As any Muslim will tell you, one of our biggest enemies is the image makers of Hollywood, who for years have advanced bad policies and encouraged stereotypes and discrimination against a community already caught in the vise of foreign policy. Anti-Muslim, anti-Arab propaganda existed long before 9/11, but the images continue to be churned in this decade, a dangerous time for anyone with a name like Ali, Mohammed or Hussein. The bigoted attitudes we face on a daily basis partly emanate from this machine, and the institutionalized Islamophobia gets a helpful boost from the unofficial propaganda ministry.
Into this maelstrom steps Jack Shaheen, who addressed this problem in the past with his book, “Reel Bad Arabs” and the accompanying documentary of the same name. His new book, “Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict On Arabs After 9/11,” addresses this problem head on and is a useful guide in the racist jungles of Hollywood.
There are innumerable problems, however. Shaheen praises movies like “Syriana,” “Munich” and “Kingdom of Heaven” as showing thoughtful, balanced images of Arabs and Muslims. True, they’re better than a lot of the movies in the 1980s, but that’s not saying much. The real difference between these movies and those of the pre-9/11 era is the subtle images and political messages that don’t advance positive images, but continue to detract in other ways.
For example, “Syriana” shows the Al-Qaeda-like group as getting their arms from Iranian gangsters in Tehran. This is fantasy; al Qaeda supporters are Sunni and they would not deal with Iranian Shi’a. A false image like this could promote a pro-war message at a time when Washington continues to look for a pretext to strike Iran.
“Syriana” was directed by Stephen Gaghan, who also wrote the script for “Rules of Engagement,” a movie Shaheen denounced as one of the movies that “projected our GIs … terminating reel barbaric Arabs,” without naming Gaghan. Yet he praises the writer-director by name when he talks about “Syriana.” Why? “Full disclosure: I did some consulting on this film.”
“Munich” was nothing but pro-Israel crap, juxtaposing a few words by Israelis and Palestinians to the continued visual assault of the hostage taking over and over, ad nauseum.
And despite “Kingdom of Heaven’s” portrayal of Saladin and other Muslims as decent people, the paradigm of a Muslim monolith versus a divided Christendom — one that occupies Muslim territory, no less — portrays co-existence on occupied land by the enlightened knights. The occupation goes wrong only when the fanatical Templars cause problems — not a very realistic depiction of the Crusades or the Western imperialism the movie allegedly dealt with.
Shaheen also mixes strange prescriptions with his otherwise decent analysis of the problems of institutionalized Islamophobia. For example, he compares the United Methodist Church’s apologizing for killing Indians and Southern Baptists apologizing for slavery to his proposal for Islamic scholars and clerics “apologizing for acts of terror committed by Islamic (sic) militants.”
Muslims don’t have to apologize for what a handful of people are doing in their name. Should Shi’a congregations say sorry to Americans for the deeds of a handful of Sunni Wahhabi fanatics? Shaheen’s proposal doesn’t make sense in light of the decades-long hostile propaganda directed at a community for being what they are and it won’t affect filmmakers and studios that do so either out of ignorance or ideology.
If anything, Hollywood owes us an apology, among others, for making our lives more difficult than they need to be. How about an apology for what the West did to Muslim communities and countries, like the Italian occupation of Libya that killed 700,000 Libyans or the French occupation of Algeria that killed a million Algerians, for starters? Maybe more movies about these events and others — the 1953 CIA coup in Iran, anybody —would make better proposals, instead of his proposed remakes of Charlie Chan as Charlie Habib.
The book is a real eye opener into how open and accepted institutionalized Islamophobia and Arabophobia is in the entertainment industry and he does a good job showing how it affects, not only ordinary people, but the powerful too. Rather than a final analysis, the book is a good starter towards more such books that can avoid some of the pitfalls in Shaheen’s work.