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.
To put a sharper point on it: in a 1977 60 Minutes special titled “The Arabs Are Coming,” Morley Safer warned that Arabs were “invading” by buying up US businesses and farmland; in 1990 The National Review sounded a similar alarm in a cover story titled “The Muslims Are Coming! The Muslims Are Coming!” accompanied by the requisite picture of marauding men on camels. Today’s media-makers, by contrast, have dispensed with the future tense altogether, as well as anything as nonthreatening or absurd as camels. Instead, they drape their Muslims in shredded American flags and shriek, The Muslims have arrived and are about to destroy us! Or, as Newsweek blared from the newsstands in June 2003, “Al Qaeda in America: How the Terrorists Are Recruiting—and Plotting—Here.”
This change happened overnight, or so it seemed, as scores of programs began displaying Muslim Americans and Americans with Arab roots as “terrorists,” falling into the stale trap of “seen one, seen ‘em all.” These “terrorists” waged holy wars against their fellow Americans from sleeper cells in Los Angeles and mosques in Washington. Series such as 24, The Unit, The Agency, NCIS, Sleeper Cell, Threat Matrix and Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye exploited post-9/11 fears, pummeling home myths that made the profiling, imprisonment, extradition, torture and even death of these one-dimensional characters more palatable to the public. Producers made few, if any, distinctions between American Arabs and Arabs, between American Muslims and Muslims, as if it were impossible to be truly American and Arab or Muslim.
This kind of viral paranoia has a long and sordid history in this country, as Richard Hofstadter persuasively argued in his 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Fueled by the “animosities and passions of a small minority,” the paranoid style has helped to stir many of our most virulent “scares”: from the anti-Masonic and anti-Catholic movements of the nineteenth century to the more recent “Yellow Peril” and “Red Menace.” And now, of course, there’s the “Green Menace” (green being the color of Islam) with its high-pitched paranoia about 1.6 billion Muslims that serves not only to prime American audiences for military aggression—as Said suggested in his Nation essay—but make hefty sums of money for the media industry.
At the forefront of this effort is a series of well-funded, politically motivated campaigns dedicated to painting Islam as an inherently violent and savage religion. These campaigns are the work of a small group of wealthy donors, misinformation specialists like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and groups of interconnected anti-Islam organizations: Steven Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism, Daniel Pipes’s Middle East Forum and so forth. Together they pound home the myth that mainstream Muslims have “terrorist” ties, that Islam is the new global ideological menace and that Muslims are intent on destroying Western civilization. Then they spread their message far and wide.
Consider Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West (2005), the first film made by the Clarion Fund, a pro-Israel nonprofit organization. Steeped in hatred, the film uses propaganda to convince the masses—including law enforcement officials, military personnel and public servants at every level—of its righteousness by systematically dehumanizing Muslims as the evil, alien “other.” The film’s frighteningly Islamophobic message also draws parallels between Islam and Nazism. Shockingly, the fund persuaded major newspapers to distribute some 28 million DVD copies to their readers, free of charge, which were inserted in more than seventy papers—predominantly in swing states—before the 2008 presidential election. Only the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and a handful of other newspapers refused to distribute the DVD. (More recently, the Clarion Fund released The Third Jihad: Radical Islam’s Vision for America, which was screened before nearly 1,500 New York City police officers, and Iranium, which warns of an Islamic nuclear threat.)
In an environment in which 62 percent of Americans have never met a Muslim, these representations matter. After all, the media mediate. Is it any wonder, then, that nearly half of us (49 percent) say the values of Islam are at odds with “American values”? Or that 45 percent of Americans say they would be uncomfortable with a mosque being built near their home? Left unchallenged, the continuous barrage of reel Islamophobic imagery makes it difficult for some Americans to accept real Muslims into our society—a situation that was painfully illustrated by the protests surrounding the reality TV show All-American Muslim.
In considering how to begin removing the sting of Islamophobia from the media, let’s return for a moment to Sam Keen’s stunning statement: “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.” This was true in 1986, when Keen made the observation to the Association of Editorial Cartoonists, and it is all the more true today.
To some, dispensing with this stereotype may seem an impossible task. Yet openness to change is an American tradition and the strength of our society. The path ahead may be littered with ingrained, prejudicial precedents, but I believe these baleful portraits will be shattered, one image at a time. Young scholars and artists will lead the way, creating inventive new portraits that depict Arabs and Muslims as neither saints nor devils but as fellow human beings, with all the strengths and frailties that condition implies. Bold leaders and audiences of conscience will make it more costly, morally and politically, for the media to demean a whole population. And as Americans begin to experience the humanity of Muslims and Arabs of all beliefs, backgrounds, opinions and cultures, we too will regain some of our lost humanity.
Also in This Forum
Moustafa Bayoumi, “Fear and Loathing of Islam”
Petra Bartosiewicz, “Deploying Informants, the FBI Stings Muslims”
Laila Lalami, “Islamophobia and Its Discontents”
Abed Awad, “The True Story of Sharia in American Courts”
Ramzi Kassem, “The Long Roots of the NYPD Spying Program”
Max Blumenthal, “The Sugar Mama of Anti-Muslim Hate”
Laila Al-Arian, “When Your Father Is Accused of Terrorism”