Hollywood’s Demonization of Arabs
by Jack G. Shaheen, Ph.D.
On March 19, 1996, only four days after the release of the film, Executive Decision, employees of a Denver radio station burst into a mosque and began harassing worshippers. The station broadcast the incident live. One DJ played the national anthem on a trumpet; another donned a mock turban and a Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf T-shirt. For a time, Denver’s Abdul-Rauf did not stand when the national anthem was played, (although Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston’s Muslim basketball star, always does).
As a result of Hollywood’s grotesque Muslim caricatures, we continue painting Muslims with the same negative brush. Hollywood regularly churns out images of Muslims as dark, dense fanatics warranting extermination. There is a commanding link between hurtful screen images and reality. Apparently the stereotype prompted the DJ’s to believe all of America’s seven million Muslims are not like us. Would a group of DJ’s burst into a synagogue and taunt Jews, or rush into St. Patrick’s Cathedral and mock Catholics?
Since the April, 1995, bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City (by non-Arabs, as it turns out), eight mosques have been vandalized, burnt to the ground. Make no mistake! Media merchants are accountable, in part, for the 200-plus hate crimes directed at America’s Arabs and Muslims this past year.
Between March 17 to 27, Decision was the second highest grossing film in the U.S. market. At the screening I attended, audiences whistled, clapped and applauded when Americans terminated gun-toting Palestinians. Consider Decision’s plot:
Nagi Hassan (David Suchet) and his accomplices hijack a 747 plane with 406 passengers aboard, en route to Washington, D.C. Nagi’s Palestinian Muslim terrorists intend to drop enough lethal nerve gas to kill everyone on the Eastern seaboard.
Throughout, violence is equated with the Holy Koran. Villains chant “Alla hu Akbar” (God is Most Great). Holding the Holy Koran in one hand and a bomb in another, a Palestinian enters London’s swank Marriott Hotel, blowing up scores. And prior to killing passengers, a Muslim prays, then shouts, “It’s the sword of Islam…sent to deliver a blow to the belly of the infidel.”
The emphasis in Islam, as in other religions, is on living righteously and justly. Yet, producers regularly practice a double standard, discrediting Muslims. Hollywood does not show Christians and Jews at prayer, screaming verses from holy books; they do not hold a Bible/Torah in one hand and toss bombs with the other.
One reason why executives continue churning out “Let’s-kill-them” movies is that box office registers ring. What they fail to grasp is that substantial profits are obtainable when movies feature balanced portraits and generic villains. Stereotypes are not benign. Hollywood’s continued demonization of Arabs and Muslims incite hatreds, prompting viewers to loathe them. Like a flame, once lit, a caricature ravages everyone in its path.
Sadly, even talk-show host Larry King fails to see the harm of relentless caricatures; King said Decision was a “terrific movie,” an “edge-of-the-seat, thinking person’s thriller.”
Asked to edit offending parts from Decision, Warner Brothers said it was “too late.” Within two weeks, however, a spokesperson said the studio is making “eight changes” for Decision’s video and television release. Additionally, the studio agreed to consult with Arab-Americans on future films. All of the offending elements in the film mentioned above are still in place in the version currently being played on TV. But unless the “changes” on the video were to show Decision’s villains as non-Muslim terrorists, the edits would be meaningless anyway.
Attempts to alter harmful images are not encouraging. In 1990, Arab-American and Muslim groups protested ghastly desert sheikh images in NBC-TV’s soap Santa Barbara. In 1992, Disney Studios ridiculed Arabs in Aladdin. One year later, Disney demonized Arabs again in The Return of Jafar. In 1994, Muslims appeared as sub-humans in Twentieth Century Fox’s True Lies. And in 1995, Disney struck again, revealing a slovenly American-Arab couple in Father of the Bride, Part II.(see “Reel Racism: Father of the Bride, Part II,” Habibi, Vol. 15, No. 1, Page 27)
After Aladdin, Disney promised American-Arabs they would present positive images. And following Santa Barbara, NBC- TV admitted they had been “resensitized.” Yet, to date, no studio or network consults with Muslim-American specialists. Also, no industry executives speak out against the cycle of despicable images. And no studio projects Muslims that viewers respect. Thus, the abuse caused by harmful caricatures, the destruction of mosques and hate crimes, continues.
The question remains: When will ethical image-makers embrace fairness and begin portraying Muslims and Arabs as they do other peoples? Substantive changes will occur only when fantasy fabricators sincerely commit themselves to presenting stories which expose and debunk ugly caricatures, as well as stories featuring heroic and humane Arabs and Muslims. When this happens, Hollywood’s “dirty little secret,” that it is okay to demonize Arabs and Muslims, will be no more. And viewers, especially America’s Arabs and Muslims, will at long last be able to take their children and grandchildren to the movies without fear or shame.
Jack G. Shaheen, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of mass communications at Southern Illinois University. He is author of The TV Arab (See “In Search of the Arabs, Habibi, Vol. 14, No. 4, p. 10-11), and is working on several other books. He is currently a CBS News consultant on Middle East Affairs, and lectures extensively on the subject of shattering stereotypes.