19. Jamie Farr has set the acting standard for exaggerated portrayal of Arabs. “Have you ever considered joining a harem?” is the line given him when he meets a bunch of blonde, white women, reinforcing the notion that Arab men are not only lascivious, but are particularly lustful after white women.

20. The obnoxious Mr. Habib shouts gibberish (intended to sound like Arabic) telling his submissive wife to shut up in Father of the Bride Part II.

21. Recalling the Jewish pawnbroker stereotype, Mr. Habib extorts $100,000 from Steve Martin’s character, or else he will destroy Martin's home.

22. Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future recycles the same old stereotypes from the past with its depiction of an Arab terrorist menacing the film’s heroes.

23. The terrorist even shoots down Christopher Lloyd’s mad scientist. Why would an Arab terrorist appear in a film that has nothing to do with the Middle East? The script goes out of its way to include a stereotype in a setting where it doesn’t even make sense.

24. Hollywood casts Arab women as either objects of eroticized spectacle, submissive “bundles in black” treated horribly by men, or psychotic terrorists.

25. A belly-dancer tries to entice Kirk Douglas in Cast a Giant Shadow.

26. When an Arab woman actually has agency, however, she’s a psychotic terrorist, killing people with glee.

27. Showing them as killing with cold-blooded efficiency, Hollywood suggests that when Arab women are liberated, they must naturally become killers.

28. Bundles in black.

29. The sultan may be fantastically wealthy, but he craves Western respectability in Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He negotiates with the Nazis for a Rolls-Royce.

30. Anti-Semitic propaganda disseminated by the Nazis in the 1930s.

31. Jud Suss (1940), an anti-Semitic film produced in Nazi Germany.

32. The female Arab terrorist in Death Before Dishonor prepares to sink a power drill into the hand of a U.S. army colonel. This shot takes the POV of the victim, so as to maximize our identification with his pain.

33. The U.S. army officer writhes in agony as the power drill bites into his flesh.

34. Hell Squad, a regiment of Vegas showgirls, trains to fight Arabs in the desert in Cannon Pictures’ Hell Squad.

35. The Hell Squad trounce their Arab foes.

36. In James Cameron’s jingoistic True Lies (1994), terrorist Salim Abu Aziz of Crimson Jihad delivers a video-taped threat to the American people, eerily foretelling Osama bin Laden’s tapes post-9/11.



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 has 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.” [6][open endnotes in new window]

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?”

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