about this is not clear, considering that his Evangelical followers strongly oppose Palestinian independence (Pat Robertson has stated that he would urge Evangelicals to withdraw from the Republican party if the Republicans ever tried to support a Palestinian state). He may be just a last-ditch effort to save the legacy of his Presidency. Needless to say, countries in the Middle East and Europe have not taken his statement as a serious policy initiative.
Washington’s unconditional support for Israel unfortunately has instilled in the U.S. people an indifference or even hostility towards Palestinians. Hollywood has reflected and reinforced governmental views, putting out depictions of Palestinians that make cinemagoers even more likely to support U.S. policy. To begin with, Hollywood films and TV productions frame Palestinians as terrorists. As Godard once suggested, U.S. foreign policy demands a sufficient narrative to justify it. If the United States only supports Israel, then the Palestinians must be narrativized as abject, dishonorable, and worthy of contempt. Anti-Palestinian propaganda reached a new height in the 1980s and 90s with at least thirty films denigrating the Palestinian people. In the 1987 film Death Before Dishonor (Terry Leonard), Palestinians are shown as crazed with bloodlust, with one female terrorist graphically committing atrocities. (Image 32-33) This sexy female terrorist-siren brutally slaughters an Israeli family in cold blood, sparing not even the children. She takes orgasmic pleasure in torturing an U.S. marine with a power drill and mechanically executes another. Visually, part of the drilling scene is shot from the marine’s point of view, maximizing our identification with him and his pain. Another Palestinian in the film becomes a suicide bomber who blows up an U.S. embassy.
A decade earlier Black Sunday (1977) had a female Palestinian as its terrorist du jour, who in a ridiculous James Bond-style plot flies a Goodyear blimp into a football stadium in Miami where she intends to detonate a bomb, killing 80,000 people at the SuperBowl.
This way of imagining Palestinians goes back to 1960 to Exodus (Otto Preminger) where they are either paired ideologically with Nazis (especially in one scene where a group of Palestinians lynched a Jewish settlement and left a Swastika behind to mark the deed) or totally marginalized. An even more pronounced example of anti-Palestinian propaganda is the Kirk Douglas vehicle Cast a Giant Shadow (Melville Shavelson, 1966) where Douglas plays an U.S. military adviser who lends his tactical assistance to the Israelis. The Palestinians in the film are demonized using many of the visual strategies Hollywood filmmakers frequently use to denigrate “native” peoples:
* the Palestinians in Cast a Giant Shadow are filmed only in group shots, with no close-ups or dialogue;
* they are merely a force of nature, determined to satisfy their cruel thirst for blood, at one point even massacring a Jewish settlement and carving a Star of David into the back of one dead Jewish woman;
* the only time the Palestinians do speak in the film is when they jeer, shout and intimidate a woman trapped in a bus while firing their guns into the air with rapacious glee.
Another business scripting Palestinian villains is the U.S. production company, Cannon Pictures, run by two Israeli producers, Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus. Over a period of 20 years, Cannon Pictures released thirty films specifically designed to bastardize Arab culture and specifically vilify Palestinians. One particular piece of exploitation trash Cannon released called Hell Squad (1985) depicts Vegas showgirls fighting bloodthirsty Arabs in the desert while wearing skimpy costumes and unleashing poorly choreographed martial arts moves. (Image 34-35) Golan and Globus’s most effective and popular film The Delta Force (1986) takes their racism to new heights depicting Palestinian terrorists hijacking an airliner and specifically targeting the Jewish passengers for horrific torture and beatings.
Certainly U.S. producers in Hollywood have contributed every bit as much to the negative image of Palestinians. Few films have had a bigger impact than James Cameron’s mega-blockbuster True Lies (1994). This film is perhaps the ur-text for depictions of Muslim terrorists; they’re bloodthirsty, willing to torture women and children, wish to destroy the United States and Israel, and are cartoonishly incompetent yet still menacing enough to be taken seriously. In fact, this film really predates much of the iconography associated with Muslim terrorists post-9/11; in True Lies, a cell known as Crimson Jihad seeks Weapons of Mass Destruction and releases threat videos to the U.S. media à la Osama bin Laden. Crimson Jihad’s video even features one cell leader, Salim Abu Aziz, giving this message:
“You have murdered our women, and our children, and bombed our cities from afar, like cowards, and you dare to call us terrorists? Unless you America pull all military forces out of the Persian Gulf area, immediately and forever, Crimson Jihad will rain fire on one major American city each week, until our demands are met. First, we will detonate one nuclear weapon on this uninhabited island as a demonstration of our power.”
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? (Image 36) Not only does it resemble al-Qaeda’s messages, but prefigures the way those messages have seeped into the post-9/11 popular imagination in TV shows like 24 and Sleeper Cell. The odd thing is that Salim Abu Aziz’s anti-imperialist message actually makes some sense and has a good bit of truth to it, but by casting him as a terrorist it implies that the evil of his methods must mean that his cause is unjust as well. In fact, this screenplay comes from James Cameron who wrote the jingoistic Rambo: First Blood Part II, an exploitation vehicle following the Vietnam War. Cameron cleverly dismisses any legitimate grievances from the Arab world by painting all Arabs as terrorists — so how could there be any merit to their claims that many in the Arab world, including Palestinians, are suffering? Instead, Cameron paints the United States as the underdog in this fight against terrorists and as the unquestioned vessel of freedom, justice and truth. The script progresses toward an unquestioned conclusion that the United States represents all that is good in the world and could never do anything to harm people around the rest of the world. Those who hate the U.S., then, must just be jealous. As if this point were not hammered home already, the film ends with Salim Abu Aziz chasing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s daughter up an industrial crane, threatening to throw her to her death if she doesn’t give him a detonation key to a nuclear bomb. In defiance, the daughter retorts,
“No way, you wacko!”
And under any circumstances, we never see images of Palestinians’ daily life under occupation, with lack of access to arable land and jobs. We never see the effects of living in walled-off cities like cages, quarantined from Israeli territory. As Shaheen protests,
“Is there an unwritten code in Hollywood saying we cannot and will not humanize Palestinians? Is not the life of a Palestinian child, media wise, Hollywood-wise, politically wise as humane, as valuable as the life of an Israeli child?”
The only good Arab…
So far I have been pointing out parallels between government policy and media portrayal, not identifying any planned collusion. Actually, many of the worst anti-Arab or anti-Islamic films produced by Hollywood have been made in conjunction with the Department of Defense. For example, Executive Decision, Death Before Dishonor, Black Hawk Down, Patriot Games, Navy Seals, Rules of Engagement, True Lies, and Iron Eagle are all films made with the assistance of the Deptarment of Defense, and all these blockbusters show U.S. soldiers gleefully killing Arabs. For example, the script of Iron Eagle has its protagonist, a teenage fighter pilot, pretty much deciding to blow up an Arab country just for the hell of it because, hey, when you’re in a cockpit and you don’t have to see who you’re slaughtering, killing becomes a lot easier. Or, in another case, in Navy Seals Charlie Sheen proudly announces after having mowed down a bunch of Arabs with a machine gun:
“Let’s go tag ‘em and bag ‘em.”
But the most appallingly racist of these films is Rules of Engagement (2000) written by former Secretary of the Navy and current conservative Democratic Senator from Virginia, James Webb. The script follow a platoon of marines led by Samuel L. Jackson who are assigned to evacuate the personnel at the U.S. embassy in Yemen, where there are massed protests outside from the civilian population. The marines end up opening fire on the protesters, slaughtering dozens, maybe hundreds, of civilians. Tommy Lee Jones plays the lawyer who investigates this atrocity and travels to Yemen to uncover the truth for himself. From all eyewitness accounts it sounds like the U.S. soldiers opened fired without any provocation on the crowd. Jones comes across a little girl on crutches who had her leg shot off during the massacre and follows her to a civilian hospital where scores of children lay dead or mutilated from the firefight. (Image 37-38) However, he also finds an audio tape there that says,
“To kill Americans and their allies both civil and military is the duty of every Muslim who is able.”
This is a turning point. From there on, the blame begins to shift from the marines to the victims. In fact, we find out that the Yemeni crowd fired first on the marines, forcing Samuel L. Jackson to give the order “Waste the motherfuckers!” to his troops, which began the carnage. (Image 39) And in one of the most horrific shots in Hollywood’s representation of the Arab world, we see that the little girl who lost her leg actually had a gun in her hand and was trying to kill U.S soldiers. (Image 40) Thus the film concludes that the marines were justified in mowing down civilians and it was even okay for them to mutilate the little girl because she’s a terrorist like the rest and got what was coming to her. It’s as if Webb and director William Friedkin are saying, never feel sympathy for the “the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses” in other countries because they could really be terrorists. So when Webb and Friedkin restage the massacre, they frame it is a victory. We see civilian women riddled with bullet holes and blood pouring out of their mouths, but for the writer and director that’s a good thing — they got what was coming to them. The narrative says that those who dare to stand up to U.S. imperialism should and will be brutally mowed down. As Shaheen describes this script’s ideological message:
“Why does this matter? Because the massacre of even women and children has been justified and applauded. It’s a slaughter, yes, but a righteous slaughter.”
Through the mutually-reinforcing relationship between U.S. foreign policy and Hollywood-produced images and in conjunction with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Americans sadly have come to fear and distrust Muslims and the Middle Eastern world. The United States’ war with Iraq began in 2003 but was surely facilitated by a century of negative images about Arabs in U.S. media. Clearly many people in the United States believe that only a small lunatic fringe of the entire worldwide Muslim population are involved in terrorism. However, after 9/11 when nineteen Arab-Muslim hijackers killed nearly 3,000 people, it has become much easier to generalize from that tiny fringe out to the whole, to fear the 1.3 billion Muslims around the world as possible terrorists. In his book, Shaheen points out dangerous it is to let the part represent the whole and that few in our culture think the Ku Klux Klan represents the feelings, beliefs, and actions of white people as a group or of Christians in general.
Thus, when Timothy McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building, we didn’t gather from that that all white, Christian people could be potential terrorists. So why is it so easy to label 1.3 billion Muslims as a “threat” or “terrorists,” based on the actions of the tiniest minority who really are terrorists? The likeliest answer is because Americans have been conditioned to believe that Muslims are terrorists based on the media’s repetition of fearmongering. The press did not analyze as an important factor McVeigh’s ethnic, religious, or geographical background, or even the fact that he had served in the U.S. military. And yet if it had been a Muslim responsible for the bombing, that would have been the first thing everyone would be talking about. In fact, initial news reports from the site at Oklahoma City even went so far as to posit the attack as likely the work of Middle Easterners. (Image 41) At the time, for example, Connie Chung cheerfully played into such stereotypes on CBS news:
“A US government source told CBS news that [the attack in Oklahoma City] has Middle Eastern terrorism written all over it.”
One government security expert even said,
“This attack was done with the intent to inflict as many casualties as possible. That is a Middle Eastern trait.”
Television profits from jingoistic shows like 24, The Unit, and Sleeper Cell. Particularly offensive, 24 repeatedly uses Arab villains within scripts that have a staunchly imperialistic worldview. (Image 42) The creator of the series is arch-conservative Joel Surnow who, when pressed in 2005 about the depiction of Arabs in the fourth season of 24, said:
“This is just being realistic. Muslims are the terrorists right now.”
Admittedly, the series has featured villains from many other backgrounds in the past including Serbians, Russians, Mexicans, U.S. companies, rogue U.S military officers, and even the President of the United States. However, Muslims have popped up most frequently on the series as the bad guys. Every season in which they have been featured, however, a controversy erupts; and Surnow attempts to posit a counter-narrative to defuse the situation. For instance, while Muslims are behind the plot to detonate a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles in season two of 24, we later learn that these figures are nothing more than pawns manipulated by U.S. neo-conservative politicians to make the Democratic administration of President David Palmer seem incapable of defending the country. By scripting the Muslim terrorists as pawns, Surnow seemingly lessens their villainy in comparison to Palmer’s rivals. In season six, Muslim terrorists do succeed in destroying Los Angeles with a nuclear bomb, but this time the creators of the show go to lengths to demonstrate the evils of blaming Muslims in general for the actions of a few. The storyline shows a Muslim civil rights attorney jailed just for his religion and the resulting suffering for him and his family. Also in this season’s storyline is a character named Assad, a former terrorist turned pacifist. His characterization indicates that within the Muslim world people of conscience fight against extremism from the inside (although the fact that Assad was once a terrorist is problematic). However, none of these concessions to liberal values can excuse the appalling resolution to the season’s Muslim-terrorist storyline: we see Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) hang his nemesis. Tantamount to a lynching, this season’s plot resolution establishes the racist undertones to the series’ repeated theme of “fighting terrorism” more clearly than anything its ever done before.
However, even more complex is the framing of Muslim characters in season four of the series. That season actually begins by suggesting that Arab Americans are likely terrorists, by depicting a middle-class, suburban Arab American family eating breakfast around the kitchen table while discussing plans to assassinate the President and nuke Los Angeles. This kind of plot works like Nazi propaganda fiction film did, like Jud Suss (1940) and Der Einige Jude that instilled fear that people’s Jewish neighbors might be working to establish a foothold in Germany for the Soviet Union.
Later in 24’s fourth season, a Muslim terrorist is driving to a rendezvous with his cell leader when his car is cornered by a gang of racist street thugs who want to beat him up or kill him just for being Muslim (because of their anger over the day’s terror attacks). In that moment, Surnow is setting us up to identify with the terrorist as underdog because he is one against many and he’s being discriminated against for being Muslim. The street thugs try to label him as a terrorist:
“Your name Muhammad? Ain’t that all you guys’ names?”
We can sense his fear and isolation in that moment and in fact sympathize for him as he’s standing up to these racists. But then we realize…oh…he is a terrorist. We’ve been following him for several episodes and seen him killing people and planning people’s deaths. The thugs are wrong in assuming he’s a terrorist just because he’s a Muslim, but their assumption is completely right. He is trying to nuke LA. This moment perfectly represents the push-pull struggle of contradictory ideological forces played out on 24, and why it’s been such a rich series for academics to study. In using this kind of plot development, Surnow is able to throw a bone to critics by saying on the one hand that racism is wrong and that people should never assume who’s a terrorist or not, while also completely validating the racists’ assumption, because that character is a terrorist. In the context of the morally bankrupt pragmatism of the whole series, it is clear that Surnow and the creators of 24 are siding with the racists, because even if politically incorrect thugs make life hell for many innocent people, if they catch even one real terrorist along the way, their xenophobia is justified.
Showtime’s Sleeper Cell also contributes to the fear-mongering, “raising the terror level,” look-over-your-shoulder zeitgeist. The Sleeper Cell series depicts a sinister network of Islamic companies and organizations acting as a front for terrorist activities. In this show, as in 24, not just any Arab is a threat, but the Arab Americans living behind a white picket fence next door could be plotting terror. The show goes out of its way to cast “American looking” actors in the roles of terrorists, suggesting that Muslim extremists could very well have infiltrated all aspects of our society. Therefore, your son’s Little League coach, a high school science teacher, or even the homeless man on the street corner could all be terrorists wishing our destruction. (Image 43)
Islamophobia has a special presence on religious television channels like TBN and EWTV which actually try to frame Islam as at war with Christianity. One common anti-Muslim ad on TBN utilizes the same voiceover heard in trailers for many Hollywood blockbusters. In his deepest, most menacing voice he narrates — as images of 9/11 flash by:
“Islam — a religion of over 2 billion people and growing by 50 million people per year. Almost every major terrorist network in the world is controlled by Islamic fundamentalists.”
It’s no wonder then that, as Shaheen points out,
“When innocent Arabs are killed, when they’re bombed, maimed, wounded, when they’re tortured in places like Abu Ghraib, is it really any surprise that we don’t feel any compassion? Or worse, make light of it.”
Indeed, in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, Rush Limbaugh and a caller went out of their way to make light of atrocity:
Caller: “This [Abu Ghraib] is no different than what happens at the Skull & Bones initiation and we’re going to ruin people’s lives over it and we’re going to hamper our military effort. You ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of the need to blow some steam off?”
Rush Limbaugh: “Well, it’s sort of like hazing, a fraternity prank, sort of like that kind of fun.”
Since 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims and more generally against people who appear Middle Eastern (whether they are or not) have surged dramatically. There’s no question that when somebody like Rush Limbaugh degrades the human dignity of a whole people, as he frequently does on his show, that the U.S. public will become more desensitized to suffering like that at Abu Ghraib. Furthermore, the sense of “otherness” people perceive about Arabs, based on media images and U.S. foreign policy, is in fact institutionalized by the United States government, if only through racial profiling at airports. And sadly some affected by this propaganda absorb it into their worldview and will even take it to the next level and act out violently against those seemingly « lesser » than them.
When Americans think of Arabs, or Muslims in general, what do we imagine? We may briefly think of white robed men wearing skull caps and “bundles-in-black” women completely covered from head to toe. Part of this reductiveness might come from the U.S. media’s short attention span. Just as policy and opinion must now be reduced to sound bites, letters to the editor reduced to Internet lingo, and feature-length articles reduced to little more than a headline, so too the media today usually require images that are instantly recognizable onscreen so as to gain the viewers’ attention immediately. We see it even in Presidential campaigns: complexity is shunned, substance ignored, branded images and slogans preferred. In May 2003, for example, mainstream U.S. reportage didn’t care that the war in Iraq was far from over when President Bush strutted around an aircraft carrier wearing a flight suit and declaring, “Mission accomplished.” The visual presentation of this moment, incredibly false though it was, was more marketable to an image-crazed public than any serious analysis of the progress in Iraq. More generally put, if CNN or FoxNews present a story about Islam or the Arab world, are they going to lead off with a trenchant analysis by a professor of Islamic history? Of course not, they’re more likely to show hundreds of white-robed men prostrating themselves before the Kaaba. That is the image that sells, that the U.S. public expects to see, because we’ve been trained by the news media to expect a certain image. (Image 44) In turn, the news media must now fulfill the public’s expectations for certain kinds of images, expectations that they created themselves.
Secular life in the Arab world does not appear in any detail or with any complexity in Western media, both television and film. We almost never see images of Arab women attending universities, working outside the home, or caring for their children. No, Arab women must always be presented as victims of a religion that seeks to keep them in their place. Certainly in parts of the Islamic world women have been treated poorly, and women’s rights are virtually nonexistent today in Saudi Arabia and were terrible under the Taliban in Afghanistan. But to compare the conditions women endured under the Taliban with the role of women in modern, cosmopolitan cities and states like Dubai, Qatar, Cairo or Bahrain, to name just a few, is nonsense and an insult to those women who are forced to endure true repression. In addition, Arab men do not appear in film in roles of loving husbands and fathers who care about their family’s welfare. Rather, Hollywood loves to depict the lascivious Arab man who lusts after blonde-haired Western women while treating his Arab wives terribly. Or he’s a stern, fundamentalist father who never gives his children love, only discipline, and teaches them to hate. Is any secular life in the Arab world ever portrayed in the news media or in films?
Interestingly, there is a highly diversified range of media production in the Middle East that is largely unknown here. For example, MTV has proven so popular throughout the Middle East that Viacom recently began broadcasting a specialty channel called MTV Arabia just for the Middle Eastern market. Female pop stars like Haifa Wehbe and Elissa from Lebanon have risen to mega stardom throughout the region through glamorous images, provocative lyrics, and suggestive, Madonna-inspired dance moves. (Image 45) To listen to the U.S. media one might think that freedom of expression is lacking in the Middle East, but how does that account for the popularity of talk shows, discussion panels, and call-in shows on Al-Jazeera? (Image 46)
Film is a massive part of cultural life throughout the Islamic world. Turkey has a thriving film industry that produces a huge variety of motion pictures, including Hollywood-style action thrillers, genre parodies (G.O.R.A.), transnational awards-bait for foreign consumption (Baba ve Oglum, Gegen die Wand) and serious art films (the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Zeki Demirkubuz). In fact, in Istanbul there are as many movie theaters as there are mosques. Egypt’s film industry has long been in dialogue with the west, even experiencing its own Neorealist movement in the 50s led by directors like Youssif Chahine. And in the eyes of many Western critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum and Dave Kehr, Iranian cinema is one of the freshest, most formally inventive in the world today with groundbreaking directors like Mohsen and Samira Makhmalhof, Ebrahim Golestan, and Abbas Kiarostami, whose films have lit up the festival circuit. But this rich secular life in the Islamic world remains ignored in the United States and in most Western media.
It’s a vicious, mutually-reinforcing cycle of production and reception, but not one that remains unchallenged. In fact, a number of Arab Americans have tried to diffuse these stereotypes, especially through comedy. In a way similar to that of many African Americans and Jewish comedians who re-appropriated stereotypes to debunk them, a number of Arab American comics have done the same. One of the more popular comedy specials on Comedy Central right now is the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, featuring comedians of Arab descent talking about their lives in relation to the stereotypical roles in which they’ve been cast. Part of this stand-up routine is also featured on the DVD of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). On that DVD, the funniest bit comes from a young Arab American stand-up comic Dean Obeidallah, who talks about how a convenience store cashier grilled him over the origins of his name when the cashier saw it on his I.D.
“That’s an Arabic name,” Obeidallah replied.
“Oh yeah, what Arab country does your family come from?” asked the cashier.
Wondering what Arab nation could sound the most benign, Obeidallah said, “We’re from the same country as Aladdin.” (Image 47)
Another comedian, Ahmed Ahmed, is interviewed on Shaheen’s Reel Bad Arabs DVD. Ahmed found comedy one of the few options open to him in the entertainment industry because every casting agent wanted to have him play a terrorist. He says that when he did once read for the part of a “Terrorist No. 4,” he decided to play the role as campy and over the top as possible. Since that was in fact how the director imagined Arabs, Ahmed got the part.
One possible goal and remedy for these kinds of representations would be to have Arabs and Arab Americans presented in films and in the newsmedia just as everyone else, no better and no worse. In feature film, a number of U.S. filmmakers have already taken it upon themselves to depart from these stereotypes. Andrew Davis’s A Perfect Murder (1998) features an Arab detective (David Suchet) who befriends the film’s heroine and helps her solve a crime. His ethnic identity is not ignored but it is not an issue, just as the ethnic identities of co-stars Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow are not an issue. Likewise, Rick Berman’s and Michael Piller’s superb television series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine featured a prominent character of Middle Eastern descent Dr. Julian Bashir, played by Alexander Siddig. Not once was Bashir’s ethnic background questioned, discussed, or made a point of contention. Rather, he was defined by his personality, skills, education, and friendships. (Image 48) Bashir was developed no differently from the white, African American, and Asian characters on the show (a series notable for its exceptional diversity, including Star Trek’s first black captain, Avery Brooks’ Captain Sisko). In a film set in Morocco, Gillies MacKinnon’s Hideous Kinky (1998), about a single mother (Kate Winslet) and her two daughters living in Morocco, presents its Moroccan characters as on a par with its Western characters. In particular, Winslet’s love affair with a Moroccan man is deeply moving, so that when she doesn’t have enough money to return to England, her lover makes great sacrifices to help her out, even though it means she will leave him.
David O. Russell’s satiric political featire, Three Kings (1999), develop characters and plot situations that represent the complexity of the Arab world. Focusing on the first Gulf War, Russell goes to great lengths to define the various political factions in Iraq at the time, including political dissidents who were imprisoned by Saddam Hussein, freedom fighters working to bring down the Ba’ath regime, and also pro-Saddam loyalists. Significantly, Shaheen served as a consultant on this film. [See Jump Cut 46, 2003, essay on this film.]
In an historical vein, Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005) takes an alternative view of the Crusades to develop as a plotline that human rights and freedom of religion were respected more under Muslim rule during the Middle Ages than under Christian rule in Western Europe. In particular, in Spain under the Moors, Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived in harmony, but once the Vatican’s Inquisition was established following the Christian reconquest of Spain…well, we know what happened. Likewise, under Saladin, the Arab general who ruled over much of the Holy Land during the 12th century, Christians, Jews, and Muslims were able to live together. In fact, Kingdom of Heaven ends as Saladin enters a church and sees a dislodged Christian icon (a cross), at which point he picks it up and replaces it on the altar, indicating his religious tolerance. In the film’s reception, audiences in Beirut watching that film actually cheered at that particular moment because it signified a reconciliation between Christians and Muslims which still has relevance, considering that Christians and Muslims have long lived together in peace in Lebanon. (Image 49)
Detailing the interrelations between current politics, international economics, and local cultural forces, Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana also tries to capture the complexities of the Arab world by showing not only terrorists but also a Western-educated Saudi prince (Alexander Siddig) who is working to bring democracy to his country. (Image 50) The film develops various aspects of the reality on the ground, exploring the pockets of extremism and terrorism across the Arab world, but it doesn’t try to act like that is the entirety of the Arab world.
Perhaps the best of these more « enlightened » films is Paradise Now by Hany Abu-Assad (2005) about two young Palestinian men who decide to become suicide bombers. The scripts shows their political involvement and decision as a symptom of bigger problems of poverty, statelessness, and religious fundamentalism. (Image 51) In the course of the film, the two men meet a Western-educated Palestinian human rights worker who adamantly opposes what they’re doing, causing the two men to question the justness of their cause. (Image 52) Such a plot doesn’t try to glorify suicide bombers or terrorism, but rather seeks to explore the desperation and displacement of logic required to consider something so horrific.
The fact that such films seek to debunk the myths of Arabland suggests that not only will some contemporary filmmakers question the validity of images inherited from the past but that audiences may be ready to challenge their own preconceptions as well. Already we are seeing many film and television productions that view the Iraq War and its aftermath critically, and the Internet makes many opposing views readily available. Regrettably, the continued U.S. imperialist presence in the Middle East will likely delay the rehabilitation of Arabs in the U.S. media, but it will not snuff out the possibility for it.
1. Dr. Jack Shaheen has written for many years about media stereotyping of ethnic groups and how these stereotypes can, and have, hurt innocents, whether they be blacks, Latinos, Jews, Native Americans, Asians, or Arabs. He considers himself to be a “committed internationalist and humanist.” Having grown up in Pittsburgh, PA, Dr. Shaheen holds degrees from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Missouri. His books include Nuclear War Films; Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture; The TV Arab; and Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. He has also contributed to Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, NPR, Nightline, Good Morning America, 48 Hours, and The Today Show. He has served as a consultant for Dreamworks, Showtime, Hanna-Barbera, and Warner Brothers and has worked on David O. Russell’s Three Kings and The Lucy Show. The DVD presentation of Reel Bad Arabs runs for 60 minutes and is directed by Sut Jhally.
3. Much of contemporary neoconservativism derives from ideas of Leo Strauss. Strauss was a formerly liberal professor of political science at The University of Chicago from 1949-1969 who rejected a progressive approach to politics after World War II, declaring that liberalism can only lead to relativism or nihilism and could facilitate the rise of the totalitarian extremes of fascism and communism. Instead, a return to traditional values wrapped around a nationalist mythology could restore a sense of national purpose that liberalism supposedly had undone. A new nationalism, however, would require an enemy against whom the national identity could be defined. This profoundly Manichean worldview would constantly pit the U.S. against a foreign (or sometimes even internal) threat. The Soviet Union was the most obvious antagonist for a good vs. evil pairing during the Cold War. This Manichean worldview would influence the Reagan administration’s hawkish attitude toward the Soviet Union since his administration would be the first to include many students of Leo Strauss including Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. International terrorism (particularly Al-Qaeda) has become the antagonist for this “us versus them” bifurcation since 9-11. See the BBC documentary series The Power of Nightmares for a more complete articulation of these ideas.
4. Sidney Lumet’s film The Pawnbroker (1965) is a notable recasting of the Jewish pawnbroker in a more sensitive role.
5. Saïd, Orientalism 11[GIVE COMPLETE BIBLIOGRAPHIC INFORMATION.]
Ebert, Roger. November 25, 1992 review of Disney’s Aladdin. Appeared in The Chicago Sun-Times. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/
Interview with William Montgomery Watt.
Edward W. Saïd, « Islam Through Western Eyes, » The Nation April 26, 1980, first posted online January 1, 1998, accessed December 5, 2005.
August 15th 2013
One of Sir Walter Scott’s creations has been much in the news lately: his country house at Abbotsford was formally reopened to the public by Her Majesty the Queen on 3 July 2013, following a £12 million restoration. Abbotsford looms large in recent accounts of Scott as (in Stuart Kelly’s phrase) “the man who invented a nation” — the Romantic Scotland of tartan-swathed Highlanders that still enthralls the popular imagination, two hundred years after Waverley and The Lady of the Lake. For much of the twentieth century critics and historians denounced “Scott-Land” as a garish anachronism, woven from a tissue of anachronisms, the fantastic fabric of an ancient nation draped over the real one. Abbotsford, Scott’s gas-lit “Conundrum Castle,” was its architectural confection, a misbegotten attempt at feudal revival in an industrial age. The relics with which the house is crammed (Rob Roy’s gun and sword, Prince Charlie’s quaigh, the door of “The Heart of Midlothian”) transform the object-world of Scottish history into a jumble sale of props from its author’s fiction.
Now that the Union is relaxing its grip on Scotland, the disavowal of Scott no longer seems a necessary rite of nationalist passage. A more tolerant, curious, even appreciative interest in his achievement is emerging, even if Abbotsford and other spectacular artefacts of the “invention of Scotland” (George IV’s 1822 state visit to Edinburgh, stage-managed by Scott; the Scott Monument on Princes Street) overshadow the poems and novels that made him the most famous author of the nineteenth century. Today, after a long hiatus in which those poems and novels dropped out of print, we are well placed to rediscover the originality — the imaginative audacity and experimental strangeness — that once took the Atlantic world by storm.
Scott was not most celebrated for his Scottish fictions, wildly popular though they were. The man who invented a nation didn’t stop at one but went on to give the English their idea of England too, in Ivanhoe, his glittering romance of the twelfth-century greenwood. Ivanhoe installed a myth of national origins that still conditions the popular idea of the Middle Ages: Robin Hood, the Black Knight, Richard the Lionheart, boozy monks, sinister Templars, they are all there. Some have found Scott’s medievalism as objectionable as his tartanry. Professional historians were quick to point out the novel’s errors and anachronisms, from details of costume and weaponry to its grand theme, the colonial antagonism between Normans and Saxons, and its pastiche of antique English, the most brilliant stylistic experiment in British fiction before Joyce’s Ulysses. But Ivanhoe is “A Romance,” as its subtitle promises, not a historical treatise. Its errors and anachronisms are knowing rather than symptomatic. They do creative and critical work.Take the Jews, Isaac and Rebecca, Scott’s treatment of whom disrupts the novel’s official story of the foundation of English upon a reconciliation between alien races. Triangulating the opposition between Saxon and Norman, the Jews dismantle it — revealing both as bloody-minded Anti-Semites. Scott makes Rebecca by far the most admirable character in Ivanhoe. She embodies chivalric and Christian virtues more convincingly than any of the novel’s warriors and clerics, even as she resists a series of attempts to convert her to Christianity. Scott dramatizes her resistance as principled, even heroic, an eloquent refusal of the universal history (of Christianity’s digestion of its Jewish heritage) that underwrites the national history of assimilation. At the close of the novel, Ivanhoe and his friends look forward to a happy domestic settlement, while Rebecca and her father prepare for an exile that will transport them not just in space but in time, three hundred years into the future, to the court of “Mohammed Boabdil, King of Granada” — Abu Abdallah Mahommed XII, last of the Nasrid Sultans, who surrendered his kingdom to the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. The Reconquista meant the final expulsion of the Jews from Spain as well as of Muslims who would not convert to the new order. Scott’s audacious anachronism reminds us that further cycles of dispossession await Rebecca and her people — a dispossession Scott’s readers should have recognized as reaching into their own historical present. At the same time, Rebecca speaks for an ecumenical ideal of tolerance and magnanimity that none of the Christians in Ivanhoe can live up to. Through her we glimpse another kind of history, one very different from the English destiny of compromise and settlement: a radically unsettled, unfinished history, of worldwide dispossession and wandering, but also of utopian aspiration and humanist hope — the products, it seems, of that very condition of dispossession and wandering.
The union that ends the novel seems smaller in every sense, lacking spiritual grandeur, than the sublime horizon that opens around Rebecca. Readers who wished Ivanhoe had married Rebecca rather than the fair Saxon Rowena, and rewrote the end of the novel to satisfy their preference, were not being perverse. Scott baits the end of his romance with a yearning that cannot be assuaged by any literal rewriting, since it occupies the gap between a universal ideal of human possibility and what a contingent, merely national history can afford. The most imaginative treatments of that yearning would be by George Eliot, who makes withheld unions — between Dorothea and Lydgate in Middlemarch, between the Christian Gwendolen and the Jew Daniel in Daniel Deronda — structurally central to her great novels of the 1870s. As for the gap: wishing, Scott’s novel insists, will never close it.