The Hollywood Arab stereotype, vilifying an ethnicity, and Orientalism

There is one character that has made an appearance in numerous Hollywood films, novels and writings – the hostile Arab. Negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims predates the September 11 attacks by decades. The villainous Arab/Muslim takes on multiple varieties – lecherous oil sheikh, fanatical bomb-throwing terrorist, or deceitful dodger. Let’s not forget Arab women, who make an appearance either as veiled and tragically oppressed, or sensuous belly dancers tempting lustful men.

The late Jack G Shaheen, Arab American scholar and consultant, pioneered research in this area. The Hollywood Arab is a pervasive character, polluting the minds of millions of movie goers and novel readers. He elaborated, in his books and documentaries, the vilification of the Arab and Muslim cultures in numerous films, novels and media depictions. These negative stereotypes do more than a thousand words to cement hostile images and malignant misunderstandings in the public consciousness.

The barbaric Arab terrorist is a recurring presence in Hollywood action dramas. From films such Delta Force (1986), to The Siege (1998), the Arab as terrorist is portrayed as fanatical, motivated by an irrational hatred of the West, cruel and vindictive. This notion of the barbaric Arab only serves to stigmatise an entire ethnicity. The 1970s and 80s witnessed a growing number of films where the Arab terrorist – usually a Palestinian – is the villainous enemy deserving of annihilation.

Edward Said, the late Palestinian intellectual, elaborated his crucial concept of Orientalism. Said suggested that the European colonial societies in their scholarship and writings produced a contemptuous and hostile view of the Arab and Islamic worlds. Such depictions, reinforced in literature and film, only serves to buttress an imperialist view of the outsider, demonise the oppressed, and obscure the crucial role of imperialist intervention in subduing the Arabic-speaking peoples.

Said lived in the United States, and he witnessed firsthand the demonisation of the East as the eternal enemy. He not only denounced the harmful impact of negative stereotyping, but also noted the strong linkage between centres of knowledge and political power. As a Palestinian living in America, he wrote the following observation:

The web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, dehumanizing ideology holding in the Arab or the Muslim is very strong indeed, and it is this web which every Palestinian has come to feel as his uniquely punishing destiny…The nexus of knowledge and power creating ‘the oriental‘ and in a sense obliterating him as a human being is therefore not for me an exclusively academic matter. Yet it is an intellectual matter of some very obvious importance.

In this context, it is worthwhile to observe that the late Murray Bookchin, anarchist activist and mini-pop-star on the green ecological left, was a fervent Zionist who recycled tropes about the barbaric and backward Arabs in his writings. His work on democratic confederalism and ecological awareness is commendable; but he demolished his credibility as a social activist by condemning the Arab people as languishing in cultural regression and violent, irrational antisemitism.

Arab women are portrayed as either veiled, and subject to patriarchal oppression, or belly dancers, and subject to exotic sexualisation. Apparently the imperialist countries are highly advanced in women’s rights, while the Arab and Islamic nations need to ‘catch up’ to us in that regard. Patriarchy is a problem the world over, and Arab women have been fighting for their rights for decades, without any help from the purportedly enlightened West.

Indeed, the Arab regimes which we condemn for being culturally regressive – in particular the Gulf petro-monarchies – are the regimes most closely allied with the European powers. Imperial power, while projecting itself onto the rest of the world, uses negative stereotyping domestically to create pro-imperial constituencies, imbued with a racist outlook.

While the image of the billionaire oil sheikh buying up English football clubs abounds in the UK media, it is precisely the Gulf sheikhdoms – Saudi Arabia in particular, with its culturally regressive practices – that are staunch allies of Britain. The US has done its utmost to maintain the pipeline of armaments and financing to the Saudi regime, while the latter epitomises the oil-sheikh image in the western imagination.

There are numerous Arab writers and novelists articulating the struggles, trauma and aspirations of the Arab nations. We never hear about them in the Anglosphere, because they go against the grain of imperial power. They expose the falsity of the hostile stereotypes we have imbibed in the West.

Let’s put down Leon Uris’ Exodus, and pick up copies of books by Palestinian authors, so we can improve our understanding of the plight and resilience of the Palestinians. Let’s ditch the Orientalism of our predecessors for a more engaged examination of the Arab world.

One thought on “The Hollywood Arab stereotype, vilifying an ethnicity, and Orientalism

  1. The Middle Eastern countries which were progressive, eg Iraq, Syria, Libya, have been destroyed by wars and aggression. Whereas Saudi Arabia and the like, countries repressive & regressive, are the allies of the Western world.

Leave a Reply to soniasavoul Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s