The perception of Arabs and Islam throughout history has been influenced by the political elite, the mass media and the Hollywood film industry. .Arabs and Muslims have always been represented as one in popular discourse when in fact the majority of Muslims are not of Arab background. This paper will demonstrate the stereotypes and generalisation by examining Hollywood films in the 20th century. Juan Cole a professor of modern Middle East and South Asian history says ‘I think Anti-Arab racism & profiling has become respectable’. Islam has always been a contentious issue brought up by the media often linked with terrorism, extremism and the widespread notion that conflict between the Arab Muslims and the West is inevitable. These stereotypes and generalisations have been around for the many centuries in particular throughout the 20th century in the Western world through one of the main drivers which is visual media.
According to a poll completed by the Washington Post in 2006, forty-six percent of Americans have a negative view of Islam; these statistics are higher than the polls that were held in 2001 after the events of September 11. In the same article the Washington Post mentions that conservative and liberal experts believe that the attitudes created towards Islam are fuelled in part by political statements and media reports that focus almost solely on the actions of Muslim extremists. In the West, mainstream media does not provide an accurate representation of Muslims that represents their ethnic, racial, cultural and national diversity. It means that a majority of the Western world do not understand the multi cultural and diversity of the Muslims due to what they see in the films and the mass media. Michael France the Vice President of government relations for the Conservative Heritage Foundation states that “Political leaders do not help the ‘problem’ by sometimes using language that links all Muslims with extremists”. In his quote he acknowledges the fact there is a problem, this problem is a result of what people see in the media of Arabs and Islam. There is a tendency in the media to focus on one aspect of Islam. Consequently, when the only representation of Muslims in the mass media is as terrorists or extremists, and there is minimal focus on the lives of the ordinary mainstream Muslims, consumers of the media begin to shape their opinions of Islam and Muslims through extremism and terrorism. Similarly the Middle East, Islam and Arabs are all characterised as one and not distinguished. It is very problematic to view and understand a vast and complex region such as the Middle East through such a selected and distorted guise. It takes away the humanity and diversity of millions of ordinary people living decent and humane lives. These unrealistic representations also have the ability to put fear in people, causing all Muslims and all Arabs, irrespective of their religion, to be perceived as threats.
There has been a consistent pattern of Arab stereotypes throughout the 20th century. These stereotypes are mainly conveyed through cinema. Hollywood has a tendency of projecting those of ‘Middle Eastern appearance’ as villains and associate them with certain stereotypes. These stereotypes include the oil rich Arabs who are too dumb to know the value of money and are trying to buy chunks of America, exotic woman wearing see through dresses belly dancing, the magic flying carpet and one of the most common stereotypes which is the Arab terrorist that hates America. Yet, despite these perceptions that are revealed within the films they are also far extended to cartoons that are created for the younger viewers. A great example of this is “Aladdin” (1992), directed by John Musker and Ron Clements. The film was seen by millions of viewer’s world wide. In this film they have recycled every stereotype that goes back to the start of film that was originally inspired by the arts of the Orient. The opening seen of Aladdin, being with a song which contain the lyrics ‘Oh, I come from a land, a faraway place, Where the caravan camels roam, were they cut of your ear’s, if they don’t like your face, it’s barbaric, but hey its home’. For a film that is specifically aimed towards the younger generations, this dialogue is not only inappropriate but discriminates against all Arabs in general. In comparison if such vile words was to be directed towards another kind it would be deemed unacceptable by society. Carl Ernst, Chair of religion studies at the University of North Carolina quoted ‘In the movies Arabs are the equivalent of Hollywood Indians’. Out of every film ever made in the 20th century, nearly 25% of them have demeaned and generalised Arabs as being all the same and as just one thing. This reflects on the preconceived notion of the Western world’s perception of Arabs that is widely held.
Furthermore, political views have also been expressed in many films such as the 1996 film Cast a Giant Shadow (1996) directed by Melville Shavelson where one of the main character’s refers to the state of Israel and quotes ‘Now here is a country surrounded by 5 Arab nations ready to shove them in the Mediterranean, no guns, no tanks, no nothing, people fighting with their bare hands for little piece of desert’. Another famous movie Death before dishonour (1982) directed by Terry Leonard, Palestinian ‘terrorists’, invade a house and in cold blood slaughters an Israeli family. His film has scenes of American soldiers being kidnapped and horrifically tortured by Palestinian ‘terrorists’, and mobs of Arab protestors with beards and head turbans outside the American embassy burning the American flag. The film company Cannon, created by two Israeli producers Gholam and Globus in their 20 years at least 30 of their films vilifies all things Arab, in particular Palestinians. Many political policies and propaganda are reflected through cinema. Jack Valenti who was the president of the Motion Picture Association of America for 38 years said that ‘Washington and Hollywood sprung from the same DNA’. To solidify the connections between politics and Hollywood all that is needed is to look at many of the Hollywood films which state ‘produced in cooperation with the department of defence’. We see all these things that demonise and stereotypes Arabs and Muslims as being this one thing and the generalisation of one quarter of the world’s population. Bruce Lawrence a professor of Religion at Duke University says ‘the media is still representing Muslim images as that of forty years ago when the majority of Muslims were Arabs’.
When people think of the Middle East many people are inclined to have a pre-conceived notion of what kind of people live their, their beliefs and culture without having been there or studied them or even know someone from there. The Western world seems to look at the Middle East through a camera that distorts the actual reality of those places and those people. They have an unrealistic representation formed by the media and popular culture that tends to form stereotypical views and prevent cross-cultural understanding.
Perception’s of any race or ethnicity can affect decision’s regarding them. This is evident due to the impact of people’s opinions. The way people think and form their opinions can be significantly influenced by what they see in the mass media. The opinions’ that people have had on certain events and affairs in the past and present have greatly impacted the outcomes. During the Vietnam War, America was in Vietnam as an authority but the general public opinion of the Americans was incomplete disagreement with the government. This eventually resulted in America’s withdrawal from Vietnam. Public opinion has proven itself to have been the cause of many significant and vital decisions made throughout the world’s history till present.
The main reason that these perceptions are so effective especially in the case of Arabs and Muslims is a result of the twenty two Arab nations that have allowed themselves to be orientalised and to have continued with the way they are depicted by the West of them all being alike. This is due to the fact that they are in need of America’s support so they are not going to be criticising the West or engage themselves in proper dialogue anytime soon. In that respect the Arabs keep themselves in a way that collectively fulfils the kinds of representations that most westerners have in their minds about them which strengthens all these generalisations and stereotypes within Western societies and seem to people to be the truth about Arabs and Islam. Causes of these perspectives that we receive from the mass media also come down to the difficulties in receiving different perspectives from different news sources when they are owned by a small minority of individually owned giant corporations. The major corporations in America own eighty percent of the television sector of the media. Viacom owns CBS, NBC owns Electric; Walt Disney owns ABC and News Corporation owns the Fox Broadcasting Company. These small amounts of major corporations have turned the media in to a monopolistic industry and as a result the majority of American’s are receiving limited views and perceptions. The stereotypes and generalisation of any race and ethnicity is very problematic especially in the case of Arab countries where a major proportion of the international key issues throughout the 20th century have revolved around them and their influences. It’s the consistency of these stereotypes and perceptions of Arabs and Islam throughout history that has made these stereotypes so harmful. People are capable of subconsciously believing in them which manipulates the way that they perceive Arabs and Islam.
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