He lives in a tent. He rides a camel. He carries a sword on his back.
She’s a seductive belly dancer.
She lives in a harem. She only exists for male pleasure.
They are Arabs.
The negative images of Arabs had long been emblazoned into our minds. Where do these images come from?
“Oh 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”
This was one of the verses of the opening song “Arabian Night” in the movie Aladdin, one of the most successful Disney movies ever made.
Following protests from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination, the lyrics were changed from “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face” to “Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense”. Children from all over the world viewed Aladdin and Arabs have been portrayed as backward, barbaric, sinister, violent and imminently dangerous to the Western world.
At a very young age, many children start to learn stereotypes from the environment in which they are raised. They begin to acquire prejudices from their parents, teacher, peers, the media and others around them. They investigate the world around them and start developing their own racial identity between the ages of two and five. They first become aware of how people look. For instance, they start to notice the difference in skin colors. They also become aware of their own physical characteristics. Then they start seeking explanations for differences. At a later stage, they begin to identify with the ethnic group that they perceive themselves to belong to.
In his paper titled “Development of social categories and stereotypes in early childhood: The case of ”the Arab” concept formation, stereotype and attitudes by Jewish children in Israel”, Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal (Tel Aviv University) demonstrated the strength of the Israeli cultural stereotype of Arabs and its influence on young children. Research of concept development shows that Israeli children begin to use the word “Arab” between 24 months and 30 months of age and they also become able to draw a picture of an Arab man which represents their image of him. The majority of young children with any knowledge about Arabs associated them with violent and aggressive behaviors, directed mostly against Jews.
Us and Them
“The way we see things is affected by what we know or what believe” – Berger
The Western Media has projected negative images of the Arabs in order to create “Otherness”. The concept of Otherness consists of dividing people into two social groups: Us (in-group) and Them (out-group). The in-group views the out-group as being different in a fundamental way. The out-group may be of a different race, nationality, religion, social class, political ideology, sexual orientation or origin.
Evaluating others as “Us” and “Them” is based on Social Identity Theory developed by Tajfel and Turner in 1979. The theory is based on three mental processes:
- Social categorization
- Social identification
- Social comparison
The first process is categorization. It represents our tendency to categorize individuals, including ourselves into groups. In his book “The Nature of Prejudice”, Gordon Allport (1954) wrote that the human kind must think with the aid of categories… Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibly avoid this process. Orderly living depends upon it.
The second process is social identification. In this stage we adopt some of the values and behaviors of the group we have categorized ourselves as belonging to. In other words, we adopt the identity of that group. Belonging to a social group gives us a social identity that boosts our self-esteem by enhancing our image.
The final process is social comparison. Once we see ourselves as members of a group, we start to define ourselves by comparison with other groups. People make social comparison with other individuals they perceive to be better or worse off than themselves.
Many of the studies have shown that our self-esteem is maintained by making social comparison with other groups: individuals with high self-esteem tend to make upward comparison choices, whereas low self-esteem individuals tend to make upward comparisons only when there is no threat to their self-esteem (Wood, 1989).
In conclusion, society is composed of social groups that tend to maintain their self-esteem. The power and status relations between groups are based on social identity (Hogg and Abrams, 1988). Members of high-status groups gain positive social identity and high self-esteem. They even tend to discriminate and be prejudiced against low-status groups in order to enhance their social power and status.
Nations and Identities
National identity is the sense of one’s belonging to one nation. Based on Social Identity Theory, a nation defines its own identity by comparing itself to other nations. As a result, having an out-group strengthens a sense of belonging to a nation that places an enmity between “Us and Them”. In brief, a nation needs enemies to maintain its identity.
As Sam Keen puts it in his book Faces of the Enemy: “In the beginning we create the enemy. Before the weapon comes the image. We think others to death and then invent the battle-axe or the ballistic missiles with which to actually kill them. Propaganda precedes technology.” (1986, p. 10).
Governments use the process of creating enemy images as a method of social control. They rely on negative stereotypes in an attempt to create a common enemy. They vilify and dehumanize the enemy as merely being thief, murderer, rapist, monster, criminal, kidnapper and terrorist. Once the enemy is depicted as evil, inferior and not human, it becomes psychologically acceptable by people to persecute him. The psychological process of dehumanization is very dangerous for it often paves the way for violence.
In Search of An Identity
There are many historical examples of dehumanization. Before and during the Second World War, Hitler and his Nazi regime created a negative image of the Jewish people using stereotypes and propaganda. The Nazis dehumanized the Jews by naming them “inferior race” in order to make their persecution more psychologically acceptable.
After the Second World War, the Soviet Union and the United States emerged as rival superpowers and Cold War began. America used Hollywood and media in order to promote an anti-Communism propaganda. America created the negative images of the Soviet Union enemy and managed to manipulate public opinion to fear the new enemy.
When the Soviet Union ceased to exist, America needed a post-Soviet foreign devil (Said) to maintain its identity. And once again, the Western monopoly of power has dehumanized an entire group of people in order to create “a stereotypical image of the dangerous ‘Arab Other’.”
Dr. Jack Shaheen, Professor Emeritus of Mass Communication at Southern Illinois University, studied portrayals of Arabs in Western Media by examining 900 U.S. films. He writes “Arabs are the most maligned group in the history of Hollywood. They are portrayed, basically, as sub-human untermenschen, a term used by Nazis to vilify Gypsies and Jews. These images have been with us for more than a century.”
Hollywood has internalized the negative stereotypes of Arabs before 9/11 in order to serve the U.S imperial objectives. The Department of Defense and CIA have always been cooperating with Hollywood. Former Hollywood Reporter staffer Robb exposes In his book “Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies” how Hollywood producers ask the Pentagon for help in making films. The department of Defense provides filmmakers with a crowd of Marines, or a Navy aircraft carrier and Blackhawk helicopters and the CIA provides filmmakers with a pile of script ideas. After all, the producers want to make money and the Defense Department wants to make propaganda (David L. Robb).
Hollywood’s representation of Arabs before 9/11 has been influenced by three major political events: the creation of the state of Israel, the 1973 oil crisis when the members of Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries proclaimed an oil embargo, and the Iranian Islamic revolution.
First, The Sheik (1921) and The Son of the Sheik (1926) were two films that depicted Arabs as savage beasts who auction off their own women. After World War II, Exodus (1960), a film based on the 1958 novel Exodus by Leon Uris, was the first movie to deal with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. This movie highlighted the Israeli struggle against Nazi oppression and confirmed the U.S. support for Israel. After the Iranian revolution, the film Not Without Your Daughter (1990) depicted the escape of American citizen Betty Mahmoody and her daughter from her husband in Iran. The film was shot in the United States and Israel. The film highlights the return of Iran to the dark ages. After the first Gulf War and the end of the Cold War, the film True Lies (1994) directed by James Cameron, Arnold starring as Harry Tasker leads a double life, performing covert missions for the United States Government under a counter-terrorism task force called “The Omega Sector”. Harry’s latest mission in Switzerland reveals the existence of an Islamic terrorist organization group known as the Crimson Jihad, led by Salim Abu Aziz (Art Malik). And once again, Arabs were portrayed as terrorists, extremists and religious fanatics bent on destroying the world. The Rules of Engagement (2000) portrayed Arabs as extremists attacking the U.S. embassy. This movie dehumanized Arabs, which justified US Marines killing Arab women and children. These are some of the movies that depicted negative images of Arabs. After watching more than 900 movies, Jack Shaheen claims that only 50 or so had shown a neutral image of Arabs. He also says, “Each of Hollywood and Washington share the same genes”.
In the period before 9/11, the Western Media has developed a set of negative stereotypes depicting Arabs as enemies in order to serve the U.S. political agenda. On Sept. 20, 2001, President Georges W. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress and a national television audience to launch the “war on terror”:
“Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”
As Slavenka Drakulic expresses it, ‘once the concept of “otherness” takes root, the unimaginable becomes possible’. And once again, President Bush and his administration managed to convince the American public of the need to go to war with Afghanistan and Iraq.
If you’re still wondering:
- Why most Westerners do not show empathy to Palestinian suffering
- Why most Westerners did not stand up against the war in Iraq
- Why most Westerners support Israel
- Why most Westerners hate Muslims
That’s because Americans tell the best stories, they can invade a country and immediately construct a narrative justifying it (Jean-Luc Godard).
It’s time to occupy Hollywood.
Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, Jack G. Shaheen
The evolution of Hollywood’s representation of Arabs before 9/11: the relationship between political events and the notion of ‘Otherness’ – SULAIMAN ARTI, Loughborough University
The Construction of Arabs as Enemies: Post-September 11 Discourse of George W. Bush, Debra Merskin