Sunday, September 27, 2009

American Arabs need a more sophisticated approach to Hollywood racism that recognizes the bad with the good

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A recent online post discussed the continued smearing of Arabs and Muslims by Hollywood, quoting one of the most authoritative analysts of the topic, Jack Shaheen.

The discussion was on New University by writer Daniel Johnson.

We are seeing an unusual trend of change taking place in Hollywood, one where Arabs and Muslims post-Sept. 11, 2001, are being portrayed with more sensitivity and at least more accuracy. But at the same time, the hate-wing of the Hollywood and TV industry that has slandered Arabs and Muslims since the big screen and TV first appeared, seem to be overcompensating to off-set the positive portrayals by digging deeper into their own hatred to portray Arabs and Muslims even worse.

The New University article discussed one aspect of this, but offered two examples that I think symbolize this change that are not being properly accessed. One is the TV series 24 with Kiefer Sutherland, a despicable production that is fueleed not by talent and creativity but rather by pure hatred, playing on the fears and emotions of the TV public audience. It's portrayals of Arabs and Muslims are so outrageous it is pure fantasy based not so much on reality but rather on stereotypes, hatred, and racism.

On the otherhand, many Arabs and Muslims have bashed The Kingdom. But the truth is The Kingdom, which portrays Muslims and Arabs in a negative light, also balances off that portrayal with positives of Arabs and Muslims.

Click here to read the New University post.

Here is what I wrote in response to the argument that was being discussed:

I disagree on the issue of the film The Kingdom. I think the American Arab community is too critical of this film, a criticism driven by years of anti-Arab hatred in Hollywood. Sometimes, we are pummeled so often in Hollywood movies we respond with a heightened sensitivity and anger.
The Kingdom was a phenomenal movie. And I think what is needed is a discussion about the new trend in movies to offer some balance. Clearly, "24" is driven by a hate of Arabs and Muslims that is racist. That racist and hateful theme is embraced by many of the actors in the TV series including by Kiefer Sutherland, who is very rightwing and who seems to embrace extremists NeoCon views in this country.

But The Kingdom was a very balanced protrayal of a reality that there are some Islamicists, not really Arabs -- the competing identity of Arabs and Muslims is growing in intensity. Although any terrorists today happen to be Arab, they are driven by bastardized distortions of Islam to fuel their fanaticism. The Kingdom did a great job of reflecting that reality pitting the religious fanatics against the more moderate religious Arabs who fought side by side to capture and kill the terrorists.
The Kingdom reflects a reality in today's world. The TV Series 24 reflects a fanaticized expression of hatred in Hollywood that lingers from the early days of the silent screen when Arabs were portrayed as rapists of beautiful White Women -- who by the way were far from beautiful : )

The point is this. The reality is that the Arab and Muslim World have a share of evil terrorists who dominate the conflicts in today's world. It doesn't mean they are the only ones, but in today's day and age, they dominate the horizon. There are some terrorists out there -- many in fact -- who are Muslim and who are Arab and what makes them worse is that they commit their acts of terrorism by wrapping themselves tightly in their Arab and Islamic identity.

Although there are many terrorists and evil criminals out there who are not Arab or Muslim, they often do not wrap themselves in their identity or religion and that is a distinction worth debating and discussing.

But, we do not have a debate in the Arab and Muslim community today at all.

We remain victims of an era when Arabs and Muslims were turned in to victims by a society that used Hollywood and TV to portray us in the most obscene manner. As victims, we are over sensitive. We respond with knee-jerk reaction to every film that includes a negative stereotype. The Kingdom is a phenomenal film that accurately depicts the reality and sophisticated reality of Arabs and Muslims. There are some very bad Muslims who use terrorism and violence against civilians to advance their religious agenda.

They happen to be Arab but the fact that they are Arab is insignificant to them and to the challenges they pose.

If we Arabs and Muslims want to overcome the hatred, the racism, the bigotry and the stereotypes in society and change the misconduct and abuse by Hollywood and the TV industry, we need to first deal with our own problems. We need to recognize the reality and stop defending the indefensible by not speaking out against the extremists, fanatics and crazy activists who seem to dominate our Arab and Muslim communities in places like this country, the United States.

And we need to be smart about recognizing racism and hatred and stereotyping. Criticism is not always racism or hatred. What has been condemned as "stereotyping" in the film The Kingdom, for example, is in fact legitimate criticism. It reflects a reality in the Arab and Muslim World. We need to recognize that reality as well as be activists to confront the real hatred, racism and stereotypes we face.

Otherwise, we will not see a substantive change in either Hollywood or on Television which remain powerful forces of education for people in the Western World and especially in America where the two industries reside.

-- Ray Hanania

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