The Israel/Palestine Conflict in Popular Culture

Will Hollywood stop Arab-bashing?

Jack Shaheen, a former CBS News consultant on Mideast affairs, is the author of “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People” (2001). A resident of Hilton Head, SC, he lectures frequently on the power of film to influence perception and public policy.

By Jack Shaheen
Los Angeles Times
April 21, 2003

For far too long, Hollywood has played a paradoxically hidden role in paving the way to America’s war now winding down in Iraq. We first went to war with Iraq in 1943, with a movie called “Adventure in Iraq.” It depicted an American soldier’s “shock and awe” bombing of what the screenplay called that Arab country’s “devil worshipers.” (The Arab characters were mostly played by Anglos.)

“Adventure in Iraq” was nothing new. For most of the past century, Hollywood has been conditioning audiences worldwide to internalize the defamatory message that Arabs and, by extension, all Muslims are unrelenting enemies of Western values. Major studios shortsightedly but with increasing momentum have dedicated themselves to producing films and TV programs that featured overt anti-Arab propaganda.

What remains to be seen is whether Hollywood, misled by America’s swift ousting of Saddam Hussein, will misconstrue our victory as a renewed license to continue its ultimately suicidal barrage or get the real message in time to mend its ways.

When did you last see a movie or TV show depicting an Arab or Arab American as a regular guy? Less often than you’d encounter a tsunami in the Sahara.

This stereotype endures because of politics, indifference and, of course, greed.

Evil and the fear of evil are a mix that translates into boffo box office. The mix leads producers to exploit the Arab stereotype for profit by feeding moviegoers a steady diet of Arabs as mangy primitives.

Then there’s politics. Since the 1940s, our leaders have supported pro-Israeli positions. TV entertainment shows and movies almost always make it clear that an Israeli’s life is worth more than an Arab’s, especially a Palestinian Arab’s. How often have you seen Palestinian aggressors killing Israeli civilians? But have you ever seen a movie showing Israeli settlers or soldiers gunning down Palestinian civilians?

Like movies, American TV news reports also focus selectively on a small minority of radicals who chant “Death to America!” as they burn Uncle Sam in effigy. These Arab and Muslim villain images gratuitously equate 1.2 billion people as clones or mindless utensils of Ayatollah Khomeini, Moammar Kadafi, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Fair play?

Violent news reports of extremists keep driving home the myth: Most Arabs are evil. Such deliberate distortions provide all the excuses image-makers eager to exploit the issue need to ratchet up their Arab-bashing.

Since 9/11, TV producers have saturated viewers with Arab blackguards; they prowl law enforcement, intelligence agency and courtroom dramas: “The West Wing,” “JAG,” “The Agency,” “Law & Order,” “Judging Amy,” “The Practice” and the TV movie “The President’s Man: A Line in the Sand.”

TV producers keep deep-sixing another reality: Americans of Arab heritage and American Muslims — all 9 million of us, from physicians to female police officers — are as courageous, as patriotic, as our neighbors, and every bit as intent on wiping out terrorism. But today, the networks are vilifying us by winking that we could all be a threat to our nation. Regardless of our roots, faith or skin color, whether we’re home-grown citizens or newcomers, producers are having a field day projecting Americans of Arab heritage and American Muslims as disloyal thugs and terrorist traitors waging a holy war against our neighbors.

Yet these TV shows give prejudice a free pass when attacks on mosques, harassment in schools, physical violence, loss of jobs, rude profiling at airports, even arrest and imprisonment in violation of civil rights are increasingly the daily experience of Arab and Muslim Americans.

Meanwhile, in more than 100 nations every day, viewers see American movie stars — Arnold Schwarzenegger (“True Lies”), Samuel L. Jackson (“Rules of Engagement”), Kurt Russell (“Executive Decision”) and others — blowing Arabs to smithereens.

Now that Iraqis are liberated from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, will Hollywood continue to relentlessly denigrate an entire people? Will movie-makers reawaken existing stereotypes? Or will they instead shatter them by projecting films that make us care genuinely about “those people” with whom we share this planet?

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