A timely look at American popular films made between 1973 and 2001 that use Arabs, their landscapes, and their cultures as villains—and what these depictions of “evil” Arabs reveal about American fears and insecurities.
The "evil" Arab has become a stock character in American popular films, playing the villain opposite American "good guys" who fight for "the American way." It's not surprising that this stereotype has entered American popular culture, given the real-world conflicts between the United States and Middle Eastern countries, particularly since the oil embargo of the 1970s and continuing through the Iranian hostage crisis, the first and second Gulf Wars, and the ongoing struggle against al-Qaeda. But when one compares the "evil" Arab of popular culture to real Arab people, the stereotype falls apart. In this thought-provoking book, Tim Jon Semmerling further dismantles the "evil" Arab stereotype by showing how American cultural fears, which stem from challenges to our national ideologies and myths, have driven us to create the "evil" Arab Other.
Semmerling bases his argument on close readings of six films (The Exorcist, Rollover, Black Sunday, Three Kings, Rules of Engagement, and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut), as well as CNN's 9/11 documentary America Remembers. Looking at their narrative structures and visual tropes, he analyzes how the films portray Arabs as threatening to subvert American "truths" and mythic tales—and how the insecurity this engenders causes Americans to project evil character and intentions on Arab peoples, landscapes, and cultures. Semmerling also demonstrates how the "evil" Arab narrative has even crept into the documentary coverage of 9/11. Overall, Semmerling's probing analysis of America's Orientalist fears exposes how the "evil" Arab of American popular film is actually an illusion that reveals more about Americans than Arabs.
A Choice Outstanding Academic Book
Honorable Mention, 2006 Arab American National Museum Book Awards
Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Titles
American Library Association
- Preface: Ichthyoid Man: Arcimboldo's The Water (1566)
- Introduction: Orientalist Fear
- Chapter One. The Exorcist: Assault on American Confidence (1973)
- Chapter Two. Rollover: Assault on the American Economy (1981)
- Chapter Three. Black Sunday: The Loss of Frontier Heroism (1976)
- Chapter Four. Three Kings: Assault on Victory Culture (1999)
- Chapter Five. Rules of Engagement: Attack from the Multicultural Front (2000)
- Chapter Six. CNN's America Remembers: The "Real" Attack (2002)
- Conclusion. The South Park Lesson and Orientalist Fear
The "evil" Arabs of American film are illusions. Much like those perplexing and ambiguous paintings of the celebrated Renaissance artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527 -1593), or those more simplistic drawings that are developed for entertainment and perception analysis in books featuring optical puzzles, the "evil" Arabs are also constructions for entertainment and have implications for the perceptions of the American cinematic audience. Samuel Tolansky has provided us with a useful term when discussing the type of illusions similar to that of the "evil" Arabs: illusions of "oscillating attention." Tolansky notes,
These are cases where the diagram is designed such that attention can alternately be concentrated on one of two possibilities. In some instances the mind seems actually to oscillate between the two possible interpretations in rapid succession, and it is difficult to decide just what is being seen.
While Tolansky cites concentration, attention, and distinguishing between light and dark as the causes of oscillating attention, writers like Patricia Ann Rainey, J. R. Block, and Harold E. Yuker believe that the driving force of what the viewers see first in an illusion of oscillating attention is "perception." Rainey tells her viewers/readers that perception is simply how people see things, or how people look at the world. She adds,
Differences in religion, ideology, political beliefs, and even prejudice can be explained in terms of how people perceive. Thus knowledge of perception will give an understanding of human beings.
Many of the portrayals of Arabs, at first glance, give the impression of cultural and ethnic traits that are inherently inimical to Western civilization. Even so, are not "evil" Arabs actually fictional characters that we have devised and, as such, not at all about the real Arabs and their multidimensional and deeply contoured cultures or ethnicity? Our filmic villains are narrative tools used for self-presentation and self-identity to enhance our own stature, our own meaning, and our own self-esteem in times of our own diffidence. Therefore, are the "evil" Arabs in American film actually oblique depictions of ourselves: the insecure Americans? And while we depict ourselves through them, do we not do so at the expense of the Arab Others?
"Evil" Arabs in American Popular Film is a film study written to encourage the American cinematic audience to look with a more critical eye at the depictions of the "evil" Arabs. It is written to promote a new way of thinking about the "evil" Arabs and to call forth a differentiation between the Arabs as-they-are-portrayed and the Arabs as-they-are. This book encourages its readers, when seeing or hearing of the "evil" Arabs, to scrutinize the characters and to discover our self-interested construction of the visual or the narrative: to see visual tropes that are often made through intertextuality and polarities of good and bad, and to identify narrative structures that adhere interstructurally to meaningful morphological formulae. Block and Yuker state of their illusions of oscillating attention, "Once one sees both pictures, it is impossible to focus on only one without the other 'popping' into your vision from time to time!" Here, I seek to achieve an analogous effect with, however, the more serious implications of cultural prejudice and racism in mind. I ask the reader to reconsider the "evil" Arabs and to think about the way in which the Arabs are devised to produce fear, and at times solace, in an American cinematic audience. With this reconsideration, the illusion will manifest itself, thus making prejudices inculcated through our popular culture more clearly perceptible, more easily isolated, and more likely to be dismantled.
Jack Shaheen is well known for his lectures, written work, and media appearances that challenge the stereotypes of Arabs used in Hollywood film and in Western television. Shaheen's emphasis on stereotypes is essential as a beginning foray into understanding the construction of the "evil" Arabs in film. Fundamentally, he calls our attention to the first image of the illusion. For example, he has identified the "Arab kit," or "instant Ali Baba kit," as a quick and easy assembly of the stereotypical Arab character in Hollywood:
Property masters stock the kits with curved daggers, scimitars, magic lamps, giant feather fans, and nargelihs [sic]. Costumers provide actresses with chadors, hijabs, bellydancers' see-through pantaloons, veils, and jewels for their navels. Robed actors are presented with dark glasses, fake black beards, exaggerated noses, worry beads, and checkered burnooses.
Offering historical perspective, Shaheen reminds us that "when one ethnic, racial, or religious group is vilified, innocent people suffer" and that "cinema's hateful Arab stereotypes are reminiscent of abuses of earlier times" (i.e., cinematic abuses of Asians, Native Americans, blacks, and Jews). He has taken on the difficult task of documenting a plethora of stereotype abuses and entreats the readers of his comprehensive tome of Hollywood films, cleverly titled Reel Bad Arabs, to join him in continuing to expose racism against Arabs in film—what he calls "The New Anti-Semitism"—and to find new ways of solving this problem. Shaheen states of his objective, "To see is to make possible new ways of seeing."
"Evil" Arabs in American Popular Film has been greatly inspired by Shaheen's impressive and important work. I, therefore, accept his challenge and would like to expand upon his work at a new level: essentially, to unveil the other image in the illusion of oscillating attention. To do so, we must consider Shaheen's work as an introduction to the topic of the prejudiced portrayals of the Arabs. Reel Bad Arabs is an indispensable reference tool to find films that abuse Arab characters. But, because of its cumulative nature, Shaheen's book does not reveal what it could about these films. In fact, the book overlooks important and unique "how" and "why" performances and strategies used in the construction of "evil" Arab characters in these films. For example, Shaheen's discussion of The Exorcist, given only two inches of text, is by far too "lite." While the author makes us aware of our obsessive cultural use of "evil" Arabs, and the Foreword to his book elucidates the Arabs as replacement villains for the Soviet Communists, I find my inquisitive appetite unsatisfied with his discussion confronting our cultural needs and desires to enlist these characters. As a result of Shaheen's focus on stereotypes, he, for example, promotes Three Kings in his "Best List" because he sees it as an improvement in stereotyping, even though it still denigrates the Arab character. We must look deeper, beyond the "Arab kit," at how the Arabs' images are misused. Shaheen has provided us significant opportunities to think further and to find the path for deeper self-assessment in our construction of "evil" Arabs. What is now needed is for scholars interested in the topic of cultural prejudice and racism in film to delve into these films, to scrutinize filmic visual tropes and narrative structures, and to investigate possibilities of why we keep using "evil" Arabs for our entertainment.
I enlist the work of Gordon W. Allport, who points out in his famous book The Nature of Prejudice that an attack on stereotypes alone will not eradicate the root of prejudice. The stereotype is but one of the keys on the ring that are needed to open the door holding the understandings of prejudice. Since an approach to prejudice must be a multitheoretical approach, Allport encourages us to delve deeper than the mere thought of the stimulus object (the Arab) and its phenomenology (how the Arab is perceived). One way of understanding the prejudicial act is to look at the character structure of the persons who employ the stereotype. We must discover their socially acquired personalities, attitudes, and beliefs; the structure of the society in which they live; long-standing economic and cultural traditions; and national and historical influences of long duration. This methodology turns the spotlight of the prejudicial act away from the hated object and concentrates on the haters. It can, therefore, help us discern the alternative image in the illusion of an "evil" Arab.
It makes sense, then, to consider those ideologies, and the myths that illustrate them, of the prejudiced persons' world. I borrow from Louis Althusser's notions of ideology as the individuals' imaginary relation to the real relations in which they live. Ideology, as Althusser explains, is an illusion considered as a truthful representation of reality that at the same time makes an allusion to reality. The human being is ideological by nature in that a concrete individual has already been and continually is transformed into a subject within the ideological frameworks at work and within the rituals of ideology. Ideology, the illusion based on allusion, causes the subject to culturally recognize and acknowledge raw occurrences and experiences in such a way that s/he will exclaim, "That's obvious! That's right! That's true!" What also occurs is the formation, through a process of "interpellation" (being hailed/called), of the individual's idealized self-image, or what Henry Krips acknowledges as a Freudian "ideal ego," that constantly rediscovers itself in the application of ideologies. When the individual is hailed/called, s/he should respond, nine times out of ten, to the interpellation as a subject by saying, "That's me. That's who I am." The stories humans tell to illustrate their ideologies, i.e., myths, go further in informing the individual of her/his subjective being, her/his connection to society, and her/his society's connection to the rest of the world and then the cosmos. Myths illustrate to the subject how to live a lively, healthy, and culturally meaningful life. They provide instructions, standards of value, and interpretive frameworks for experience, and, at the same time, power over existence. Myths, therefore, help to interpret and visualize the "truth" set forth in ideology. For example, while the individual may acknowledge her/himself as a subject existing in American capitalism, and American capitalism as the proper economic system at that, the success story of the American entrepreneur is the myth that illustrates the virtues of this capitalist ideology and the rules for the subject to follow.
Kaja Silverman acknowledges ideology as a suturing device in cinematic viewing. She sees that the filmic narrative is laden with ideological stances that interpellate individual viewers and thereby suture them into subjective positions within the film. Ideologies are often challenged in the film, but are also reaffirmed, strengthened, and proven righteous in the end. Susan Mackey-Kallis uses mythic structure as a way of analyzing Hollywood films to unlock the American cinematic audience's psyche and its love of film and thereby explain the successful popular appeal of particular films in our culture. To unlock prejudiced persons' ideologies and the myths through which they have been socialized and from which their society is structured, to see how that society has been formed from long-standing traditions and historical experience, is to properly apply Allport's approach to prejudice and can be enlightening when analyzing the "evil" Arabs in film. Ideologies and myths can inform us of our preconceptions, to which we cling when our vision and mentality confront these Arab characters on film. Or to borrow from Melani McAlister, these ideologies and myths can enlighten us as to how the Arabs and the Middle East come to make "common sense" when geographic and experiential spaces are too wide and, therefore, we must rely upon the medium of culture as surrogate.
Orientalism is one such ideological structure and a basis of the inquiry at hand. Edward Said's seminal book Orientalism looks at the European colonial period's portrayals of the Arabs, their cultures, and their Middle Eastern land as Western discourse. Orientalism dominates the way that we in the West see, anticipate, and react to the Arab world in our past, today, and likely in the future. Said shows how Western portrayals of the Arabs became an issue of disciplining power, a particular Western knowledge of the East that divides the world into a conceptually evolving, modern, and superior Occidental "us" versus a static, backward, and weakened Oriental "them." To use Orientalism as a basis of this inquiry is an appropriate way of understanding our preconceptions of the Arabs in terms of the methodology supported by Allport. It helps in providing a vantage point to see the other image, our Self, in the illusion of an "evil" Arab. After all, as Said has taught us, "Orientalism is—and does not simply represent—a considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with 'our' world."
One of the possible roots of prejudice, as noted by Allport, is the prejudiced persons' fears and anxieties, and such a consideration of fears and anxieties can better narrow our own inquiry. When the prejudiced persons can no longer control their fear, chronic anxiety will result. It puts them on alert and predisposes them to see all sorts of stimuli as menacing. While social pressures force them to control and repress their personal anxieties, they tend to project their fear onto Others; and if this phobia is socially allowable, it provides them psychic release, as they are rescued by the "impression of universality."
It becomes evident that discussion of stereotypes alone will not help us here. According to Allport, stereotype offers prejudiced persons a clear-cut structuring of the world, a way of imposing order where there is none, a lifeline to tried and tested habits when new solutions are called for, and an opportunity to "latch onto what is familiar, safe, simple, definite." In essence, then, prejudiced persons utter or consume the stereotype for its functional significance. They do so for consolation, comfort, the pleasure derived from classificatory order, and an adoption of the law of least effort when aspects of the Other seem ambiguous and disrupt "logical" order. Similarly, the Orientalists work within a repertoire of stereotypes. As part of the exercise of power over those foreign peoples and objects that they confront, the Orientalists use language and methods of control to assign Others into classification schemes that protect the Orientalist self. Therefore, to discuss films only in view of their stereotypes or Orientalist tropes would suggest a discussion that looks more at our derivation of comfort from the Arabs. Once the stereotype is effectively articulated, the anxiety is, for the short term, ameliorated. Stereotype is the response to anxiety, not the anxiety itself, and as such it is only a partial view of the illusion. Moreover, I believe, concentration on stereotype alone dangerously encourages us to leave the images of the "evil" Arabs as they are rather than to scrutinize them for our prejudicial roots and risk our own psychic comfort.
To get at a better understanding of the construction and use of "evil" Arabs in film, we must upset the prejudiced persons' project, overturn their applecart, and peel the skin of their personalities in order to see their ideal egos lying underneath. We must find out what makes them squirm to really expose the nerve of their fear—the raw source and the full weight of the prejudiced act. To do so, I propose that we find instances in which their ideological and mythic structures are threatened and placed in jeopardy. This will give these persons no refuge as they flail about, grab anything they can, accept any explanation, and use their ingenuity, and will expose what methods they employ to set their ideologies and myths right again. We must look for instances when the Orientalist project is disrupted or when the Arabs refuse to be disciplined—or at least are perceived as doing so. David D. Gilmore points out that interstitiality, or the flagrant refusal to be categorized or to accept categories, is a cause of human discomfort and fear for the categorizer. Likewise, Robert G. Lee states in his study of Asian Americans in popular culture that objects or people are designated as alien when their "presence disrupts the narrative structure of the community." An approach to our prejudicial portrayals of the Arabs, particularly Arab wickedness, in film requires that we look at our fears, in addition to our comforts, where threatened ideologies and myths are important features.
Such fears have become common and intriguing entertainment themes in our cinematic portrayals of "evil" Arabs from the 1970s on into the present and, as such, have added to our socially allowable phobia toward the Arabs. These films, however, are reflections of our real-life fears of the Arabs in our everyday cultural and political lives. The post-Vietnam decade became an era in which seemingly undisputable truths informed by American ideological and mythic narratives had become destabilized, and, hence, the confidence of the American national self was in peril.
David Frum's cultural study of the 1970s points out that this American decade is notable for our society's loss of trust in our institutions and institutional practices. Whereas after World War II Americans generally trusted their government and military, the bases and advances of Western sciences, the economic structure and practices of the free market system, and the words and guidance of paternal leaders, in the 1970s many of these postwar "givens" had become undermined and an atmosphere of mistrust, skepticism, malaise, and pessimism flourished. As Frum states, "[B]etween 1967 and 1981, the United States sank into a miasma of self-doubt from which it has never fully emerged." Frum does not blame the experiences of the 1970s themselves for this but rather the interpretation of experiences through the lens of overly zealous hopes and dreams, in the 1960s, that a postwar society would be great, just, and caring. This echoes Daniel J. Boorstin's description of American culture made earlier, in 1961. As Boorstin saw it then, Americans expected more than the world could offer. "We are ruled by extravagant expectations: (1) Of what the world holds . . . (2) Of our power to shape the world . . . We tyrannize and frustrate ourselves by expecting more than the world can give us or than we can make of the world." These hopes, dreams, and expectations, galvanized by the confidence of democracy, seemingly proven victorious in great military conflicts, came to a crashing halt in the 1970s. And so, refracted through such myths, the experiences of the 1970s seemed all the more suspicious, trust-breaking, and devastating. Therefore, Watergate, Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers, inflation, economic stagnation, unemployment, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) movement, and the rise in crime, to mention but a few of the important experiences of the decade, gained their reputations of notorious cultural importance because they usurped long-standing mythic structures and institutionalized ways of thinking in our American culture and/or dashed the postwar hopes and dreams.
Likewise, the rising power of the Middle East and the perceived threat of the Arabs became another infamous theme of the 1970s. The Middle East loomed as an evolving "global imaginary," to borrow from Christina Klein, that became a region often contextualized in an adversarial relationship with America, and, in turn, the Arabs were reduced to an ethnic imaginary that earned our prejudicial anger. For example, the Middle East became a nemesis in American foreign policy, and foreign policy, according to Melani McAlister, is a meaning-making activity that helps "to frame our ideas of nationhood and national interest," i.e., our ideologies. McAlister argues in her book Epic Encounters that in order to understand our cultural perceptions of the Middle East, we must consider our encounters through the nexus of foreign policy. From this vantage point, we can also see how our cultural perceptions make conventional wisdom of this policy. In particular, McAlister highlights the policies of "liberal developmentalism" before World War II, the "benevolent supremacy" theme of the 1950s, and the Nixon Doctrine of the 1970s. Liberal developmentalism promotes the economic influence of U.S. capitalism as an alternative to military conquest. In connection with Manifest Destiny egoism and self-interested commercial gains, the United States prior to World War II envisaged that all nations could and should replicate the U.S. model of economic, political, and cultural development. As McAlister describes it,
by making mass products (sewing machines, condensed milk, cameras) available cheaply, [Americans] would help increase living standards in Latin America, Asia, or Africa, while also improving the U.S. strategic position and making money for American businesses.
Benevolent supremacy is the ideology that calls for American international power, policy, and diplomacy to be used to promote democracy and the liberty of all nations as a morally preferable approach in comparison to slavery, referred to as being more like Soviet Communism, and arrogance, referred to as being more like European colonialism. The Nixon Doctrine sought to fund and arm friendly governments, which would then serve as proxies for the protection of American interests. The Middle East as global imaginary, in the 1970s, came to challenge these very ideologies and political policies through the discourses of oil, wealth, and violence. While the Middle East has been by no means exempt from ill-spirited American portrayals in the past, in the 1970s the reputation of the Arabs was assigned a new level of popular American contempt in light of these policies.
According to Frum, oil lay in wait for half a billion years until humans could imagine a use for it, and then, through the mysterious processes of mass hysteria, they "terrif[ied] themselves that they were running out of it." Daniel Yergin points out in his authoritative study of oil that the industrial nations' rising standard of living, the growing manufacture and consumption of newer and bigger products, the cheap cost of oil, and the high levels of oil production and supply drove a worldwide surge in oil consumption. In 1971, the Middle East was supplying the industrial nations with much of the oil necessary to fuel their growing industrial economies. Time magazine reported that 85 percent of Europe's, 91 percent of Japan's, and 18 percent of the United States's oil came mainly from the wells in the Middle East. Whereas oil-producing countries of the Third World could at one time be diplomatically played off of one another for Western benefit, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) was now seen as aggressively uniting in its effort to defend oil prices, demanding more of a share of the price per barrel, and becoming increasingly unhappy about Western support for Israel. The West saw oil revenues as reward for Western ingenuity finding a use for the viscous liquid. At the other end of the spectrum, OPEC viewed oil as an indigenous resource driving the economic destinies of the producing nations. Therefore, these producing nations believed that oil should be under their own conservatorship and not under the control of the executives of Western oil companies. Weeks later, Time began reporting that the Shah of Iran, an emergent leader of the Middle East nations, was now calling for OPEC-like consortiums for producing nations of other commodities, such as coffee, tin, and rubber, in order to wield power over consumer countries. The Middle East seemed to be calling forth the Third World to take on the Western nations. The OPEC countries were also demanding more control in the ownership of Western companies that were pumping oil in their nations, as if, in the American view, price increases were not enough to satisfy "their relentless search for new reserves of green." In response, American political policy began to group these nations into spheres of "oil arrogance," with Libya and Iraq being radical, and Iran and Nigeria being considered more moderate, and henceforth the Arab Middle East was being considered an area that was politically unstable for the West.
In the meantime, the rising wealth of the Arab oil nations was becoming increasingly more disconcerting in the American view. For an American culture that saw itself as economically fortunate from and morally deserving of the postwar economic boom, Arab wealth was a windfall of riches into the immature and irresponsible hands of Third Worlders. Arab wealth became an object of American jealousy, rivalry, and fear. For example, the $2.4 billion of Libya's annual oil income was depicted as coming in faster than the extremist Gaddafi could spend it on his Pan-Arabism dreams, the de-Westernization/Christianization of his nation, and its replacement with Islamicization. The oil reserves of the Middle East and the energy shortages of the West created an imbalance that, as it was believed, "may very well lead to significant redistribution of the world's monetary wealth." Some imagined the future of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as being not "run by the suave, dark-suited Americans and Europeans, but by white-robed sheiks from the Middle East." Expectations were that America would increasingly rely on the Middle East in the future (up to 50 percent of its oil imports coming from the Arab nations). Americans would be spending more just to keep their lifestyles, while the Middle East nations would gather funds almost twice as fast as they could spend them. There was a fear that the Arabs were likely to be irresponsible and untrustworthy with this new monetary wealth, maybe even using blackmail against America, and, thus, it was feared that America was funding its own demise. In the meantime, as a State Department spokesman stated, "With the possible exception of Croesus, the world will never have seen anything like the wealth which is flowing and will continue to flow into the Persian Gulf."
Before the outbreak of the October War and the Arab oil embargo of 1973, Arabs were seen as purveyors of violence that threatened the balances of power in the world. The Arab-Israeli conflict became an imbroglio that threatened to bring the United States and the USSR into an arena where the two superpowers could clash, and almost did in 1973. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was seen as recklessly courting the Russians to break the standoff between his country and Israel. The increase of arms flowing from the USSR and the United States to Arabs and Israelis at the same time Sadat was declaring 1971 the "Year of Decision" was "like stockpiling gasoline around an open fire." And with his frustration over Israeli intransigence, Sadat made his move toward a new Pan-Arabism through a federation composed of Egypt, Libya, and Syria in 1971 and began to call for war against Israel. An ensuing joint Arab surprise attack on Israel during its period of holy observance in 1973 was designed to catch the Israelis when they were least prepared.
Meanwhile, factions of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)—the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Black September Organization, in particular—were committing skyjackings and acts of terror in airports, embassies, and trains. In an effort to draw the most attention to the Palestinian plight, Palestinian terrorist groups more frequently attacked specific, large, and valuable enemy targets, took advantage of shock value to make bold political statements via the broadcast airwaves, and used international travel to recruit international supporters and to export the conflict to countries outside of the Middle East. On September 5, 1972, Black September gunmen stormed into the Israeli athletic dormitory at the Olympics in Munich. The images and news coverage of this terrorist event riveted a worldwide audience, created shock and grief with the killing of eleven Israeli team members, and brought global condemnation of Palestinian terror tactics. Ironically, it was a great publicity coup for the Palestinian cause, as it used violence to bring the presence and grievances of the Palestinians into worldwide consciousness and showed that their militance was a force that had to be reckoned with and that could no longer be denied. Time reported that "eight young Palestinians managed to expose every weakness in the forces of law and in the helpless governments involved in the crisis." The PLO proved violence as a successful method, which others wanted to copy to gain worldwide attention for their causes. Moreover, the attack showed that the violence of the Middle East was no longer containable within the region, but that it had been exported to the rest of the world—"first to Western Europe, and maybe eventually even to the U.S."