NO SUCH THING
AS A GOOD ARAB.
H Jonathan Klijn
Dr. Gloria Y.A. Ayee
Harvard Extension School, Govt E-1313
28 March 2022
No such thing as a good Arab. Stereotypes as othering.
A few days after an ISIS terrorist cell carried out three suicide bomb attacks in Brussels on March 22, 2016, a joke circulated in South Africa. A confection of wordplay and stereotype, it was loudly guffawed over by Black and white in a showing of rare unity as it seemed to tap into a frayed zeitgeist while saying (and laughing about) bits we ordinarily keep quiet about.
“What does one Muslim mother say to another?”
“I don’t know.”
“They blow up so quickly.”
Bawdiness, wordplay, and incendiary humor aside, the joke spoke to a stereotype—an “other”—that went deeper than enemy-of-my-enemy brands of truth. Constructed of hyperbole and exaggerated quirks, stereotypes galvanize along an inferred commonality, acting as semiotic messaging systems spreading gospel through innuendo, winks, and nods. It assumes. Stereotyping makes for effective propaganda. The kind that coalesces.
Dr. Jack Shaheen’s documentary, Reel Bad Arabs (2006), illustrates how, since 9/11, a new Arab stereotype has proliferated in film, erasing older “typical” iterations such as the oil-rich, handsy sheik; the vampy, quivering belly dancer; and the uncouth desert dweller. Shaheen, who has spent over three decades dissecting Arab representation in film, poses that Black and Latino stereotypes have softened considerably over the years, while Arabs have remained de facto bad guys, audiences not even registering anymore that they are, indeed, witnessing stereotypical representation.
In characteristically charming manner, Shaheen poses that Arabs are now viewed as less klutzy, yet more violent—evil incarnate—exacerbated by a spurious link between Hollywood and Washington. He adds Israel to that list, as producers such as Cannon Pictures’ Israeli producers, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, spent years denigrating everything Arab, principally Palestinians. Indeed, Shaheen notes that, in film, Palestinians are presumed perpetual miscreants, and so, Islamophobia has become fundamental to the American psyche. This Arab/Muslim stereotype in cinema has effectively desensitized middle America against collateral violence perpetrated by its armed forces making “War on Terror” in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp (Maran 162).
But politics and economics have long shaped the sleazy Arab stereotype. The 1973 OPEC oil embargo heralded “oversexed oil sheikhs lusting after white women” tropes, portraying Arabs as infantile dolts too uncouth to appreciate “and responsibly use the black gold under their tribal barbarian feet” (Alhassen 16). Rich, clumsy sheiks show up on television from Cagney & Lacey (1981–88) to Bugs Bunny in “Ali Baba Bunny” (1957). Throughout 1980s cinema, white women—Brooke Shields Sahara (1983); Kim Basinger Never Say Never Again (1983); Goldie Hawn Protocol(1984); and Kathleen Turner Jewel of the Nile (1985)—are either abducted, or sold into slavery by petro-economy Arabs, often to the grubby and toothless (Shaheen 173). A fate worse than death for matinee audiences in Peoria.
And while white women form “objects of Arab desire,” Shaheen points out that Hollywood reduces Muslim women—“Bundles of Black,” as he calls them—to martyr/monster binaries. These women appear muted yet amplified, indistinct yet hyper-discernible, abiding vassals at the behest of a tyrannical religion’s callous intent. Shaheen also underlines that not all Arabs are Muslim, nor the other way round. Years of othering, however, have all but erased that fine line.
To that end, Reel Bad Arabs falls short of investigating intersectional identity. Black Muslims are frequently discounted when considering Islam in the United States, viewed as dissidents, unorthodox, or even anti-American. Reel Bad Arabs does not address this. Brought from western and central Africa, the first Muslims in America were Black—enslaved—representing in excess of a third of the ancestors of Black Americans today (Diouf 12). Black Muslims still constitute more than a fifth of Muslim Americans (Mohamed)
But the Black Muslim story, having made the transatlantic slave journey to the American South, is complex with several notable landmarks: the Maroons of the Sea Islands; Noble Drew Ali’s 1913 Moorish Science Temple; and perhaps, most visible, Wallace D. Fard’s 1934 Nation of Islam, continued under Elijah Muhammad. And this history—like the lives it belongs to—matters, pointing to a disconnect in how non-Black Hollywood positions Black Muslims as possessing a hate problem, while Black filmmakers present Black American Muslims as redeeming solution. Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), for example, highlights X’s legacy within positive portrayal of Islam, while handing us a substantial Black Muslim woman in Angela Bassett’s reading of Betty Shabazz (Alhassen 22).
A challenge, however, arises when “hate” othering goes beyond differentials, calling into question the group’s humanity. And the Black Muslim gaslight has proven problematic for politicians, from Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, to attacks on Barack Obama (Curiel 125). The issue is echoed by Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative, which, since 2015, chronicles Islamophobic political rhetoric, their reports contextualizing Islamophobic statements, investigating its violent effects and rhetorical repercussions. The Bridge Initiative pauses at political leaders “potentially capable of contributing to an atmosphere of hostility toward American Muslims.” Senator Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) criticism of President Obama’s public statement, for example, when, on July 16, 2015, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez perpetrated a mass shooting in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Cruz officially questioned the “lone gunman” theory, instead referring to the mass shooting as “jihad,” a gaslight term with breathtaking semantic overreach deliberately cast as “holy war,” instead of its Islamic meaning, “struggle” (Abdelkader 18). Film representation, loaded with ideological markers, contributes to this brand of Islamophobic triggering. Politics and policy follow. As do other aspects of the American Muslim religious freedom experience: increased incidents of bias-based bullying within educational institutions; veiled religious discrimination in places of public discourse; and employment discrimination (Georgetown).
And it is not improving. On November 17, 2021, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colorado), during remarks on the House floor, referred to Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) as a member of what Boebert termed “the Jihad Squad” (that word again). During the same month, Boebert repeatedly told a story about once, when riding an elevator, a worried Capitol Police officer exclaimed, “well, she doesn’t have a backpack. We should be fine.” In response, Omar said, “to suggest that I will blow up the Capitol, it is not just an attack on me, but on millions of American Muslims across this country” (Zhou). Beyond cinematic supervillain constructions, cheap triggers, and hackneyed mise-en-scène, Islamophobic stereotypes are shaped in the mind of the political armchair pundit. Stereotypical intersectionality, as represented by Omar—the right’s favorite bogeyman—was already comprehensively addressed when Muhammad Ali once proclaimed, “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me—Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me” (Haynes).
And so, it seems our “melting pot” is brim-full with racism, antisemitism, homophobia, Orientalism, Sinophobia, every-other-nationalistic-phobia, and, yes, Islamophobia. Shaheen’s work exposing stereotypes highlights how Hollywood, in collaboration with the corridors of power, constructs and sustains imagined chasms between “us” and “others” while mongering fear, lest we discover and embrace that what separates us is, perhaps, not quite that profound. And that quite possibly, this version of us—bold, messy, and motley—is, indeed, the real America. A place in need of a do-over. And we’d better get used to it.
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