The media plays a significant role in shaping public opinion and narratives. Over the years, it has become a force to be reckoned with in all aspect of life, culture, education, society, language, economy and, especially, politics. Visual media such as movies and TV shows are probably the most popular as there is a wide and diverse audience. Films and programmes target the hearts and minds of viewers, who tend to sympathise with characters and get caught up in the emotion of what they watch. The effect doesn’t end when the credits roll, as people internalise the sights and sounds they have witnessed. Some studies have shown that this not only affects viewers’ perceptions but also their behaviour, especially in the younger age groups.
Hollywood, the movie capital of the world, is as an efficient and powerful tool for mainstreaming American culture and values. However, with great power goes great responsibility. When it comes to films involving Arab and Muslim characters, Hollywood has proved repeatedly to be irresponsible, manipulative, misleading and biased. It has been presenting and reinforcing stereotypical images, which line up with belligerent and orientalist American policies towards Arabs and Muslims; the industry has seldom challenged that image or made an effort to reflect a more objective version.
“The Wind and the Lion” (1975); “Under Siege” (1986); “Wanted: dead or alive” (1987); “True Lies” (1994); “Homeland” (2011-2013); “World War Z” (2013); “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (2014); and “American Sniper” (2014), are all examples of films and TV programmes which contribute, directly or indirectly, to the constant vilification of Arabs and Muslims in the mainstream media. Some, such as “True Lies” and, most recently, “American Sniper” have done so openly by presenting uncivilised, violent and merciless Arab characters, which end up being killed as a part of the “happy” ending. Others have done it in a more subtle way, like “World War Z” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, for example.
In “World War Z”, the Israeli army and “security” agencies are portrayed as the guardians of Jerusalem, who built the Apartheid Wall in order to keep zombies locked-in behind it. In real life, the Wall functions as a racist barrier, a key component of Israel’s occupation policies which strip almost 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank of their rights and freedoms. That very same wall is presented in the film as a positive and necessary tool for the salvation of humanity. Israeli soldiers are the heroes and protectors, misleading viewers and distorting reality. By creating sympathy and positive feelings towards militant oppressors and a brutal colonial occupation whilst demonising those living behind the wall, the film provides a degree of legitimacy to Israel’s occupation and, indeed, to the state itself. It is worth remembering that Israel has, since 1948, committed numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity as it carries out the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
If you don’t think anything is wrong with this let’s change a few variables and then consider whether you still think nothing is wrong. Instead of the Apartheid Wall, let’s use concentration camps to control the zombies and instead of Israeli soldiers the security is provided by those in Nazi uniforms. For the sake of objectivity, let’s add that ridiculous scene where Arabs and Israelis are singing together aimlessly about peace in Jerusalem; only let’s have Nazis and Jews singing together about peace instead. See what I mean?
Such a film would, rightfully, have caused outrage around the world for diminishing the suffering of European Jews during World War Two. It should have created a similar reaction for diminishing the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people, but it didn’t.
Similarly, in “American Sniper”, US soldiers are glorified and Arabs are demonised. Saying that the movie is one-sided and biased is an understatement. American soldiers are presented as heroes, protectors and even at times victims in Iraq, whereas the Arabs are all presented as militants, including women and children, who are also engaged in fighting. There are no civilian Iraqis in this movie, except for one family, whose members are killed by Iraqi militants, of course, and not American soldiers.
The movies sends out a pernicious message at the very beginning that killing women and children is inevitable and is a part of a soldier’s duty to “protect”. The moral dilemma about such issues is absent. The sniper shoots to kill and not to disarm, even when the targets are women and children.
Furthermore, there is a clear objectification of Iraqi militants versus the humanisation of American militants. When an American soldier is killed, we get to see a close up of his face so that we can absorb his feelings and his wounds. However, when an Iraqi militant is killed, we only see his body falling down from afar; there’s no blood, no facial expressions and thus no feelings. In addition, American soldiers are more than just soldiers; they are husbands, fathers, sons and daughters, whereas Iraqi militants are one-dimensional.
The “hero” is a man admired for holding the record for the highest number of kills in Iraq and whose fellow soldiers call a “legend”; he shows no remorse over those whom he has killed. The only thing he regrets is not having the chance to kill more Arabs. It is no surprise that such a movie has evoked massive anti-Arab and anti-Muslim responses among cinema audiences in the United States; social media outlets are alive with people expressing enthusiasm for killing Arabs and Muslims.
Even when the plot has nothing to do with Arabs or Palestinians, Hollywood inserts completely irrelevant Arabic/Muslim cultural indicators, often planted on the bad guy, creating a false link between evil and Arabs or Muslims. In “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” it is deemed appropriate, relevant and logical to use the Palestinian Keffiyeh scarf as a part of the Foot Clans’ (Shredder’s army) uniform even though the characters couldn’t be any further from the Arab/Muslim world geographically, culturally, socially and politically; they were originally meant to be Japanese.
Hollywood promotes anti-Arab and anti-Muslim propaganda, by creating a false association between evil and Arabs and Muslims, regardless of the context of the plot, or by portraying them as the ultimate bad guys in all contexts and providing justification for illegal, immoral and inhumane practices against them. There is a long history of this, even in apparently innocent films.
This incitement against Arabs and Muslims could have disastrous outcomes. Feelings of hate and animosity towards Arabs are translated into actions in many places around the world, not only on a political level but also socially and physically. Whether cinema reflects life or vice versa, the powerful effect it has on us is undeniable. It is pertinent to ponder the words of Malcolm X in this respect: “If you are not careful, newspapers [media] will have you hating the oppressed and loving the oppressors.” The evidence for the truth of his words can be found without too much effort. Hollywood has a lot to answer for.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.