37. The U.S. military unleashes unspeakable carnage against Yemeni civilians in Rules of Engagement, written by the current conservative Democratic Senator from Virginia, James Webb.

38. A sad victim of the massacre, the little girl becomes a receptacle for our sympathy.

39. “Waste the motherfuckers!” Samuel L. Jackson’s platoon leader cries, beginning the massacre.

40. The victim becomes the murderer. Webb’s script develops the little girl for whom we felt sympathy as, in fact, acting with the crowd shooting at U.S. soldiers. The plot chastises viewers' for feeling sympathy for her since it indicates she got what she deserved when she lost her leg.

40a. The audience is encouraged to applaud the U.S. soldiers’ massacre of Yemeni civilians and revel in the graphic, brutal nature of the carnage.

41. The reportage after the Oklahoma City bombings assumed this must be the work of Middle Eastern terrorists.

42. Jack Bauer, terrorist-fighter extraordinaire: 24 has pandered to post-9/11 fearmongering, going so far as to suggest that Arab American families in suburbia may actually be plotting terrorism around the breakfast table.

43. In the paranoid world of Showtime’s Sleeper Cell, even the homeless man on the street may be secretly working for Arab terrorists.

44. Defining the Arab world as being wholly religious, U.S. media often use reductive images such as this, with men wearing white robes, skull caps and bowing before the Kaaba.

45. Haifa Wehbe is a Lebanese pop star whose provocative lyrics and suggestive dance moves defy the image of the submissive, covered-up Arab woman. And yet you can never see her in the mainstream media because she confounds easily digested stereotypes.

46. Likewise, female-oriented talk shows are very popular on Al-Jazeera. The participation of women in Arab media is something you’ll never see reported in the United States.

47. Comedian Dean Obeidallah confounds cultural reductionism through comedy.

48. Dr. Julian Bashir, played by Alexander Siddig on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, is a notable exception to the absence of Arab characters on U.S. television. Bashir is never defined by his ethnicity, but rather by his friendships, personality, skills, experiences, and education. The series' casting is notable for its ethnic diversity.

49. Saladin replaces a dislodged crucifix at a Christian church at the end of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, symbolizing peace and reconciliation between Christians and Muslims.

50. Alexander Siddig plays a well-educated Saudi prince in Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana. The politically oriented plot indicates that the prince's efforts to institute reform and bring liberalism to his country are stymied by his government’s obligations to U.S. companies.

51. Paradise Now is the story of two Palestinian suicide bombers preparing for their one-way mission. The film is notable for advocating the justness of the Palestinian cause while also condemning terrorism

52. Paradise Now: the potential bombers come to question the rightness of their cause.

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.

Getting real

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.

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