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Stereotyping and double standards in ‘Hollywood Islam’


The new 20th Century Fox film “The Siege” generated considerable pre-release controversy for depicting Muslims, once again, as religious zealots committing acts of terrorism. NCR’s Arthur Jones saw the movie in Washington with George Irani, an international relations scholar and an Arab Christian. Jones spoke with Irani about popular views of Islam and the continuing turmoil in the Middle East.

“The Siege” was over. Freed from our movie seats, George Irani and I headed for the car. Said Irani, an Arab and a Christian, “A Saudi diplomat remarked to me recently that there are three Islams: Hollywood Islam, Georgetown Islam and the Islam of the West Bank, Beirut, Damascus, Karachi and the rest. This was Hollywood Islam.”

“The Siege” is “Godzilla” with Arab Muslim extremists as the monster. Plot: The United States kidnaps a sheik. His followers blow up a bus full of people (and themselves) in Brooklyn. Good FBI guy Denzel Washington is on the case. Bad guy Gen. Bruce Willis occupies Brooklyn with the U.S. Army and is on Washington’s case.

Good-girl/bad-girl CIA agent Annette Bening is the sole link with Samir, a go-between with extremists, who by this time have detonated the New York City FBI building to smithereens. The hunt is on -- all young Brooklyn Arabs are rounded up. (That the extremists might be commuters from New Jersey is not considered.)

Interned, in scenes Irani found poignant, is the son of an FBI agent named Haddad -- portrayed as an Arab Christian from Lebanon (Irani’s own background). Haddad throws away his FBI badge in disgust.

Gen. Bruce is into torturing Arab-Americans to prevent greater bloodshed. Honorable Denzel isn’t and dodges Bruce, bullets, bombs and the blandishments of Ms. CIA in an attempt to bring red-white-and-blue justice (and a shifty White House) back to the altar of honor.

The stereotyping of ordinary, everyday Arab-Americans has dozens of precedents in U.S. history: pro-Kaiser and pro-Hitler stereotyping of German-Americans during World Wars I and II; the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II; or, less martial yet equally prevalent (and movie-perpetuated), the linking of all Italian-Americans with the Mafia and crime.

So, two questions for Irani: Is this movie actually anti-Arab and anti-Muslim? And is the Islam of “the West Bank, Damascus, Karachi and the rest” to be feared?

The movie: “Initially, as an Arab-American, I was queasy, uncomfortable, because it perpetuates some of the usual stereotypes,” said Irani. “This weird faith, Islam and lumping entire peoples as one: Being Arab equals being Muslim. Not true. Ten million Arabs are Christians [and only 15 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims are Arabs]. But for two-thirds of the show, this was just a movie.”

The second question takes longer.

Until recently, Irani, now a consultant, was the Randolph Jennings Senior Fellow at the quasi-governmental U.S. Institute of Peace, writing papers with titles such as: “Rituals of Reconciliation: Arab-Islamic Perspectives.” One-on-one reconciliation, or the troika Clinton-Arafat-Netanyahu parleys at Camp David don’t fit the Arab/Muslim way.

Scholar Irani, who holds a PhD in international relations from the University of Southern California and is a former political science professor at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, deals in reconciliation issues. He says that in Middle Eastern societies, conflict control and reduction takes place within a communal, not a one-on-one, framework. It is a non-Western, indigenous application of the process of “acknowledgment, apology, compensation.”

“Middle East peace (Israeli-Egyptian/Israeli-Palestinian) exists only because of military persuasion and economic enticement,” says Irani. “So a controversial and major absence in the movie, mentioned only in a negative way for the Arabs, is Israel and its role in this whole mess. The deepest causes of Middle East violence are touched only very superficially if at all.

“An interesting side comment -- not to do with the movie,” says Irani, “is the use of words. When an Arab car bomb kills people in Israel, it’s terrorism. When Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein goes into a mosque and shoots 50 people to death, he’s deranged. The West Bank settlers build a statue honoring him. On the other hand, [Ibrahim] bin Laden’s a terrorist.”

Bin Laden, suspected of being mastermind of the U.S. embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Mogadishu, Somalia, “is America’s son of a bitch,” said Irani, because he was part of the CIA effort to support Muslim fighters in Afghanistan.

“Terrorism is latent in Israel, but no one talks about it,” said Irani. “It was an Israeli terrorist who killed Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Rabin. There’s a whole network of loonies there like we saw in the movie on the Arab side. So the movie message would be more powerful if balanced -- but certain topics are taboo.”

“Why do you have people [radical Muslims] willing to sacrifice their lives?” asks Irani rhetorically. The causes, he says, are both historic and recent: The Crusades are as real to Arab Muslims today as Hiroshima is to today’s Japanese; the creation of Israel and the consequent subjugation of the Palestinians in slums exists for all to see. And there were U.S. attempts in the 1950s to undermine Arab nationalism, as against Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt in the 1950s, he said.

“Israel can invade countries like Lebanon and Palestine, can grab land and steal land and create settlements, steal water and nothing happens, no one punishes it. Instead there’s billions of dollars in U.S. aid. Peace in the Middle East is perceived as an alien deal imposed by a superpower.”

Arabs also perceive, said Irani, “that the Arab world is only useful to America because of its oil,” says Irani. “No oil and this part of the world is totally useless to the U.S.”

Into these perceptions, suggests Irani, insert a U.S. view of the Arab world colored by a Protestant and more fundamentalist Christian picture of the world: the protection of the Bible, of the Holy Land, of Judeo-Christian values, which are a guide to life in the West in general.

“Many Americans perceive Israelis as having similar experiences -- the frontier experience -- with the kibbutz. Add to this an affinity of American Protestants toward the Holy Land -- exemplified today by people like Pat Robertson. And the Israeli government shrewdly plays on these affinities to depict Muslims and Arabs as trying to undermine the Holy Land.”

The religious right tries to create images of persecuted Christians in the Middle East, he said, whereas overall Muslims and Christians “live very well together -- there have never been any pogroms in the Middle East the way there were in Poland or the Soviet Union against the Jews.

“Christians in Lebanon are in very good shape, their schools and economic status,” says Irani. “In Syria, too.

“The distressed Christians are in Iraq, where the entire population is distressed. A criminal like Saddam Hussein commits a crime by invading Kuwait, and 1 million Iraqi people suffer and die because of sanctions.”

Back to the movie. On screen, one message that doesn’t make it through, says Irani, is that not all Muslims are fundamentalists and not all fundamentalists are terrorists.

But some are, George. And some Muslim nations chop off arms for theft, or behead people, or jail women because they’ve been raped. And that’s all many moviegoers know about Islam.

“It isn’t the religion that does that,” counters Irani. “It’s the people who implement it. Christianity never ordered the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or promoted Crusades or held Inquisitions. Not the faith itself. It is basically the obscurantists, the authoritarian regimes. In the Muslim world, [authoritarian regimes] all too often are supported by the United States government -- Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and so forth.

“Or, when Jews grab other people’s land or torture them, or whatever, it doesn’t mean that Judaism is wrong as a religion,” he said. “There’s always this holier-than-thou attitude, that we have the virtues and the others are barbarians. Not so.” Again, it’s the double-standard, says Irani.

“What we have had [in the Muslim world] in the last 20 years is the emergence of groups that are alternatives to failed and corrupt regimes -- in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Afghanistan.

“All of these were perceived to be tools, stooges, of the West, particularly the United States. It is the U.S. that manipulated revivalist Muslim groups -- to combat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, for example, the CIA created and armed the Taliban. From an anti-Iranian perspective, they manipulated some Sunni Muslims, all for ideological purposes.”

That American role in creating and sustaining groups we would later label as “terrorists” is all in the shadows and gaps as “The Siege” unfolds.

But what the heck, it’s only a movie. Right?

National Catholic Reporter, November 20, 1998