UPDATE 9/10/2018: A report was released today by Nancy Wang Yuen, PhD. et al titled ‘Terrorists & Tyrants: Middle Eastern and Northern African (MENA) Actors in Prime Time & Streaming Television. It provides tremendous depth on this topic. AVAILABLE HERE.
The duty and responsibility of fostering loving kindness and spreading peace is on all of us. And as such, everyone is to be held to account. Everyone irrespective of one’s social status, profession, ethnicity, nationality or economic station, has a duty to humanity. And this brings me to Hollywood, a self-identifying liberal universe. Hollywood is tone deaf from its consistent insistence of whitewashing to its racist caricatures that endanger the lives of non-white individuals as it disproportionally propagates a single-story narrative of ‘the other’ all in the name of entertainment. Hollywood is complicit just as Fox news is complicit.
Hollywood suffers from the same malignancy as the rest of the nation, fueling content charged with racial hate and vilification of ‘the other’. Who is the other? In many cases, the other is the Arab. Hollywood tells us the Arab is dangerous. The Arab is the terrorist, the barbarian, the submissive and oppressed woman, or the butt of a vulgar joke. In Hollywood, the words ‘Muslim’ and ‘Islam’ are synonymous with ‘Jihad’ and ‘terror’. Hollywood relies on the narrative that being Arab automatically means you are Muslim which means you are a terrorist. This is despite the fact that Arabs can be of any faith or atheist just like everyone else. And despite the fact that, as history shows, terror is not bound by ethnicity or skin colour. Timothy McVeigh was convicted for committing one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in US history. McVeigh was white and Catholic but no one conflated his race, skin colour, or religion with his act. Much like Americans – generally speaking – don’t conflate domestic terrorist organization, the KKK, nor the hateful fervour of tiki torch-bearing white nationalists chanting “Jews will not replace us!” in Charlottesville with Christianity nor of white people in general. And despite the fact that centuries worth of atrocities and acts of terror have been unleashed on human kind in the name of Christianity – specifically on Jews, Muslims, and people of colour irrespective of faith – Hollywood has been fueling, propping up and willfully encouraging the narrative of the evil and savage Arab since its inception in the late eighteen hundreds; more precisely in the early nineteen hundreds when Wall Street recognized the monetary value of Hollywood. Why is a supposedly ‘liberal’ cultural institution charged with the tremendous responsibility of telling our stories insisting on dividing humanity instead of bringing us together?
Humans are deeply impacted by what they see whether a live event or viewed on a screen. In fact, prolonged exposure to media violence can promote aggressive behavior by the viewer (like Islamophobia). Film and television have tremendous cultural relevance. They deeply impact how we view the world. If we are constantly bombarded with images that normalize the violent anti-American Arab, what does this do to us? What does this say about Hollywood? Make no mistake, Hollywood is not advancing peace.
“…if we cannot see the Arab humanity what’s left? If we feel nothing, if we feel that Arabs are not like us, or not like anyone else then let’s kill them all. Then they deserve to die, right?” Dr Shaheen, Reel Bad Arabs.
What is fueling Hollywood?
Generally speaking, American society has been encouraged to be tone deaf and ignorant about foreign policy; relying on news images, movies and television to shape the world around them. Save for a few allies, the world is usually presented as scary and out to destroy Americans. In contrast, in real life, America is currently ranked 114 out of 163 countries on the Global Peace Index. The USA has never ranked above 103 since the Index’s inception in 2008. The USA’s worst year on the Peace Index was in 2009 when it ranked 131. As a comparison reference, Saudi Arabia is currently ranked 129 and Iran at 131. America’s northern neighbor, Canada, of whom the US shares the world’s longest international border, has consistently ranked in the top ten (currently in eighth place) save for years 2010-2012 where it ranked 16, 12, and 11 respectively. Many countries within the MENA rank higher than the USA and have consistently. Currently they are: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Djibouti, and Oman.
Policy and Hollywood are linked.
“Washington and Hollywood spring from the same DNA.” – Jack Valenti, Former President and CEO, Motion Picture Association of America.
To paraphrase Dr. Jack Shaheen (Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People) and David L. Robb (Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies), Washington’s politics and Hollywood’s imagery are intrinsically linked, reinforcing one another. America’s policy – specifically foreign policy – enforces the mythical images of the righteous (and usually white) American hero and the evil ‘other’ (the Arab). Meanwhile, Hollywood’s mythical images of the righteous American hero and the evil Arab help enforce policy by following along with the narrative. Is it deliberate or the result of subconscious conditioning of American Exceptionalism or both? I don’t know. But it’s undeniable they feed each other.
Although the vilification and degradation of Arabs is found across all genres, it is arguably most prominent in films and television surrounding new wars with many of those films receiving backing from the Pentagon (Department of Defense). Here is a very short anthology covering contemporary Hollywood. This list is not exhaustive:
How is Hollywood’s imagery of the ‘vile Arab’ any different than the Nazis’ horrific anti-Semitic propaganda of ‘vile Jews’? It’s not. It’s critical to think about this. Images matter. They dictate and lead cultural narratives.
“What I tried to do is to make visible what too many of us seem not to see: a dangerously consistent pattern of hateful Arab stereotypes; stereotypes that rob an entire people of their humanity. All aspects of our culture project the Arab as villain. That is a given. There is no deviation. We have taken the few structured images and repeated them over and over again.” Dr. Shaheen on his research, Reel Bad Arabs
Why can’t Hollywood humanize Arabs?
Why can’t we humanize Arabs?
There’s no more powerful tool for propaganda than art.
There is also no more powerful tool for understanding, peace, and empathy than art.
Do your part.