BEIRUT (Reuters) - American films and TV dramas shot since the September 11 attacks have reinforced screen images of Arabs and Muslims as fanatics and villains, ingraining harmful stereotypes, argues an author on the subject.
In his book “Guilty — Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11”, Jack Shaheen praises some post-September 11 films for offering a more sympathetic image of Arabs and Muslims, who he argues have been castigated for decades by Hollywood.
But he says that too many have portrayed them in ever darker shades, criticizing films including “The Kingdom” (2007) and “The Four Feathers” (2002) and condemning the creation of a new “Arab-American bogeyman” in TV dramas such as “24”.
“In the United States, you can say anything you want about Islam and Arabs and get away with it. In other words, as someone said, ‘You can hit an Arab free’,” said Shaheen — also author of “Reel Bad Arabs — How Hollywood Vilifies a People”.
Shaheen, an American of Lebanese descent, has examined the treatment of Arabs and Muslims in some 1,000 films, including more than 100 shot since September 11.
From action movies such as “True Lies” (1994) to comedies including “Father of the Bride Part II” (1995) and Disney’s animated “Aladdin” (1992), Shaheen identifies films that have perpetuated damaging stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims.
“The images have remained primarily fixed and have only been changed in the sense that they have become more vindictive and damaging,” he told Reuters in an interview in Beirut.
“What enables these images to persist and prevail? One of the primary reasons is silence,” said Shaheen, a retired professor of mass communications who worked as a consultant on “Syriana” (2005) and “Three Kings” (1999).
“There’s nobody in authority, no political leader, no Hollywood personality who has taken a stand and said that demonizing Arabs and Muslims is the same as demonizing Jews or blacks or Asians or any other racial or ethnic group.”
In “Guilty”, Shaheen credits films including “Babel” (2006) and “Rendition” (2007) for “more complex, even-handed Arab portraits”. But “very few people are listening”, he said.
“It’s been very difficult, it’s like being a salmon trying to swim upstream.
“What is done is selective framing of radicals: people saying ‘death to America’. You cannot deny the reality — there are people who really want to kill Americans. But those are basically the only images we see.”
He describes last year’s “The Kingdom” — an action movie about FBI agents hunting terrorists in Saudi Arabia — as one of the most damaging depictions of Arabs of recent times in which “even Arab children cannot be trusted”.
Shaheen also charts a new trend of turning American Arabs and Muslims into “the new bogey person” and criticizes the TV drama “24” for its “vicious images of loathsome Muslim Americans as well as Americans with Arab roots”.
Hollywood’s depiction of Arabs has eased the path for U.S. administration policy, he argues. Decades of portraying Arabs and Muslims as the enemy “made it that much easier for us to go into Iraq”, he said. “There were very few people protesting.
“The images help enforce policy,” he said. “As the policy becomes more even-handed, perhaps films will reflect that.
“Plato said: ‘Those who tell the stories rule society’. Nothing has changed, and the story tellers of today have a tremendous impact on the world as we perceive it.”
Editing by Paul Casciato