Longstanding stereotypes about Arabs in Hollywood films, followed by the coverage of September 11, are the main reasons behind the sharp increase in Islamophobia around the world and in the West, especially in recent years. Twenty years onwards of September 11, hatred of Muslims has gone beyond incidents of harassment and bullying to killing them inside mosques, as happened in New Zealand in 2019.
The ironic thing is that after all these years, three US presidents have held talks to reconcile with the Taliban and Biden announced a few days ago his plan to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by next September. In parallel, Iraq is witnessing a gradual decrease in the presence of American coalition forces after the huge losses to the US treasury caused by the invasion.
In 2001, the book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People was published, exposing the ways that Hollywood filmmakers distort the image of Arabs. The book was written by Jack Shaheen, an Arab-American born in Pennsylvania to Christian parents who immigrated from Lebanon.
Shaheen said that hate crimes have seen an increase after September 11 due to the spread of this stereotype in Western cinema. Talking about why he wrote the book, Shaheen said that when you vilify a people, innocent men, women and children suffer. He even cited an example from the Third Reich days when that the Nazis’ distortion of Jews through films and other propaganda means prepared the ground for the Holocaust.
In the conclusion of his book, Shaheen mentioned that Arabs appear backward and dangerous when looking at them through the distorted lens of Hollywood. Shaheen was a lecturer at the University of Illinois where his lectures focused on how to overcome prejudice and stereotypes. He encouraged Arab Americans to consider journalism and media-oriented professions.
When the book was published, film critic Richard Schickel wrote in Time magazine that Hollywood had turned to casting Arabs in the roles of villains after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
One of the Hollywood films that contributes to this gross distortion of Arabs is the movie Arabian Nights, which portrays Harun al-Rashid in the midst of a lustful backward society. The movie Rules of Engagement, which takes place in Yemen, also shows Arabs as barbaric. Few are the films that portray Arabs Muslims in a positive light, like the movie Kingdom of Heaven.
Despite the onslaught of hate in Hollywood, international artists often come to the defense of Muslims and Islam. George Clooney is known for his positions in support of Muslims. In response to attacks on Islam on a popular TV show, American actor and director Ben Affleck said, “We’ve killed more Muslims than they’ve killed us by an awful lot.”
Jack Shaheen’s message has come to fruition; the first American Muslim won an Oscar in 2017. Maher Shala won the award for best supporting actor in the movie Moonlight. Other Muslim stars are conquering the American movie industry, achieving great fame in Hollywood through their talent and good looks, such as the German-Egyptian actor Omar Metwally. This type of representation and recognition is a step in the right direction towards dismantling decades of negative portrayal of Arabs in Hollywood.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram.