Factory of stereotypes

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Jack Shaheen's book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People appeared just a few months before 11 September 2001. The impact that the 9/11 attacks had on the "dream factory" in the following six years is described in his latest book, Guilty: Hollywood's Verdict on Arabs after 9/11. The documentary version of Reel Bad Arabs was released last year. Shaheen spoke to Bart Griffioen about his work.

In Reel Bad Arabs you use a great number of examples to illustrate Hollywood's long history of dehumanising Arabs. How would you describe the ways Arabs are portrayed?

From the first silent movies right through to blockbusters like Back to the Future and True Lies there is a constant factor when you look at the way Arabs and Muslims are portrayed. It is the image of the mean villain - the over-sexed Bedouin bandit, the sheikh with his big beard and curved sword, or the violent terrorist.

Women from the Middle East fall into one of two categories - either the submissive slave or the mysterious belly dancer out to seduce us. In recent years however, they have often been portrayed as terrorists too. They are all classic examples of "the Other", as Edward Said has described in his book Orientalism.

What are the most striking examples of this stereotyping?

They are innumerable. Take Walt Disney's animated film, Aladdin, a huge box office success in 1992 which was seen by millions of children around the world. In the opening song we hear, "I come from a land, from a faraway place where the caravan camels roam, where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face. It's barbaric, but hey, it's home."

Or see, for example, the racism in Rules of Engagement in which a bloodbath among demonstrating civilians in Yemen caused by US soldiers is justified, because an investigation shows that the dead women and children themselves started the shooting. The seriously injured little girl with whom we initially sympathise is hereby transformed into a terrorist too.

Of the films reviewed for Reel Bad Arabs, you assess about 900 as negative and only 12 receive a positive assessment. Has this difference changed much since the beginning of the "war on terror"?

Of the hundred new movies I describe in Guilty I would call 20 "balanced" at most. The other 80 show a continuation of the Islamophobic trend. The Kingdom - by the same makers as Rules of Engagement - is simply one of the latest examples. In it Arabic children are portrayed as terrorists again.

The roots of this stereotyping go back much further than 9/11. Hollywood's imagery has made it a lot easier for US governments to ideologically justify wars: the absurd link between Saddam Hussein and Hitler, the racism of US soldiers towards Iraqis and Afghans, the establishment of the Patriot Act and so on.

All these things were made much easier because for years Hollywood has systematically helped to embed prejudices like these in people's minds. Think of the famous statement by Jack Valenti, one of the most powerful bosses in the US film industry, that Hollywood and Washington are "sprung from the same DNA".

You were an adviser on the making of Three Kings and Syriana, two movies that show a different side of the Middle East. The post-9/11 era has produced more critical films like Michael Moore's work and the anti-racist Oscar winning Crash. Are these just exceptions or is there more going on?

These films do US reality more justice, but I wouldn't call them more than sparks. The mainstream media would rather keep these progressive movies quiet. Overall the exceptions confirm the rule, despite the amount of attention they sometimes get. As far as that's concerned, the real extremists continue to dominate the airwaves.

We shouldn't forget that in dozens of US TV shows there is still ample room for prejudices about Muslims, and that's what people see at home. Anti-Arab films like Iron Eagle and Navy Seals from the Cold War era are still rerun on TV. All this keeps feeding the paranoia about everything that just looks Arab. Exceptions like Babel or Paradise Now - movies that clearly show a very different image of Muslims - do have a positive impact. But often the independence of these productions means that, sadly, many people will never be able to see them.

You have also drawn a comparison with how the Nazis used film for anti-Semitic propaganda?

There are many similarities between the stereotypes of Arabs in film and the way Joseph Goebbels portrayed "the Jew" - for example exaggerating so-called physical characteristics, "their" control over "our" oil or "our" money, "their" seduction of "our" women. You could make a short powerful film by putting these stereotypes side by side - it would make a good tool to confront Dutch politician and anti-Islamic filmmaker Geert Wilders.

I believe we should extend our resistance against the discrimination of Jews, blacks and Latinos, to Muslims and Arabs. I am an optimist by nature, but this is a huge task when you look at the control the studio bosses have over the distribution of ruling ideas. That's why filmmakers too have a great responsibility to counteract this ideological warfare.