Interesting account of a documentary on the demonization of Arabs in American films. It’s in fact the actions of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination League against True Lies in 1994 that first tipped me off to the problem of demopathy. They could get people to demonstrate against portraying the Arabs as terrorists, but when Arabs behaved as terrorists — for example the Buenos Aires bombing of the Jewish Community Center three days after these demonstrations — brought not a peep.
My sense is, that when you insist that we shouldn’t show Arabs as terrorists because it stereotypes them, but you don’t object loudly to Arab terrorists, then you are just throwing sand in our eyes.
Cast of Villains
‘Reel Bad Arabs’ Takes on Hollywood Stereotyping
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 23, 2007; Page C01
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.
Arabs aren’t always vilified in the movies. In “Lawrence of Arabia,” Omar Sharif, right, appeared as Sherif Ali with Peter O’Toole.
As the documentary “Reel Bad Arabs” demonstrates, individuals of Middle Eastern descent often are portrayed as villans in the movies and on television.
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!'”
And he couldn’t be? Those polls indicate an alarming number of people who are our next door neighbors and approve of terrorism. Weren’t the fellows who did 7-7 the Brits’ next door neighbors?
And if Arab-Americans want us to trust them, shouldn’t they work on denouncing these kinds folks, rather than denouncing the movies that show those possibilities?
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 womens!), then they are basically your bug-eyed hijacker-bomber.
Even the evil “24” shows more interesting Arab women than that…
“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.
Somewhat like Norton talking about Hamas, Shaheen apparently has difficulty raising the issue of terrorism. No single factor led to the depiction of Arabs as terrorists in American movies than Arab terrorism (which appears in Shaheen’s list as “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”)… like Munich, 1972.
“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.”
When Abdullah’s got the courage to denounce and fight the Arab terrorists — as some of the Arabs on “24” do — then I’m for the program. Until then, Americans have every reason to be concerned about Arab terrorists.
As for the overall thesis, this is a real exercise in trying to control our perceptions by controlling virtual reality. The best thing the Arab-American community can do today to change American perceptions of them is to show some civic courage, like the M. Zuhdi Jasser.
As for Mr. Shaheen, he’s been doing his thing for a long time. Here’s some exerpts from a long and extremely interesting review of the “Hollywood stereotypes Arabs” complaint from 2001 (before 9-11).
Arabs, Islam and Hollywood
By Daniel Mandel
1. Islamist violence is distorted and Arabs and Muslims unfairly singled out. Salam al-Marayati, director of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) has asserted that State Department figures on global terrorism indicate that terrorist acts in Columbia “far outnumbered” similar incidents in the Middle East.
2. Islamist terrorism is invented. According to Jack G. Shaheen, a professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University and a leading writer on this subject, “lurid and insidious depictions” of Arabs are “staple fare” but more accurately reflect the “bias of western reporters and image makers” than Muslim realities. Marayati also contends that, because the CIA once trained Afghani insurgents-turned-terrorists and America’s worst terrorist, Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, was Caucasian, Arab and Muslim terrorism is apparently a fantasy concocted by movie-makers.
3. Arabs and Muslims seldom appear in sympathetic roles. Conversely, Shaheen argues that Arabs and Muslims rarely appear as sympathetic, mainstream characters but, on the contrary, turn up almost exclusively as fanatical, homicidal terrorists “who issue fatwas, or burn Uncle Sam in effigy”.
Why does Hollywood engage in these alleged practices? Essentially, critics offer two reasons, both conspiracist in nature, relating to either the US government or alleged Jewish control over the media.
1. Hollywood furthers US government policies. Discussing the US media, John Esposito contends that portraits of Islam are generated by national-security paranoia, just as were US depictions of the communist movement during the Cold War.
Edward Said, university professor at Columbia, finds that Muslims and Arabs “are essentially covered, discussed, apprehended, either as oil suppliers or as potential terrorists.” Rather than provide “the human density” of their lives, “a limited series of crude, essentialised caricatures of the Islamic world [are] presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.”
2. Hollywood furthers Zionist policies. Critics like Said assert that Hollywood, in depicting Arab and Islamist terrorism, is guilty of Islamophobia and anti-Arab animus, generated for the deliberate purpose of bolstering Israel, reducing representations of Palestinians to “the mad Islamic zealot, the gratuitously violent killer of innocents, the desperately irrational and savage primitive.”
In the Middle East, this thesis is more unbuttoned, assuming an openly antisemitic character, as in this analysis by Tariq ‘Atiya in Al-Ahram, Egypt’s leading newspaper:
It’s the Jews who invented and remain in charge of Hollywood. They are also a force to be reckoned with in US policy-making. And they are using exactly the same techniques that were used against them in Europe to attack Muslims … Hollywood increasingly acts as a curtain raiser, using the supposed make-believe of the screen to prepare people for unpalatable realities, so that people will not be too shocked when the same thing suddenly begins to happen for real.
Mandel then analyzes a number of movies, including True Lies and Executive Decision. He then comes to an important exception to the rule, which illustrates the problem with the critics: nothing will satisfy them.
Despite their weaknesses, such critiques have nonetheless had an impact, as can be seen in The Siege (Twentieth Century Fox, 1998). Director Edward Zwick was clearly persuaded that Muslims and Arabs deserved sympathetic portrayal in a story dealing with Middle Eastern terrorism. An unexceptionable goal, no doubt; but what were the results and what was the reaction from Islamist groups? [snip…]
The makers of The Siege went to considerable lengths, consulting Muslim-American and Arab-American organisations in the process, to head off any implication that Muslim- and Arab-Americans are complicit in or sympathetic to the crimes of an Islamist fringe. First, they carefully emphasized Arab-American loyalty to the United States. Immediately following the first bombing, Hubbard tells his FBI task force that they have the “complete support and co-operation” of Arab Americans. A dignified representative of an Arab defence agency is seen declaring, “Whatever injustices my people may be suffering at this very difficult moment, we will continue to show our commitment to this country.”
Secondly, Palestinian nationalists are differentiated from terrorists. Kraft, the film’s heroine, tells Hubbard that her first boyfriend was a Palestinian and that she regards Palestinians as “these incredibly warm, hospitable people living in this horrible place.” When Hubbard queries, “But yet you work against them?” she replies: “Only the crazies. I tend to be suspicious of all true believers.”
Thirdly, the story boasts a significant Arab character who is sympathetically developed: Hubbard’s trusted FBI colleague Frank Haddad (Tony Shaloub), a Lebanese-American. Haddad is so traumatized by Devereux’s mass arrest of New York’s young Arab males, including his own son that, in a dramatic scene, he throws away his FBI badge and asks Hubbard to intern him along with the others.
Fourthly, the film is implicitly critical of aspects of American Middle East policy. It emerges that the Iraqi sheikh, captured by Devereux’s men at the start of the film, had been an erstwhile anti-Saddam ally to whom support had been cut off in a sudden tergiversation of policy. The true terrorist, Samir, and others trained for subversion against Saddam Hussein, now direct their skills against the United States. In short, the film places at least partial blame for Islamist terrorism on the United States, almost to the point of echoing the idea posited by certain French intellectuals that Washington is the creator of Islamism.
Here, surely, was a story crafted to ensure that Muslims and Arabs are differentiated from the terrorists and extremists among them. Overall, to the extent that any group is shown in a negative light in The Siege, it is the US military and policy elite. Moreover, the idea that public hysteria and militarist temptation can subvert the United States and victimize Arabs is a prominent theme of the story.
For all these efforts, the end product pleased Muslim- and Arab-American sensibilities little more than had True Lies and Executive Decision. CAIR executive director Nihad Awad stated, “We acknowledge the intent of the film’s producers . . . But the barrage of negative or stereotypical portrayals of Muslims in this film will overpower any positive message.”
CAIR was not alone in its criticism. Shaheen contends that The Siege “not only reinforces historically damaging stereotypes, but also advances a dangerously generalized portrayal of Arabs as rabidly anti-American.” More pungently, ‘Atiya – who admits to having only seen the film’s trailer – criticises The Siege as indicative of “Hollywood’s shift into Islamophobia overdrive” and (consistent with his Jewish-conspiracy theory of Hollywood) claims that the film must be understood as “propaganda for an actual forthcoming ‘siege’ of Arab and Muslim Americans.”
Such maligning of a worthy, if cloyingly self-conscious, attempt to mollify Muslim and Arab concerns suggests that the very subject of Palestinian, Arab, or Islamist terrorism, or the state support of terrorism by Middle Eastern governments, is in and of itself taboo. This stance ranges far beyond the ostensible effort to establish that Muslim- and Arab-Americans are respectable and diverse people, most of whom thoroughly disapprove of terrorism. [snip…]
The unhappiness of critics with The Siege reflects a larger problem that appears also in complaints about newsmedia bias. Nothing satisfies short of sycophancy. This is where the remarks from groups like NPR become facetious at best: “If we’re being criticized by both sides, we must be doing something right.” But nothing short of everything will get you complaints from the Arab side; on the Israeli side, the tolerance for criticism, indeed the engagement in self-criticism, is pretty strong.
Mandel concludes after analyzing several more movies with the following:
Muslims and Arabs are not singled out. Hollywood action films deal heavily in stereotypes because the art of storytelling depends in large part on the success with which protagonists and antagonists are evoked. This requires verisimilitude. Inevitably, those who are portrayed in stereotypical fashion are unhappy with the results. If there have been twenty-two films since 1986 that depict American forces engaged in hostilities with Arabs, there have been many more films over the years depicting Italian mafias and gangsters, a portrayal Italian Americans have long protested. Muslims and Arabs are not uniquely singled out, either with malign deliberation or ignorant carelessness, for unfavourable treatment.
Action film characters are psychologically shallow. This genre of movie is called “action” precisely because action and spectacle override all other considerations, such as character development or social commentary. Action films have their virtues, but a profound dissection of politics, culture, and psychology is not among them. It is untenable to expect this genre to undergo a qualitative revolution that does away with stereotypes. It is not coincidental that Three Kings, alone of the films considered, possesses intellectual depth. As a black comedy, rather than an action-thriller, it invites social and political commentary.
The subject matter of action films is factually derived. Action films must reflect realities with which the viewing audience is familiar. Because terrorism against Americans is carried out by Muslims and Arabs, there is a basic truth to the movies that gives these stories the authenticity that allow viewers to suspend disbelief. By analogy, there do exist organized-crime organisations centred around certain Italian-American clans. To that extent, the use of identifiably Italian characters as organized-crime figures is also grounded in reality and is thus fair game for Hollywood.
Accordingly, objections to the effect that Hollywood could not get away with substituting blacks or Jews in these movies’ hateful roles miss the point. There are simply no Jewish versions of Osama bin Laden or black versions of Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman. Should there ever be, we are likely to see their fictionalized counterparts in Hollywood movies. The genuine question—does Hollywood ignore other ethnically based terrorist and criminal groups? — can be answered in the negative. Kazakhstani and Russian nationalist terrorists and mafias, for example, appear in such recent films as Wolfgang Petersen’s Airforce One (Columbia Pictures, 1997) and Phillip Noyce’s The Saint (Paramount, 1997).
Arabs and Muslims infrequently appear in sympathetic roles: This complaint has a much firmer basis. The solution to the problem should be readily available: to see the reality of a diverse and respectable Arab American and Muslim community reflected in film. But this is different from attempting to censor the depiction of Arab and Islamist terrorism, which is also a reality. Yet the fact remains that, to date, there have been very few films featuring sympathetic Arab or Muslim characters. Such characters as appear tend to be unpleasant people or figures of ridicule. For example, Charles Shyer’s Father of the Bride II (Touchstone Pictures, 1995) depicts an uncongenial, excitable, and crass Mr. Habib (Eugene Levy), the neighbour of the film’s protagonists, George and Nina Banks (Steve Martin and Diane Keaton).
Films that present an Arab in a sympathetic lead-role, like Daisy von Scherler Mayer’s Party Girl (First Look Pictures, 1995) which features Mustafa (Omar Townsend), a Lebanese schoolteacher, as the romantic lead, are praiseworthy but uncommon. Criticism aimed at rectifying this situation is justified.
Hollywood stereotypes do not amount to defamation. Pleas “to explore” and provide “explanation” of terrorist motivations are in effect a shorthand for demanding radically self-critical Western introspection and acceptance at face value of Islamist apologia. Accordingly, an assertion that Hollywood has a duty to depict Islamist terrorism in a sympathetic light amounts to something much larger than a plea for cultural and intellectual sensitivity.
Are Hollywood’s depictions of Islamist terrorism disproportionate, as alleged by Marayati? Is the relevant question “How many Hollywood Italians are involved in organized crime?” Or “How many organized-crime figures depicted by Hollywood are noticeably Italian?” Ethnic groups tend to focus on the first question, because their concern is to secure a favourable portrayal of their group. But that is not the job of a screenwriter. If major organized-crime families have arisen among other ethnic groups, and if Hollywood screenwriters persist in portraying all organized-crime figures as Italian, then they can indeed be accused of laziness and using out-dated stereotypes. Marayati’s use of State Department statistics on global terrorism implies that the distortion is of this second, relevant kind. But these figures by themselves cannot indicate what proportion of anti-American deaths emanate from Arab or Islamist groups. Closer inspection of State Department figures indicate that, for the four-year period 1996-99, of the 48 Americans who died in terrorist attacks, 42 of them lost their lives in attacks carried out by Muslim or Arab terrorists. Movie-going audiences are most familiar with these often spectacular and well-reported attacks, and this is reflected in action films.
Sinister motivations do not underlie depictions of Arab and Islamist terrorism. Assertions of national security paranoia derive from a belief in a campaign of government manipulation that involves integrating imagined threats into the genres of popular culture such as action movies.
As we have seen, Hollywood reflects the perceptions and anxieties of the times and realities familiar to its mass audience, of which Arab and Muslim terrorism aimed at the West is one. Conspiracy theories that view Hollywood as a virtual public relations division of the State Department are unsustainable, as are the more extreme variations on this theme that amount to an accusation of a malign Jewish conspiracy far more sinister than any depiction of Muslims and Arabs in the cinema.
Campaigns based on such conspiracist thinking should be revealed as politically motivated attempts to manipulate American pluralist sensitivities in the service of an essentially illiberal endeavour. Specifically, attempts to smear an ethnic or religious group (namely, Jews) as the originators of an alleged campaign of institutionalized racism perpetrated with a view to consolidating a supposedly paranoid foreign policy is itself an assault on democratic values, a first instalment in the quest to delegitimise Jews as citizens.