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100 Years of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim stereotyping

by Mazin B. Qumsiyeh


Hollywood has had a consistent record of Arab stereotyping and bashing. Some in the Arab American community call this the three B syndrome: Arabs in TV and movies are portrayed as either bombers, belly dancers, or billionaires. Thomas Edison made a short film in 1897 for his patented Kinetoscope in which "Arab" women with enticing clothes dance to seduce a male audience. The short clip was called Fatima Dances (Belly dancer stereotype). The trend has shifted over the years and was predominated by the "billionaires" for a short while especially during the oil crises in the seventies. However, in the last 30 some years, the predominant stereotype by far has been the "Arab bombers." In the latest movies G. I. Jane and Operation Condor viewers chant as a hero blows away Arabs.

In G. I. Jane, Demi Moore plays a Navy SEAL officer who gains her stripes killing Arabs. In Operation Condor starring Jackie Chan, we have Arab villains and a money grubbing inn-keeper (no good Arabs). Another scene shows Arabs praying and then cuts to an auction where Chan's women companions are being auctioned.

The author Jack Shaheen has spent year investigating these trends and this is well-documented in his book The TV Arab. According to Shaheen over 21 major movies released in the last ten years show our military killing Arabs. This includes such "hits" as Iron Eagle, Death Before Dishonor, Navy SEALs, Patriot Games, the American President, Delta Force 3, Executive Decision, etc. Not since the heyday of the cowboys-killing-Indians streak of films have we had such an epidemic. New York columnist Russell Baker wrote "Arabs are the last people except Episcopalians whom Hollywood feels free to offend en masse."

It is very interesting that a lot of what we see as offensive is released by subsidiaries of Disney (a so called family value company run by Mike Eisner). It is not surprising then that Disney and Operation Condor received a "Dishonor Award" at this year's national convention of the American Arab Anti-discrimination Committee (ADC). The ADC has been at the forefront in combating stereotypes and negative portrayal of Arabs in the media. The successes are there but the challenge is very large indeed.

Some in the Arab community in the US believe that there is a widespread effort now to create the "Muslim terror" as the replacement enemy now that communism is not a threat. In other words, to justify our continued massive military and the billions of dollars we send to Israel every year, we need a demonstrable enemy who will not go away. Israel now emphasizes that this danger of terrorism is more serious than military threats from any country in the Middle East.

This is an ironic twist of events. We now minimize state-sponsored terrorism (such as that which Israel, Turkey, and other allies engage in) and portray the threat in terms of religious and ethnic groups. The Arab community in the US feels especially vulnerable because the energy and center of the Anti-Arab and anti-Muslim media movements are concentrated here. How else would we explain that the New York Times runs a cartoon with a bomb-wielding, mean-looking Arab and a caption that reads "Orthodox.. conservative...reform... what's the DIFFERENCE." Such cartoons have not been rare in Europe since the Nazi era. The harm is not only psychological (insult to a culture or a religion) but helps feed into actions that are physically harmful. Didn't we see this before, dehumanizing a group first before attacking it?

A law was passed by Congress recently on airport "profiling"which is really stereotyping and racism. The idea is that you can identify "risky" people based on the countries they traveled to in the past (thus Arab Americans) and search them more thoroughly than the "normal" people. This leads to one line at the airport for Arabs and Muslims and one line for others.

The double standards and hypocrisy of the media is everywhere. The Palestinians are the victims of mass expulsions, people who have lost their landthree million of themand who are now refugees in Diaspora, prevented from the universally accepted right of return. How is it that they are portrayed collectively as terrorists bent on killing Jews? Israel, the US, and Arab countries pursue terrorists aggressively when they are Arabs but we somehow let state terrorism off the hook.

Even individual criminal acts and terrorism done by others go unpunished. Over 12 years ago, a letter-bomb killed Alex Odeh, ADC regional director in California. Two suspects fled to Israel and the FBI has a reward, but no political pressure is applied on Israel to extradite them. Why couldn't we apply economic sanctions on Israel to comply with UN resolutions? Instead our politicians send Israel 3-5 billion a year of your tax dollars.

The Arab community in North America is vibrant and thriving but is in distress over these issues. We are doctors, business people, engineers, scientists, judges, humanitarians, advocates for human rights, and in short a productive segment of the fabric of this great society.

Western civilization would not have developed without the influence of the Arab civilization (just think of the bridge and continuity that the Arab civilization had between ancient European civilizations and the renaissance of western civilization after the "Dark Ages").

People rarely hear of this history or of Arab heritage of the 20th century Arab Americans: Tiffany, John Sununu, Danny Thomas, Marlo Thomas, Casey Kasem, F. Murray Abraham, Paul Anka, Khalil Gibran and countless others whose names are familiar but whose culture and background are constantly maligned in our "enlightened mainstream" media.

Alternative media like The Prism are needed more than ever. Let us hope that it will not take a hundred years of education to undo the damage already done. Jack Shaheen and Sam Husseini of ADC tell us that, unfortunately, even if no more stereotyping films are produced the backlog of reruns will be very large indeed.

A dent in this problem will be made only if decent people would join hands (with such groups as ADC) and would call and write the media outlets to complain every time such a film or event is shown.

  Mazin B. Qumsiyeh is director of Media Relations for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee-NC.  

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