Numerous criticisms have been voiced that the US media -- especially its cinema sector and TV networks -- tend to create image templates. This is true. Hollywood's role in portraying Italians as mafia types, Asians as sneaky, blacks as bad, Indians as unmannerly, the Spanish as bribe takers, Latin Americans as drug sellers, etc., is undeniable.
Yet, no nation or community has suffered the level of injustice Hollywood has been inflicting on Muslims. In Hollywood films, Muslims -- mostly Arabs -- are presented as people who hijack planes, set bombs, kill people, etc. -- in a word, as terrorists. This template is designed mostly for the middle class. The role tailored for women of the same class portrays women who are oppressed by men and those who are adept at belly dancing, though still suppressed and knowing no love. We may also encounter wealthy characters in these films. They tend to be lustful, fat and passionate types who do not know how to spend their millions.
Jack G. Shaheen is the main opponent of this mentality, which creates a characterization through the repeated reinforcement of biases and preconceptions. His book, titled "The TV Arab" and published in 1984, created debates in US media. Before writing his book, Shaheen surveyed the Arab image in 100 popular TV programs over a period of eight years. The image portrayed in 200 scenes was shocking. The programs, watched by 150 million people, all presented the same image. One could not find a single good characterization of Arabs. The author rightfully asked: Is it any different from the characterization of blacks as lazy, the Spanish as dirty and untidy, the Jews as ambitious or the Italians as mafia types?
Such objections, it seems, are forcing Hollywood to adopt a much more reasonable position.
Hollywood's bias against Muslims is well known, so I am not inclined to further substantiate this thesis. It is also obvious that just complaining about this issue without doing anything is no remedy. As it has made no investment in the filmmaking sector, the Muslim world cannot possibly sound convincing when it accuses Hollywood of portraying Muslims negatively. In the final analysis, the one who invests will reap the results. It is inevitable that those who refrain from investing in cinema, theater, TV and similar sectors will pay a big price. Of course, Muslims are right in asking, "Why do you always portray us as villains?" But such protests should stay there.
Thankfully, reactions from civilians, academic criticism and conscientious circles are forcing Hollywood to rectify its stance. This change is also visible in books Shaheen has written. In "Reel Bad Arabs" (2001), he acknowledges this improvement. While he was previously concerned with the images in all TV programs and films, in his books he focused his attention on Hollywood films. Shaheen surveyed 900 films and found only 12 positive Muslim characters while 50 characters were balanced types in terms of being good or evil.
As a matter of fact, Hollywood -- and perhaps the entire Western world -- does not know much about Islam and Muslims. For instance, it is a common mistake to equate Arabs with Muslims and vice versa. In 1996, famous standup comedian Jay Leno was hosted by CN's Larry King, who asked him an interesting question: Did he ever regret ridiculing people during his shows and subsequently apologize to them? "I had said something about Iran or so. When Arab-Americans reacted, I invited them, talked with them and apologized," he replied. The apology was praised at the time, but his equating Iranians with Arabs was found odd. Not many in the West are aware that Turks are Muslims, as are many Malays, Indonesians, Indians, Pakistanis, etc.
It is not easy for Hollywood to correctly understand Islam
Upon reading the Quran and Prophet Muhammad's [PBUH] sayings, one can easily see that Islam is a religion of peace and love, but it seems that Hollywood neither has easy access to basic resources on Islam nor can it interpret them correctly. The campaign launched against Muslims, particularly post Sept. 11, has evolved into Islamophobia. The US invasion of Iraq had a negative effect on Hollywood, preventing it from producing films in an objective manner and free from bias. Considering this, we need to mention Jean-Michel Valantin's book "Hollywood, the Pentagon, and Washington: The Movies and National Security from World War II to the Present Day." Valantin lists a number of examples showing the close relations between Hollywood's stereotyping and US foreign policy and how this works systematically in many genres, ranging from drama to comedy. What I mean is that the normalization of Hollywood's ongoing creation of biases and negative images was blocked by political issues. The Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq war led to the re-creation of the image of Arabs as terrorists, which was in turn used as justification for the illegitimate war being fought in Iraq.
Nevertheless, Hollywood cannot forever maintain this strategy of collectively portraying Muslims as terrorists. This is because it is incorrect. Determined to go after this issue, Shaheen wrote "Guilty: Hollywood's Verdict on Arabs After 9/11" in 2008 to keep the issue in the oven. This issue is a fertile field for many more studies.
Scenes that will reinforce the negative images are engraved in people's minds through repetition, but eventually the other side of the story is brought to the agenda. Scenarios that may have sounded impossible in the past are now popping out of their heads one by one. In this respect, two recent films are of particular importance: "Traitor" and "Rendition."
"Traitor" was directed and adapted by Jeffrey Nachmanoff. The plot starts with the murder of a Sudanese child's father in a terrorist attack. The child (Samir) turns into a very devout person. After Samir's family moves to Chicago, he joins an Islamic terrorist organization. However, he is viewed with skepticism both by the organization and by the Americans. Samir is a good Muslim and is against all forms of terror. We see this Sudanese man both as a terrorist and as an agent in the sentence "truth is complicated." In the final scene, Samir reads a verse from the Holy Quran: " … whosoever killeth a human being … it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind." (5:32)
"Rendition" (2007) exhaustively questions Sept. 11. In the film, directed by Gavin Hood, an Egyptian boy is arrested on suspicion of terrorism and sent to the country (South Africa) where the bombed attack was carried out. Ibrahim, a chemical engineer, is questioned under heavy torture and his rights are sacrificed in the name of "national security" and "counterterrorism." One striking scene is that between the official heading the security forces (Meryl Streep) and a young politician who has a bright career ahead of him as a senator. When the politician says, "Let me send you the US Constitution so that you can read about the rights and freedoms of people," he gets the reply, "Let me send you the minutes of Sept. 11." The film clearly shows that Ibrahim is held under arrest out of deep suspicions, but that in fact he is innocent.
Hollywood must apologize to Muslims
Biased attitudes toward Muslims had in the past been portrayed in a number of films, but there was a break. In "The Long Kiss Goodnight" (1996), the US intelligence service devised a plot involving Arabs. An Arab was to be killed and then be placed in a trailer truck which was to explode in Canada and "Muslim terrorists" were to be blamed. When a female agent who lost her memory asked "Why?" during torture, she gets the reply, "In the attack against the Twin Towers, a witness insistently accused the CIA, but no one listened to him even though he was telling the truth" -- an interesting detail. The attacks in question were not the Sept. 11 attacks, but those conducted in 1999 at the World Trade Center. When she insistently asks "Why?," she is told, "In order to ensure the passage of the intelligence budgets by the commission." There are abundant examples. In "Flightplan" (2005), a mother blames Arabs for the kidnapping of her child, but toward the end of the film, she discovers the truth and apologizes to them. A number of films can be mentioned along these lines.
Hollywood must apologize to Muslims since no community can be collectively labeled as evil or portrayed so forever. But there is a catch: If Muslims can explain themselves better and work to eliminate bad apples, this process may be expedited. Today, there are good intentioned moves, but there is still a long road that a film sector which feeds on the realities of life must take.