Arab Bashing on the Big Screen


Jack G. Shaheen is the leading scourge of anti-Arab media bias. A professor emeritus of mass communications at Southern Illinois University, he has for many years conducted what might be called a crusade against odious stereotypes of his people as lecherous, avaricious and violent. In 2001’s Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (2001), Shaheen examined more than 950 Hollywood feature films and concluded that only 12 portrayed Arabs positively. His new book is a sequel, an analysis of the same topic after September 11, 2001, when Arab terrorists attacked the United States. To update his study, Shaheen viewed films produced since 9/11. Although he finds that 29 of these present favorable images of Arabs, he concludes that “The total number of films that defile Arabs now exceeds 1,150.”

Since movies shape perceptions, and perceptions influence actions, it is not unreasonable to charge Hollywood with complicity in the Bush administration’s disastrous occupation of Iraq. It was easy for American moviegoers to acquiesce in assaults against people who had already been dehumanized. Repeated representation of Arabs as the treacherous “other” made the grotesque images generated in Abu Ghraib seem inevitable. It is as if movies such as True Lies (1994) and Rules of Engagement (2000), in which valiant Americans mow down evil Arabs, gave license to prison guards to photograph their own transgressions against Iraqis. Within the United States, celluloid bigotry also created an environment in which malicious rhetoric, discriminatory behavior and hate crimes can flourish. Filmmakers now think twice before maligning blacks, Latinos, Asians, American Indians and gays, but Arabs remain convenient fiends. Those who create monsters feel obliged to slay them.

Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11 begins inauspiciously, with the dubious assertion that “Arabs remain the most maligned group in the history of Hollywood.” Ranking victims by extent of injury is a mugger’s game, and Shaheen, who offers no statistical evidence to support his claim, underestimates the damage done to communities other than his own. At the very least, he ignores an abundant and popular genre, the Western, that for most of the 20th century was stocked with indigenous foils to triumphant cowboys and cavalries.

Guilty: Hollywood's Verdict on Arabs After 9/11

Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs After 9/11

The American media does tend to portray Arabs as homogeneous and Muslim, and Shaheen reminds us that not all Arabs are Muslim and not all Muslims are Arab. He notes that most of America’s 3 million Arabs are Christian, like him. Nevertheless, he devotes considerable space to discussing slurs against Muslims and relations among the Abrahamic faiths, and includes detailed discussion of films that lack Arabs entirely. He faults one, a Bruce Willis action flick called Tears of the Sun (2003), for promoting Islamophobia-though its villainous Muslims are all Nigerian. He praises Alex Gibney’s documentary Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) for countering stereotypes that are “adversely affecting real Arab-American cab drivers,” yet the innocent cab driver who is tortured to death in the film is Afghan, not Arab.

Six years into a costly war fought on Arab soil, one might expect American media to demonize the enemy, rationalizing the necessity of killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. But perhaps because of popular revulsion at the war, Shaheen finds cause for hope. “Even though the majority of post-9/11 films do, in fact, vilify a people,” he writes, “I am somewhat encouraged to report that since 9/11, silver screens have displayed, at times, more complex, evenhanded Arab portraits than I have seen in the past. Some producers did not dehumanize Arabs, and instead presented decent, heroic characters-champions, even, in several films. Not all women were displayed as submissive clad-in-black objects. Nor were all Palestinians and Egyptians uniformly depicted as crazed radicals.”

Shaheen does suggest that the worst films have gotten more vicious, and that television, the focus of his 1984 book The TV Arab, has deteriorated even more.Shaheen nominates the urban crime drama Two Degrees (2001) as “the most detestable post-9/11 film.” The film, which did not linger long in theaters, pits African-American hoodlums against two Arab-American brothers who own a liquor store in South Central Los Angeles. The brothers are so loathsome they almost deserve it when they’re called “towel-head motherfuckers.”

Digging through all this bigoted muck is arduous, odious work, and no one could envy Shaheen his task. Perhaps not coincidentally, most of the works he examines seem to have earned opprobrium not merely because they are racist but also because they are wretched specimens of cinematic art. Fatwa (2006), a low-budget production that “shows a crazed Arab-Muslim cab driver from Libya killing Americans, including a US senator,” merits the same attention that a cockfight receives from an animal cruelty officer. Conversely, the presence of positive Arab figures does not suffice to make a masterpiece. Shaheen praises Young Black Stallion (2003) for its two protagonists, “a loveable Arab teenager, Neera and her wise, benevolent grandfather, Ben Ishak,” but he concedes that “the 45-minute movie is boring, poorly written, and shabbily produced.”

Half the volume is given over to synopses of 107 recent films, from which Shaheen draws appended lists of 23 recommended titles, eight with “evenhanded images,” and the 18 worst. Among more familiar films that Shaheen recommends are Babel (2006), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Paradise Now (2005), Rendition (2007) and Syriana (2005). The Visitor, which I happened to see the day I began reading Guilty, is too recent to be included, though writer-director Tom McCarthy’s story of a likable Syrian immigrant who runs afoul of authorities deserves recommendation, as does The Band’s Visit, a wistful tale about Egyptian musicians stranded in a desolate Israeli town. A poignant plea for cross-cultural understanding, The Band’s Visit has been barred from Arab countries merely because it was made in Israel. (Arab media do not refrain from disseminating their own noxious stereotypes; in 2002, government-owned Egypt TV, along with other Arabic satellite channels, broadcast a dramatization of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, crude anti-Semitic propaganda long ago exposed as a Tsarist forgery. Shaheen calls for an “American Arab Entertainment Summit” at which filmmakers from many nations would agree to a cessation of defamation.)

Shaheen pronounces Borat (2006) “repulsive,” faulting Sacha Baron Cohen for failing to counter the “damaging, hurtful, and unacceptable” slurs scattered throughout that brilliantly mordant exposé of American bigotry. Placing both Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005) and Team America: World Police (2004) on his list of worsts, Shaheen betrays a blindness to comedy and context, as if the mere presence of racist characters or comments automatically makes a film racist. Shaheen’s single-minded campaign against what he gauchely calls “films that bear a single-minded vitriol” sometimes bears more piss than vinegar, as when he complains that studios ignore his offers to serve as consultant. Though he did advise George Clooney on Syriana (2005), which he praises for its “evenhanded images of Arabs and Muslims,” few filmmakers would welcome a commissar in residence demanding Arab heroes. “Your rights will not be lost, as long as you continue asking for them,” according to an Arab proverb Shaheen quotes.

What can be lost by too narrow an understanding of “rights” is Shaheen’s larger goal: “To help crush the lunatic fringe, we should cease demonizing a whole people and a whole religion, and focus on uniting freedom-loving people of all backgrounds and faiths.” Film should enlighten and inspire, not incite.

Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

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