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Image of Islamic Men in Mainstream Hollywood Cinema

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Published: Mon, 26 Feb 2018

The aim of the following study is to examine the stereotypes projected by mainstream Hollywood cinema with regards to Islamic and Arabic men in order to evaluate the ways in which this perpetuates a misunderstanding of different cultures and curtails attempts to incorporate Muslims into Western society.

It is a particularly relevant and significant topic and not only because of the contemporary significance of Islam in world affairs. The role of film is a highly significant contemporary topic in its own right.

As the dominant cultural theme of twenty first century Western society, cinema represents the vehicle through which the views of the cultural elite are expressed and past experience dictates that the images projected by Hollywood have a lasting effect, constituting fiction interpreted as fact.

The findings within the study will highlight how film broadly mirrors politics in so far as it requires an external enemy in order to define itself. September 11, 2001 was therefore a watershed in movie making every bit as much as in politics, as Hollywood was presented with a new incarnation of evil to replace the worn out stereotypes of Russians and Japanese that the industry had hitherto relied upon to strike realist fears into the audience.

Introduction

Film is a unique form of modern art, unlike any of its conceptual cousins. A painter, musician or novelist has free reign with regards to composition, which is a liberty not available to mainstream Hollywood film makers. Certainly, the independent movie, which has spawned one of the films featured within the following study, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, is an avenue open to individuality, but this is a separate sphere from Hollywood.

Funding, production and backing of the Hollywood movie industry comes from corporate finance and from the vetting of scripts that constitutes a process unlike any other creative commerce. In this way, Hollywood movie making remains within the control of the most conservative elements of the ruling elite in a way that other forms of artistic expression are not. It is a fundamental truth that is central to understanding to the remainder of the dissertation, as independent film maker Gus Van Sent (1994:214)testifies.

“The point of any film, big or small, is to make a good one, and then let the scope and subject dictate the expansiveness of the audience. But a lot of the decision making depends on what a person has done before. Opinions about art are so subjective that the only objective orientation becomes your past product.”

Furthermore, the producers of films work in the knowledge that their output will be seen, discussed and interpreted by a far greater audience than will ever read a play, visit an exhibition or, even, attend a musical concert. As such, the discussion of the influence of Hollywood in perpetuating the particular reality that it wishes to export to its viewers is highly topical and highly significant at any given time. Its power is absolute in American and Western society, forming a billion dollar industry with a level of cultural influence that can only really be guessed at.

In light of the contemporary conflict between Islam and the West, the subject of Hollywood has taken on increasing significance due to the subtle shift in the way in which Islamic men are portrayed on film, facilitating a climate of mistrust that is only to the advantage of bigots on both sides that wish to see a continuation of hostilities between the Middle East and the countries of the West. The terrorist atrocities of 9/11 and the subsequent ‘war on terror’ have necessarily played a part in the burgeoning feeling of alienation felt by Muslims across the world, as the mantel of stereotypical bad guy has shifted to that of the traditional Islamic, Arabian male.

For the purpose of the following study, the dissertation must be divided into sub headings. The first part of the analysis will be primarily concerned with setting a cultural and artistic tone for the discussion, showing how a tradition of misconception has paved the way for a stereotypical filmic portrayal of the Islamic man that is out of touch with reality. This section will be dominated by an extensive literature review that will examine the academic discourse devoted to Islam as well as Western theoretical models pertaining to power and cultural dominance.

The second part of the dissertation will analyse specific Hollywood case studies that depict Islamic men and a cultural ‘other’, which necessitates adopting a similarly chronological approach to cinema as one would to history, so as to trace the evolution of the demonization of Islam in American film. With this in mind, it is prudent to turn attention towards a review of the academic literature available on the subject of Islam in order to forge a better understanding of the intricacies of the broader methodology in question.

Literature Review

Due to of the primacy of ideology over religion in international relations, little attention has historically been paid to Islam in comparison to, for instance, the study of Marxism. Only when the Cold War had reached its zenith in the late 1960’s did Islam become more academically relevant, particularly so concerning the ultimate victory of capitalism and the related trump card of oil held firmly in Arabian hands.

As the enormous wealth and bargaining power available to oil magnates of the Middle East became apparent, Islam was gradually perceived as a threat in the West, particularly by the large American corporations that had stakes in the oil reserves (many of whom hold the keys to power in the American State in 2005). Although this threat was, at the time, solely of an economic ilk, the significance of the demonization of the Arabian businessman in the broader Western consciousness has had a lasting effect with regards to the contemporary portrayal of Islamic men in Hollywood cinema. As will become apparent, fear and Islam have always gone hand in glove when viewed through the prism of a Western, judgemental lens.

This deep seated sense of threat felt by the West is not a recent phenomenon. The history of the West’s relation with Islam is fraught with friction, dating back to the First Crusade (1099) and the following horrors and atrocities committed on both sides. Two more Crusades followed, both fuelled by religion but practised by hatred, signalling the beginning of the end of communications between the two cultural blocs. It was the construction of a psychological blockade that has yet to be fully dismantled; and, as Curtin (2000:178) points out with reference to the Ottoman Empire (the ‘sick man of Europe’),isolation breeds mistrust.

“In spite of frequent warfare, cultural exchange between Ottomans and the West ranged from watchful tolerance to benign contempt. The Christians had a long standing horror of Islamic contamination, going back to the rise of Islam and intensifying with the Crusades. The Ottomans were more tolerant of religious difference but the millet system combined permissiveness with an effort to seal off Christian minorities into segregated communities.

” In this way, Islamic men have historically been seen as a fundamental threat to the West; religiously, culturally, politically and economically. Due to the totality of the threat posed by Islam, the fear felt by the West is thus unlike any other comparable social discord in history. The threat posed by black men was, for instance, a matter of creed, while the fear of communism was an inherently ideological struggle. The trepidation concerning Islam has been of an altogether more incriminating disposition. It is a threat tantamount tithe primeval fear of invasion, masked in crime. As will be shown, the criminalisation of the Arabic Islamic man is a key feature of contemporary Hollywood portrayals of Islam.

Paradoxically, in light of the shroud of secrecy built up around Islam, scant regard was paid to the actual cultural differences between the Middle East and the West within the bulk of Western literature until the late 1970’s. Only with Edward Said’s landmark study, Orientalism(published in New York in 1979) did the subject of the cultural divide between the two societies become part of mainstream academic discourse. Said’s work was, and remains, highly important because it challenged the fundamental belief in Western superiority that has been promulgated since the onset of European empire building in the sixteenth century.

Due to the following territorial and military domination enjoyed by Europeans, the achievements of the peoples of the Middle East was largely airbrushed from history, so as to underscore the triumph of Western culture over their supposedly inferior Muslim subjects. Said reminded the West of the scholarly debt it owed to Islam and the Middle East, which acted as the trigger for the enormous technological advances that created a fertile ground for European expansion centuries later.

He cited philosophy, mathematics, architecture, etiquette and astronomy as just some of the fields in which Islam has proved to be pioneer for the whole of humanity. With Orientalism and other studies, Said expertly highlighted the discrepancy between fiction and fact perpetuated in Western literature – a gulf that has since been mirrored in Hollywood film. The result has been a complete cultural misunderstanding as Said (1981:136) identified in his follow up study, Covering Islam.

“For the general public in America and Europe today, Islam is ‘news’ oaf particularly unpleasant sort. The media, the government, the geopolitical strategists, and – although they are marginal to the culture at large – the academic experts on Islam are all in concert: Islam is a threat to Western civilisation… negative images of Islam are very much more prevalent than any others, and that such images correspond not with what Islam ‘is’ but to what prominent sectors of a particular society take it to be… those sectors have the power and the will to propagate that particular image of Islam, and this image therefore becomes more prevalent, more present, than all others.”

The historical problem pertaining to academic understandings of the intricacies of Islam has therefore been one of a dearth of literature and, perhaps, a lack of respect for the achievements of the great Muslims civilisations of the past. During the 1980’s this was enhanced by a dominant culture of capitalism that had spread from the West tithe Middle East, specifically the oil rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia, making way for a climate of mistrust, exacerbated by profit and loss.

Indeed, academic interest in Islam remained very much a footnote of intellectual literature in the West until well into the 1990’s, the1993 World Trade Centre bombings briefly igniting a resurgence of interest in the topic, though this was necessarily concerned almost entirely with terrorism. The link between terrorism and Muslim men was in fact forged some twenty years beforehand, but the escalation of this fictional combination began in earnest during the last decade of the twentieth century.

Furthermore, where Islam was commented on within academic literature during the 1990’s, focus was largely dominated by the on-going religious and ethnic struggle taking place in Bosnia. Many books were written on the Balkan Crisis and Europe’s historic struggle to incorporate Islam, such as the academic examinations carried out by Morris (1994) and Cardini (2001). Yet this type of literary coverage has done little to increase awareness regarding the broader plight of Muslims across the globe.

In addition to the Muslims in question being of a Southern European descent (which, in terms of portrayal, immediately set the Muslim Bosnians and Serbs apart from the image of the traditional Islamic men from the Middle East), understanding and compassion were further hampered by incessant terrorist strikes in the former Soviet territory of Chechnya which did Islam no favours in terms of their media, literary and filmic portrayal in the West. Terrorism, even before September 2001, had therefore already formed an unhealthy association with Islam in both literature and the more general paradigm of popular culture and it is an image that has since proved impossible to shed.

It has been seen that the greatest problem for literature concerning the subject of Islam has been a lack of insight on the part of Western analysts. With the exception of commentators such as Said, Richard Falkland John L. Esposito, in addition to the recent book by Jitter Klausen,The Islamic Challenge: Politics and Religion in Western Europe(particularly relevant to this study), the collective content of American and Western literature has failed to properly address the ideology of Islam or its broader appeal.

Yet there are more fundamental problems facing students of the West that wish to attain a better understanding of the complexities of cultural conflict in the Middle East. One of the greatest theoretical challenges facing contemporary literature has been how to differentiate between Arabs as a people and Islam as a faith. It is a subject that has only very recently been explored by academics who see a blurring of the lines between Arabs and Muslims as a potential cause of the perpetuation of negative stereotyping in the West.

The difference is not easy to explain. The key to comprehending the symbolic marriage of Islam and Arabism is the wholly different conceptual set up of countries in the Middle East compared to the West, which is best understood as an inversion: whereas the European Union strives to create a sense of unity where none exists, the opposite effect is apparent in the Middle East, where a shared sentiment of cultural hegemony is visible across a myriad of state borders. Contemporary analysts such as Karsh (2003:1) believe that this unique concept of hegemony in the Middle East is a direct result of nineteenth century European imperialism that attempted to instil the concept of the nation-state into an area that had been no prior history of nationalism.

“In past years, the foremost challenge to the [territorial state]system came from the doctrine of pan Arabism (qawmiya), which sought to eliminate the traces of Western imperialism and unify the Arab nation, and the associated ideology of Greater Syria, which stresses the territorial and historical indivisibility of most of the Fertile Crescent. Today, the leading challenge comes from Islamist notions of single Muslim community (Uma). Intellectuals and politicians, denouncing it as an artificial creation of Western imperialism at variance with Arabic yearnings for regional unity, have repeatedly urged its destruction.”

If academics find it difficult to explain the inherent difference between Muslims and the broader consensus of Arabs, then it should come as no surprise to learn that Hollywood has not even dared to approach the subject, preferring to equate Arab with Muslim and portray one as the same. It is for this reason that the typical Muslim man depicted in Hollywood film is always of Middle Eastern descent and more often than not, sporting traditional Arabic dress. This divisive symbolism is a far more potent manifestation of evil.

It should be noted that the blame for this general lack of cultural understanding between the Middle East and the West does not lie solely at the feet of American and European academics and society. Islamic literature is likewise too generalist. Arabian intellectual circles, for instance, have very much been at the root of the recent resurgence in fundamentalism in the Middle East whereby their own misconceptions of the West are far more acute than any hitherto Hollywood portrayals of Islamic men.

The West, particularly the Jews, is portrayed as universally decadent people that are intent on waging a war of annihilation with Islam as a faith, seeking to destroy the people of the region in the process. Moreover, because many of the key Hollywood executives are of Jewish origin, this official school of hatred emanating from strict Muslim intellectual centres further curtails attempts at forging a shared level of cultural comprehension. Moreover, as Saltpetre (2002:2) explains, the increasing reference to the Koran makes extremism seem legitimate in the eyes of God, constituting discernibly dangerous direction for fundamentalism to take.

“Now, with the surge in Muslim fundamentalism, Arab anti-Semitism has returned to the Koran. The Jews are no longer an inferior people that should be kept in inferior status and their lives protected; they are enemies of Islam and must be obliterated.”

It has been seen that literature has historically forged an unlikely and unhealthy partnership with propaganda in both the Middle East and the West, bequeathing an ideal breeding ground for cultural misconceptions with few able to ascertain reasons as to why, as Abdelwahab Meddeb (2003:11) suggests, “the Islamic world has been unceasingly inconsolable in its destitution.”

The sphere of greatest academic advance has not been in the study of Islam or of the effects of depicting the cultural ‘other’, but instead in examinations dedicated to the study of power. Karl Marx (1968:64 65)in his nineteenth century critique of the corrupt power of the media, was the first to recognise the significance of the status quo that had been artificially constructed by the ‘ruling elite’, and which defined power in the hands of a privileged few.

“The ideas of the ruling classes are in every age, the ruling ideas: i.e. the class, which is the dominant material force in society, is at the same time its dominant intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the sometime over the means of mental production… in so far as they rule as class and determine the extent and compass of each epoch, they do this in its whole range, hence, among other things, they regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age; thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.” .

Marx made these comments in an age that was dominated by print media; what he would have made of the symbolic power and influence of American film in 2005 is an intriguing matter of conjecture. Michel Foucault, writing during the 1970’s and 1980’s, centred his own studies on discernibly postmodern kind of society that had turned its attention away from oppositional forces in society to embrace the concept of thyself. Foucault also sees the modern Western state as an essentially constrictive monolith that restrains people’s choices and minimises individualistic questioning, constituting what he calls; “the microphysics of power.” (1977:26)

In terms of the effects power has had upon the portrayal of people, Foucault explains that tradition, gender and ethnicity have been constructed as a means of instilling order and the concept of the station a humanity that is at odds with such a fictitious composition. With the demonization of the Islamic man, we are simply witnessing once again the official formulation of fear, in order to keep in place the checks and balances that constitute our post-modern social contract. As will be seen, this is not the only marriage of convenience that has taken place concerning the West’s pre occupation with Islam.

The Historical Marriage of Hollywood and Propaganda

The greatest mistake any student of film can make is to presume that propaganda is solely the domain of despotism. Although America claims to be the most inclusive society and best functioning democracy in the world it is not a country that has access to complete freedom of information. Much of the media is controlled by large corporations that, together with the body politic, make up the modern American State– the physical manifestations of Marx and Foucault’s models of power. Hollywood, likewise, is under the influence of a small clique of media moguls who are in close contact with Washington over key cultural concepts and it often appears that a hidden deal has been done to perpetuate official policy in the context of fantasy and film.

It is important to note that it has not always been the case. Whereas, for example, before the Second World War, Hollywood was viewed largely a means of escapism, devoid of reference to the trials of life during the Great Depression, after 1945 it became more overtly political and stereotypical concerning its portrayal of characters. The lesson was infect learnt from the experiment of Nazi Germany where Goebbels created the most successful propaganda machine ever witnessed, using cinema ashes main source of seducing the German people into genocide and extremism. Yet, as Staley (2001:99) explains, the ultimate power of film as state propaganda is a delicate balancing act.

“[The Nazis] were acutely aware of the power of film as a propaganda medium. They were also aware that such use of film could be overdone, and that often people wanted just to be entertained.”

Taking this basic premise, Hollywood began to incorporate politics into mainstream film after the defeat of fascism and its allies. Entertainment, always its raison d’être, remained Hollywood’s primary artistic export with a soft underbelly of political comment ushered in when the international climate demanded it. As a result, during the1970’s and 1980’s, the stereotypical Russian male was the most consistent villain in Hollywood, a direct result of the ideological residue of the on-going cold war between the USA and the USSR.

Although not at all comparable to the depiction of Jews in Nazi film, the subtler enforcements of dominant cultural attitudes as portrayed in Hollywood cinema should not be underestimated. As Esposito (1999:214)claims, only after the end of the Cold War did the futility of the evil portrayal of Soviets become apparent, a fact that should not go unnoticed for members of the population that feel an unnecessary fear towards Muslims at the dawn of the twenty first century.

“There are lessons to be learnt from the Cold War. Celebration of the unravelling of communism and the victory of democracy has been tempered by questions that go to the heart of our ability to understand, analyse and formulate policy. Delight at the triumph of democracy was accompanied by a growing realisation of the extent to which fear and the demonization of the enemy blinded many to the true condition and extent of the Soviet threat… In understanding and responding to events in the Muslims world, we are again challenged too resist easy stereotypes and solutions.”

At different times, Europeans and Japanese have likewise been cast as the perennial ‘baddies’ in American film, corresponding to the prevalent international relations climate at the moment of production. Germans have also found it difficult to shed the unwanted tag garnered via the Nazis and even the English have been consistently used as evil henchmen in Hollywood films of the past. The important point is, regardless of the ethnicity or nationality of the historical ‘baddie’ in Hollywood cinema, the good guy has always been the American so as to highlight the essential liberty of the symbolism of the USA in contrast to the relative failings of all other societies and cultures. Film has therefore always conformed to the dominant cultural conception of ethnicity in America and it has long since been a key source of state propaganda.

The breakup of the Soviet Union, which began in earnest in 1991,necessitated are alignment of Hollywood’s stance towards the role of Russian men in cinema. The Hunt for Red October (1990) was a landmark Hollywood film as it portrayed a key Russian submarine captain as pacifist, one who was torn between his national duty and his political sensibilities that were very much against fighting the US. Yet Hollywood required a replacement for the role of national enemy, made vacant by the opening up of Russia to the free market economy.

Long before 1991, the image of the typical Islamic man had been cited as a potential enemy for portrayal in cinema, facilitated by the climate of misunderstanding described in the previous chapter. Political events in the Middle East also assured that the West retained its inherent fear for the culture of Islam with the religious and cultural ‘revolution’ that took place in Iran in 1979 acting as catalyst for the growing sense of fear surrounding Western notions of the Arabic man, as Falk (2003:182) explains.

“The emergence on the world stage of the Ayatollah Khomeini suggested the potency of another way of envisioning governance and human destiny that rested on traditional values and the primacy of religious leaders and institutions in shaping the life of society.”

As well as the very real sense of fear felt by America in response to events in Iran, the terrorist actions committed by the rogue state of Libya, which specifically targeted American interests during the 1970’sand 1980’s, further heightened tensions between the relatively ignorant Western populace and the traditional Islamic man. Together with the widespread US fuel shortages of the late 1970’s that were blamed on rich Arabian oil magnates, this triumvirate of stereotypes made up the fundamental building blocks of the portrayal of the Islamic man in Hollywood film. These three characters should be borne in mind throughout the remainder of the discussion as the religious, terrorist and financial incarnation of evil that is depicted in Western culture has gradually pervaded mainstream cinema with predictably negative effects. Alone, each of these Muslims characters appears alien rather than sinister; the three roles combined, however, constitute the ultimate onscreen villain.

September 11, 2001

The stereotypical portrayal of Islam changed irrevocably after the events of September 11, 2001. Almost immediately, newscasters turned their attention to the reasons for perceived Islamic hatred towards the West. The result was a sentiment of disgust projected at the ubiquitous Arabic man that had perpetrated the atrocity, made worse by the action taking place upon American soil.

Within hours of the strikes, cable and satellite broadcasters relayed images of jubilant Muslims dancing in the streets of the Middle East burning American flags making it appears if the entire Islamic world was behind the atrocity. When Fox News broadcasters such as Sean Hannity (2004:1) join the ‘debate’ with inflammatory views such as those highlighted below, the sense of threat felt by the broader population was significantly and needlessly amplified.

“Three years ago evil surfaced in the Western world in a way that it had not in six decades, since the day of infamy at Pearl Harbour. Americans were forced to confront pure human wickedness in a way we had not in generations.”

By comparing 9/11 to the fascist alliance of World War Two, the American media opened up an avenue of cultural indifference that should have remained off limits. With the inherent distrust of Islam already deeply embedded in Western society, the image of the Islamic man quickly descended from that of traditional ‘outsider’ to cold hearted villain. This evil portrayal of Muslims was greatly exacerbated by the subsequent ‘war on terror’, a concept that has little tangible ideological meaning beyond the corridors of power in Washington DC. The ‘war on terror’ has helped to make hatred of Islam official; a matter of politics rather than opinion.

Just as the Koran has legitimised Arabian terrorism, so the ‘war on terror’ has facilitated American imperialist aggression and the demonization of the Islamic male in the greater cultural consciousness. Indeed, influential and highly respected American academics such as Gore Vidal and Noah Chomsky believe that this on-going perceived terrorist threat is, ultimately, tithe US Government’s advantage as it gives fresh, relevant impetus tithe pursuit of dominance in international affairs. As Chomsky (2003:13)succinctly concluded: “the goal of the imperial grand strategy is to prevent any challenge to the power, position and prestige of the United States.”

It can be seen that the post 9/11 Arabic threat is made of much more sinister material than the previous incarnation of evil prevalent in portrayals of Islamic men within Western culture and film. Furthermore, because Al Qaeda are so difficult to detect it has been deemed safer to declare all Islamic men a threat. The contemporary war against Islam is therefore a war waged against its entire people. Consequently, ‘living and working amongst us’ has been a consistent threat levied by both the Bush and Blair administrations, in order to make the Islamic threat more immediate and the tangible. This is a key theoretical difference between the contemporary depictions of Arabs as opposed to all other international ‘baddies’ adopted by Hollywood in the past, making the creation of a false climate of fear all the simpler to adopt.

Without incessant reminders of the perils of Islam from the media, the drip tap effect of film as propaganda would not have a lasting effect. Moreover, the Western media’s obsession with Islamic ‘fundamentalism’, which has, via deep seated prejudice, become a by word for Islam, has further alienated reason from the contemporary debate surrounding Islam. As a result, coverage of Muslim aggression towards the West has increasingly been relayed with an air of inevitability, a fatalism that was likewise present between communist capitalist divide the only a few years beforehand. It is an illusion created by a shared history of secrecy, a point which Keppel (2002:313) illustrates with reference to terror chief, Osama bin Laden, in his thesis, Jihad: the Trial of Political Islam.

“The most complete and media conscious drift into terrorism of any among the jihadist salamis faction was that of Osama bin Laden. In1996 the United States dubbed him worldwide public enemy number one because of a wide range of terrorist acts attributed to him, and as result bin Laden had become, by the turn of the century, the new visage of the Evil Empire. His name and face ensured the success of dozens of television programmes, magazines, books, and Internet sites and justified a wide range of American policy decisions. Ironically, all of this exposure would make him a hero of anti Americanism in the Muslim world.”

Therefore, it is apparent that excessive analysis of ‘fundamentalism ‘has hampered attempts at depicting Islam in a true light and only served to increase Muslim people’s sense of cultural isolation. If anything the poor level of academic understanding, coupled with negative media and film portrayal, has actually helped to till the land upon which the seeds of terrorism might germinate, as Esposito and Vole(2003:237) explain.

“Conflict and dialogue are frequently seen as the alternatives in relations between Islam and the West. In the months following the destruction of the World Trade Centre by terrorist on 11 September2001, conflict visions received much attention. The words of Muslims like Osama bin Laden, who proclaim the necessity of violent conflict with the West, gained high visibility and were regularly repeated in the global mass media.”

It is this gulf between reality and fictional depiction that is recurring theme throughout the study and the reason for the significance of the following examination into specific Hollywood case studies, which suggests that the media’s appetite for stereotyping is shared by American movie producers and Hollywood executives.

Analysis: Case Studies

The first contemporary portrayal of an Islamic man in a mainstream Hollywood film came in 1975 with Sean Connery’s portrayal of a Moroccan chieftain, who kidnaps an American widow in John Milieus’ film, The Wind and the Lion. Typically fearsome, though admittedly sympathetic, Connery’s character is pit at odds with US President Theodore Roosevelt, one of the symbols of US historical culture, which gives the movie a sub text of good versus evil played out to t


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