Anti-Arabism and Islamphobia
Shaza Al Jundi, Ph.D
Damascus - Syria
Anti-Arabism and Islamophobia are so much a part of the political and cultural discourse on Arabs and Muslims in the Western World today that most do not even recognize it as racism. Racism is a very touchy subject, as issues concerning free speech and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights come into play. Some people argue that it is just words. Others point out that these words can lead to some very dire and serious consequences.
Anti-Arabism is a prejudice or hostility against Arabs. "anti-Arabism" is considered to be the same as anti-Arab racism and the terms are used interchangeably in the media . Anti-Arabism shares many of the common themes with islamphobia.
Some common themes in Anti-Arabism are:
• Arabs are primitive/dirty
• Arabs are sub-humans/non-humans
• Arabs are murderers and terrorists
• Arabs are brutal
• Arabs are untrustworthy and treacherous
• Arabs are fanatics/uncompromising
• Arabs support terrorism
Islamophobia is defined as the phenomenon of a prejudice against or demonization of Muslims which manifests itself in general negative attitudes, violence, harassment, discrimination, and stereotyping (and particularly being vilified in the media). The British Runnymede Trust described Islamophobia as the view that Islam has no values in common with other cultures; is inferior to the West; is a violent political ideology rather than a religion; that its criticisms of the West have no substance; and that discriminatory practices against Muslims are justified.
Often when Islam and Arabs are mentioned negative impressions of fundamentalists, intolerance and terrorism is conjured up; Islamist movements and organizations are automatically linked with terrorism and are blamed for the backwardness and lack of development in the Middle East. Islam is stereotyped as a threat to democracy without distinguishing it from terrorism or corruption.
The demonization of Arabs and Muslims by politicians and the media is on the rise with all too predictable results. According to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll , 46 percent of Americans think poorly of Islam today--higher than immediately following the September 11 attacks. According to the poll, the proportion of Americans who believe Islam helps to cause violence against non-Muslims has more than doubled, from 14 percent in January 2002 to 33 percent in 2005. One in four Americans admit to being prejudiced against Muslims and Arabs.
Edward Said , the distinguished literary critic from Colombia University, has written in Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World “It is only a slight overstatement to say the Muslims and Arabs are essentially covered, discussed, apprehended, either as oil suppliers or as potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab Muslim life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Islamic World.”
Hollywood films have played an important role in perpetuating and amplifying these racist caricatures. As anyone who watches movies will tell you, there are plenty of movies where the Bad Guy is either Arab or Muslim. There have been plenty of movies in the last 30 years where the stereotypical Arab is the bad guy; terrorist; brutal, heartless, dirty, uncivilized, misogynistic, religious fanatics. How many movies off the top of your head have you seen or heard of that have an Arab bad guy?
In the early days of film, Arabs were over-sexed exotic creatures. By the 1970s, a new stereotype had emerged: the oil sheikh - rich, vengeful, corrupt, sneaky and, above all, fat.. From the 1980s onwards, Hollywood Arabs have generally been terrorists.
The film “Rules of Engagement” , was described as "probably the most racist film ever made against Arabs by Hollywood". The film describes “the American embassy in Yemen is under siege, at the mercy of a frenzied mob. The US Marines whisk the ambassador away by helicopter. But as the riot continues Yemeni men, women, boys and girls fire at the marines. Colonel Terry Childers orders his troops to shoot back and they massacre 83 Yemenis and wound 100. But never mind -the victims are only a bunch of fanatical towel-heads”.
Paul Clinton of the Boston Globe wrote: "At its best, Rules of Engagement is merely bad, a sad and confused flick... at its worst, it s blatantly racist, using Arabs as cartoon-cutout bad guys, and unrealistic in its depiction of a conflict in the Middle East."
As for the film, "The Siege" it shows how terrorism is used to justify racism toward Arabs and Muslims. "The Siege" offers a consistent view of how terrorism is used to justify racism against Arabs and Muslims, and also how American foreign policy sometimes acts as the unacknowledged catalyst for terrorism. Yes, the terrorists here are Arabs, and Americans are their victims”.
Walt Disney is pursuing its tradition of ethnic stereotyping. Disney s Arab-bashing history includes the following incidents:
In 1995, Father of the Bride, Part II was released, it perpetuated negative stereotypes of Arabs and Middle Easterners through the evil character of "Mr. Habib" and his submissive wife.
In 1996, Disney Adventures magazine printed a piece claiming that Arabs greet one another by blowing into each other s faces, no matter how bad their breath might smell.
In 2000, Kazaam revolves around a genie by the name of Kazaan and a 12-year-old boy, Max. Max s father is an entertainment producer with a dubious past and trouble with the law. The evil "Mr. Malek," a Middle Eastern Arnerican, works with Travis. Malek is portrayed as a shrewd gold-digger who would go to any length to enrich himself. He is a repulsive, unshaven individual with a devilish laugh, a thick Middle Eastern accent, and gluttonous eating habits.
The Disney movie, “G.I. Jane” features scores of faceless Arabs bit the dust and the world is better off with their extermination. Or so we are led to believe.
The cumulative effect of these movies is that Arabs are seen as the enemy and are violent, unscrupulous, greedy, slave-traders who abuse women. The main problem is not the depiction of repulsive Arab characters but the absence of balancing positive Arab characters. Disney producers do not appear to go to the same length as their Hollywood colleagues to make sure positive characters are used to balance the negative characters. This serves to dehumanize Arabs and justify anti-Arab racism .
Shaheen 2001 and Elayan 2005 describe how Islam also gets unfairly portrayed. “The actions and dialogue of the Arabs in the Western films link the religion with male supremacy, holy war, acts of terror, and hatred of the West. Nothing can be further from the truth regarding the religion, but the vast majority of these movies make the Muslims look evil or stupid. There is some definite racism in these films, and there are some really offensive stereotypes. These films are having an influence on everyone who watches these movies. The images get burned into your mind, and the more of the stereotype you see, the more it is reinforced. Plato wrote in his Republic, "Those who tell the stories also rule society." Ben Barber in The Nation wrote, " Disney does more than [David] Duke." Hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims are on the rise in the last decade, and these movies that still air today don t help. One wonders, how effective do you think movies are in shaping the way Americans think about Arabs, especially Palestinians, and about the "peace process" in the region? Many people have never been to the Middle East and don t personally know any Arabs, yet plenty have formed their own opinions, and I strongly believe that these movies push the stereotype along. It s one thing to read about terrorism or watch a clip on the news, but another to watch a well-lit sneering Arab holding a machine gun and saying a line like "It s the sword of Islam...sent to deliver a blow to the belly of the infidel." (from the movie Executive Decision, 1996).
Shaheen (2001) cites Anthony Lane (1999) a critic for. “The New Yorker,” as writing: "...try replacing one Semitic group with another--Jews instead of Arabs--and THEN listen for the laugh." The point he is making is that it is considered unacceptable to impugn Judaism by negatively showing Jewish people, but nobody seems to bat an eyelash when Arabs or Muslims are portrayed as "dirty" or inhuman. Written in 2001, the book is still correct in its assertions. Recently, the movie "The Passion of the Christ" drew large protests and allegations of anti-Semitism, while the movie the Siege was just as derogatory yet ignored by most mainstream media.
Arabs and Islam are stereotyped as a threat to democracy without distinguishing it from terrorism or corruption. Thus, US and European foreign policies have been criticized for not taking this distinction into account . The Arab and Muslims are criticized for not being able to defend themselves and Islam. Probably every conflict is fought on at least two grounds: the battlefield and the minds of the people via propaganda. The “good guys” and the “bad guys” can often both be guilty of misleading their people with distortions, exaggerations, subjectivity, inaccuracy and even fabrications, in order to receive their support. While we can often see obvious propaganda from other countries, especially from “enemies”, we sometimes don t notice, or acknowledge propaganda in our own nations and from our own friendly nations.
Supporting independent media is crucial in order to get accurate reports of what is happening in the Arab and Muslim world. We should also prioritize the voices of Arabs and Muslims in media, panels and discussions around these issues. But we also cannot ignore mainstream media where millions get their information. We should challenge mainstream media whenever possible and call them out on stereotypes, biases and inaccuracies. Recent media campaigns by groups like the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) responding to racism in the media have been very effective. In fact, earlier this year an anti-Arab ad by the San Francisco Examiner was pulled in just one day after an action alert went out to write emails to the publisher.
The need to approach our work from many directions is essential since the other side uses its entire means to carry out its project. Arundahti Roy said it best in a speech in Porte Alegre a couple of years when she said: “Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness -- and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we re being brainwashed to believe.”