HOLLYWOOD’S VIEW OF ARABS, MUSLIMS
By Faisal Kutty and Bushra Yousuf – Bruce Willis. Denzel Washington. New York City. Action-packed thriller. You’ve seen the arresting trailers. Ingredients of a box-office hit? Probably. Edward Zwick’s new movie The Siege appears to have already received the hype before its November debut. Those Moslems are at it again, but this time “we’re” prepared! – well at least Hollywood is.
While Hollywood may have produced another hit, Muslims and Arabs are bracing for another thrashing as a result of the slew of stereotypes and dangerous inaccuracies contained in the movie.
Sadly, Hollywood is still oblivious to the detrimental repercussions of depicting Muslims and Arabs at large as terrorists.
According to the Washington-based Muslim civil rights group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), there were more than 280 reported incidents of anti-Muslim violence, discrimination, stereotyping, bias and harassment in the U.S. last year.
The third annual report, titled Patterns Of Discrimination, released this summer, reveals an 18 per cent rise in total incidents and a 60 per cent increase in discrimination cases. Similar statistics are not available for Canada, through Muslim organizations here report increased incidents during times of crisis in the Middle East.
In the wake of the bombings of the two U.S. embassies by Muslim extremists and the continuous stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs in the media and by Hollywood, the figures are bound to be much higher next year – if the aftermath of the Gulf War and the rush to judgment in the wake of the Oklahoma bombing are any indication.
According to the script of the movie, provided to a number of prominent Muslim and Arab Americans, the action-packed film is set in New York, and involves a bombing campaign against innocent Americans by “Muslims” which prompts authorities to declare martial law and to carry out mass arrests of American Muslims and Arabs.
The scenario is reminiscent of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the targeting of political dissidents during the “Red Scare.”
Perpetuation of such stereotypes and inaccuracies has the greatest impact on the most vulnerable – the children. Growing up as a Muslim or Arab child in North America is a challenge in itself without the added burdens imposed by the media and Hollywood.
Many feel ashamed of their cultural and religious heritage – thanks to their popular portrayal as intolerant, fanatical, violent, anti-modern, etc.
The impact is also manifested in actions as diverse as discrimination in the workplace, the singling out of Muslims in airports, harassment of Arab and Muslim children, and even threats against Muslim and Arab institutions. Organizations such as the Canadian-Muslim Civil Liberties Association (CMCLA) clearly feel the impact and are ill-equipped to deal with the flood.
The effect of exaggerated Hollywood images of Arabs and Muslims is very real.
Unfortunately, in times of crisis in the Middle East, which has nothing to do with Muslims or Arabs living in this part of the world, there is a surge in hate crimes and discrimination. The trend is pronounced even though most go unreported. Negative coverage in the media and depictions of Muslims and Arabs in movies such as True Lies, Executive Decision, Not Without My Daughter, and now The Siege contribute significantly to the marginalization of these two communities.
Though the stated intent of the producers of The Siege is to challenge intolerance, national Muslim and Arab organizations in the U.S. and Canada fear that this will in fact be overshadowed by scenes suggesting that Islam is a potential threat to America. Scenes juxtaposing images of Islamic religious devotion and acts of violence will definitely leave a lasting impression in the minds of viewers.
In fact, As Jack Shaheen, a professor emeritus of broadcast journalism at Southern Illinois University, who has studied Arab stereotypes in the media and who has reviewed the script, told the New York Times, “When you see the film and all the dead bodies, and you see the people responsible for all the dead bodies, they’re Arab Americans. The big question is: What do you come away with?”
It is imperative that all conscientious people speak out against this movie and the growing marginalization of Muslims and Arabs and call for a more responsible and accurate depiction of their fellow Muslim and Arab citizens, who are law-abiding contributors to society. Muslims and Arabs have launched a campaign of protest and education, but need the support of others to drive home the point that enough is enough.
The media and the moviegoing public must question whether the acts of a few should be a green light to indict two communities and a religion. No other religion is defined by the actions of its followers acting outside the boundaries of the faith as determined by the general consensus.
For instance, the bombings by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Northern Ireland do not define Catholicism. Judaism is not defined by the actions of fanatical settlers in Israel. Similarly, Islam should not be defined by those who harm civilians in its name.
For too long, Islam, Muslims and Arabs have been defamed with impunity.
It is time that others joined the fight to bring about responsible portrayal of Arabs and Muslims, for selfish reasons if not for the sake of fairness – after all, today it is Muslims and Arabs, tomorrow it may be you.
Faisal Kutty is a Toronto-based lawyer and general counsel of the Canadian-Muslim Civil Liberties Association (CMCLA), a national Muslim advocacy group. Bushra Yousuf is the executive director of the CMCLA.
Note: First Published in The Toronto Star, September 21, 1998
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