For an amateur cinephile such as myself, very few undertakings are as rewarding and meaningful as watching quality films or TV series. However, I find myself pondering the same questions over and over again when watching American productions.
I am not sure whether the general public in the U.S. is entirely aware that the portrayal of Arabs and Muslims in their cultural milieu is reminiscent of some of the most distasteful campaigns of racist indoctrination in history. It seems that Hollywood knows no limits when it comes to dehumanizing Middle Eastern peoples and adherents of Islam.
Most of such material is borderline unwatchable. If you think Jack Bauer and “24” was some kind of a pinnacle of this phenomenon, think again. The hit series “Homeland,” for example, takes it to a whole new level. Both represent a general trend.
It is an interesting story. As France and the UK were licking their wounds in the aftermath of WWII, American realpolitik ambitions descended upon the Middle East. Let us put aside U.S. bilateral relations with its other close Middle Eastern allies and just focus on one particular partnership. A major component in the consolidation of U.S. power in the region was forging an indestructible relationship with Saudi-Arabia. For more than half a century, the Saudi-U.S. alliance has been delivering blows to attempts to democratize political processes in the Middle East. As Christopher M. Blanchard puts it in his Congressional Research Service report Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations:
“A series of agreements, statements by successive U.S. Administrations, arms sales, military training arrangements, and military deployments have demonstrated a strong U.S. security commitment to the Saudi monarchy since the 1940s. That security commitment was built on shared economic interests and antipathy to Communism and was tested by regional conflict during the Cold War.”
Think of gender egalitarianism. It is an achievement of some sort that the U.S. popular culture keeps mocking the image of a sexist, patriarchal, conservative and Islamist Arab while, among many other issues, happily ignoring that the government they have elected and pay taxes to has made it a top priority to keep the Saudi monarchs in power while hampering and terrorizing movements that advocate for gender equality.
Consider the conclusions to be drawn just from the following facts: Saudi-Arabia is the U.S.’s largest trading partner in the Middle East; since late 2012, the Administration has informed Congress of over $24 billion in proposed weapons sales to Saudi Arabia; the top cadre of U.S. politicians, all the way to president Obama, praised the late King Abdullah after he had passed away.
Conclusion? The U.S. is a force of progress, stability and democracy and the Arabs are backward, regressive, anti-democratic misogynists. Case closed.
Regarding anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism inherent in the American cultural milieu, one of the questions I find myself thinking of is the following: How come the level of political correctness in the U.S. is often so high, for better or for worse, yet these over the top racial stereotypes of, and racist slurs towards, Arabs and Muslims are business as usual?
After I had taken notice of this, I began paying closer attention to the phenomenon. Since then, I noticed that it was at times difficult to find TV series or movies that didn’t contain such racism. Keeping this in mind, it was kind of entertaining to follow the tsunami of outrage when Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was released. Newspaper after newspaper ran hysterical denunciations of the film, as if it should interest anyone how Gibson interprets the subtleties of the biblical record to begin with. The Anti-Defamation League, for example, stated that:
“We were saddened and pained to find that ‘The Passion of the Christ’ continues its unambiguous portrayal of Jews as being responsible for the death of Jesus. There is no question in this film about who is responsible. At every single opportunity, Mr. Gibson's film reinforces the notion that the Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob are the ones ultimately responsible for the Crucifixion.”
Whatever one thinks about any of this, one thing is clear: if the same degree of sensitivity was applied to portrayal of Arabs and Muslims in American mainstream culture, the country’s newspapers and other media outlets would be full of deserved and quite emphatic outrage. Yet such criticism is a rare occurrence.
As Edward Said wrote: “[T]he connection between imperial politics and culture is astonishingly direct.” Indeed, it remains to be seen for how long it takes for the American culture to take a leap forward and internalize that, as astonishing as it may sound, racism against Arabs and Muslims is as condemnable as racism against other ethnicities and religions.