You can hit an Arab free; they’re free enemies, free villains—where you couldn’t do it to a Jew or you can’t do it to a black anymore.
—Sam Keen, author of Faces of the Enemy
In 1918 American movie audiences were treated to their first major silver-screen glimpse of a reel bad Arab. In Tarzan of the Apes, the first of six popular Tarzan films to vilify Arabs, viewers got to see brutal Arab slave masters whipping African slaves and forcing their kidnapped Englishman “to endure ten years of agony,” all the while brandishing guns and scruffy goatees. It was quite a debut.
Three years later, with the release of Rudolph Valentino’s box-office hit The Sheik (1921), audiences got their second sustained peek at big-screen Arabs. Still brutal and erratic, these Arabs had the added awfulness of being lecherous and rapacious. “When an Arab sees a woman he wants, he takes her,” promised the titillating blurb on The Sheik’s movie posters.
For four decades I have been tracking these kinds of images of Arabs and Muslims in more than 1,200 feature films and hundreds of television programs, from dramas and news documentaries to comedies and children’s cartoons. Along the way, I’ve discovered that anti-Arab and anti-Muslim stereotypes have a long and powerful history in American popular culture. Constantly repeated, these damaging portraits have manipulated viewers’ thoughts and feelings, conditioning them to ratchet up the forces of rage and unreason. Make no mistake: fictional narratives have the capacity to alter reality. As the Florentine philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli reminds us, “The great majority of mankind are…more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are.”
American images of Arabs and Muslims have remained remarkably consistent over the decades. Despite the diversity of Arab and Muslim experience, reel Arab women have appeared mostly mute and submissive—belly dancers, bundles in black and beasts of burden. Arab men have fared no better, appearing as Bedouin bandits, sinister sheiks, comic buffoons and weapon-wielding terrorists. As a result, when readers open the pages of Holy Terror, the 2011 graphic novel by comic book icon Frank Miller, the warped messages they receive about bloodthirsty Muslims read almost like companion drawings for John Buchan’s 1916 novel Greenmantle. (Sample Buchan line: “Islam is a fighting creed, and the mullah still stands in the pulpit with the Quran in one hand and a drawn sword in the other.”) And my late friend Edward Said’s 1980 Nation essay “Islam Through Western Eyes” feels as relevant today as it did thirty years ago. “So far as the United States seems to be concerned,” he wrote, “it is only a slight overstatement to say that Moslems and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of…the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead [are] crude…caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.”
And yet, despite the consistency of these representations, the last decade has brought profound and critically important changes in the ways Muslims and Arabs are portrayed in the United States. The catalyzing event was September 11, when nineteen Al Qaeda terrorists killed nearly 3,000 Americans. It was an attack designed, cruelly and perversely, to inflict maximum cinematic as well as real-life horror, and in its traumatized aftermath, the shape of American fantasies began to shift. Added to the Arab threat was the Muslim threat, and as this new threat materialized, it also intensified. While anti-Arab and anti-Muslim imagery had long been part of the background noise of American bigotry, Arabs and Muslims now became the chief bogeys of our most paranoid fantasies. They were no longer simply some Evil Other From Over There; now they were the Evil Other From Over There and Here, wild-eyed supervillains in the ongoing American epic of good and evil.