Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People

by Jack G. Shaheen, published 2001

As anyone who watches a lot of 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? Personally, I can think of over a dozen.

The author, Jack Shaheen, is a professor of Mass Communications at Southern Illinois University and a former CBS News consultant on Middle East affairs. He's written a number of books like Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture, Nuclear War Films, and The TV Arab, and the biography in his book calls him "the world's foremost authority on media images of Arabs." I probably couldn't dispute this, as his book lists and reviews the 900+ films he saw and researched. The vast majority of the films demonize Arabs, distorting their image with offensive stereotypes.

How do you remember an Arab looking in a movie? Black beard, headdress or kiffeyah (the black/red and white checkered cloth), and dark sunglasses, and sometimes a sneer. They usually have a limousine, harem girls, oil, or a machine gun. Now consider this, when do you remember seeing a movie depicting an Arab as a regular guy, a good neighbor with kids, looking and acting like you or me? How many Arab actors do you know who don't regularly play a bad guy? (I can think of Tony Shalhoub, but he's not prolific in cinema). F. Murray Abraham, the Academy Award Winner from the film Amadeus, was once asked what the 'F' stood for. "F stands for Farid. When I first began in the business I realized I couldn't use Farid because that would typecast me as a sour Arab out to kill everyone. As Farid Murray Abraham I was doomed to minor roles."

According to Shaheen's analysis, there is some definite racism in these films. Perhaps it may not be as palpable in the films of the 90's, but his research goes back to the 1930's, and there are some really offensive stereotypes. Sure, there was racism against blacks too, but this racism of the swarthy Arab attacking the Westerner, or in some cases Christians and Jews, continued even through the 1990's. He calls it "the New Anti-Semitism" because many of the anti-Semitic (yes, Arabs are Semites too) films against Arabs were released in the last third of the twentieth century, when stereotypes against blacks, Jews, and other minority groups were on their way out of cinema. Also, these images of hook-nosed Arabs in robes dressing and talking different are similar to the Nazi propaganda films of the 1930's and 40's where the Jews looked and acted different than the protagonists.

These stereotypes existed before film, but the number of films derogatory of Arabs only perpetuated the stereotype, making it last in society while others fade. Many recycled films on cable TV are loaded with the stereotypes, like Protocol, The Delta Force, Ernest in the Army, Rules of Engagement.

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)). (Personally, that image lingered in my mind for years, buttressed by vague stories in the news mentioning violence in the Middle East. I was sweating with fear the first time I came into contact with genuine Muslims some time later.)

A film critic Anthony Lee wrote, "...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.

Islam also gets unfairly portrayed. The actions and dialogue of the Arabs in the film 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 900+ movies reviewed make the Muslims look evil or stupid, and very few actually show a Muslim as a hero. It seems as if only terrorists say "Allah be praised" in these films, and if the hero mentions it, calls Him "God." These movies, without some balanced movies to counter the negativity, are partly responsible for a large proportion of polled Americans thinking Islam is a violent religion. 1985's biggest box office draw was Back to the Future and the idea that Libyans being Arab terrorists trying to make an atomic bomb seems to have stuck in people's minds. You never see innocent Muslims being attacked by Westerners in film, but frequently the other way around.

This book is organized in an excellent way. It's in alphabetical order by movie, giving a short description of the film and what goes on that shows the stereotype. Also, the movies are grouped into categories; Best List, Worst List, Villains, Sheikhs, Cameos, Maidens, Egyptians, and Palestinians. The "Maidens" list is where you see stereotypical belly dancers, harem girls, or other poor portrayals Arab women. Sheikhs are wise elders, but you wouldn't think that by watching one of these films. They are Muslim religious leaders, but in film, anyone who wears a robe and headdress is considered a sheikh. Egyptians are a popular choice as they are a stereotypical Arab in the eyes of an American, I guess. They're in Mummy movies, pyramids and pharoahs and such. Palestinians get a rough treatment, where do you see even one Palestinian who isn't a character trying to kill Jews/Israelis/Westerners/Americans?

In addition, he includes some worthy appendices; alternate film titles, Best List, Recommended List, Worst List, Cannon films, a list of Epithets directed at Arabs in film, a list of phony Arab lands used in films, silent films and travelogues featuring Arabs, films for future review (he didn't finish his research), and a glossary of common Arabic words used in those films, like "Allahu Akbar."

Some movies that made the Best List (a good portrayal):

Some movies on the Recommended List "...balanced and humane portraits; young people may view them without being ashamed of their heritage":

A sampling of the Worst List (a long list, I cut it down a bit):

I recommend this book, it makes interesting reading, and I especially recommend it to people taking some sort of Film Study class. It mentions so many movies that I'm sure you've seen several at least. Curiously, it leaves out Not Without My Daughter, which I think no listing like this would be complete without.

Update: Apparently some person inspired by this book collected together a montage of several of the "Worst List" and assembled it into a 10-minute-long trailer called "Planet of the Arabs." It was an Official Selection at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, and quite impressive.

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