War Propaganda
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The Hollywood film industry provides the public with an opportunity to find an escape from reality and even, at times, education themselves. Given the popularity of movies, the message presented in the pictures is bound to have an effect on public perception. According to the Motion Picture Association of America (2012), U.S./Canada box office receipts in 2012 reached $10.8 billion with 1.38 billion movie tickets were sold (MPAA 2013). Furthermore, Business Wire (2012) reports that average subscriber of the popular movie rental and streaming service Netflix watches an average of 3.4 movies per week. This amounts to a lot of exposure to Hollywood movies, which beyond its entertainment value also potentially opens the door to stereotyping. Herbert (2008) explains that stereotyping serves as a fast and efficient shortcut that allows the individual to save time and energy. In other words, when people are unfamiliar with other cultures, stereotyping based on the limited knowledge that they have about other groups is often a matter of convenience.

Unfortunately, when fiction portrayals in Hollywood films serve as the only means for learning about different people, the consequences can be harmful. Today, no individual ethnic group seems as prone to being stereotyped in Hollywood films quite like Arabs are. Indeed, Shaheen (2000, p. 24) argues that the roughly five to eight million Muslims who live in the United States face a “barrage of stereotypes which unfairly show them as a global menace, producers of biological weapons, zealots who issue fatwas or burn Uncle Sam in effigy.” He continues by stating that while it is no longer acceptable to broadly depict Jews, Italians, Asians and African-Americans in negative stereotypical terms, Arabs are considered to be fair game (Shaheen 2000, p.25). Steuter and Willis (2008, p.31) concur that the role of Arabs in movies and on TV shows is that of religious “fanatics, zealots, and terrorists.” As the Hollywood film industry is one arm of the American media and since the narratives of a political nature tend to reflect issues that are relevant at the time of the film’s release (Khatib 2006, p.3), it is important to discuss Arab stereotyping and its effects in the context of media as a whole. It is also appropriate to recognize that when it comes to the media and Hollywood films in particular, the lines between entertainment and U.S. foreign policy can get blurry. Indeed, Vanhala (2011, p. 3) states, “the American commercial film industry has borrowed its ideas from the U.S. foreign policy agenda, at times reinforcing U. S. policies and at other times underpinning them, offering alternative interpretations to official policies and news media portrayals.”

The purpose of this paper is to first examine the role that media play in reporting on American interventions in the Arab world. U.S. foreign policy and its reporting will provide context for the stereotypes of Arabs in the media. A study on stereotypical portrayals is necessary because it can help shed light on why parts of the American public have fear for and show prejudice against Arabs. By understanding the role that the Hollywood industry and media as a whole have played in perpetuating Arab myths, perhaps broad solutions can be found to counter these portrayals. Then the paper will focus on Arab stereotyping by analyzing a series of Hollywood films. Finally, the third chapter will draw some conclusions based on the information provided.

Media War Propaganda and the Representation of Stereotypes in the Muslim World

Before the rise of media technology, propaganda activities were not subject to military or government interventions, distributing information and news. Since there was no television, much less the Internet, governments could only rely on private agencies and individuals to encourage war efforts. In particular, the British press was acted as a propaganda tool to maintain the military effort and sustain the patriotic image (Connelly & Welch 2005, p. 5). In this regard, the war propaganda, both official and unofficial, had introduced a new insight into that how the concepts of the good and the evil could be represented in the context of war. When it comes to the period between World War I and World War II, films and other media tools were evolving as the tools of mass distribution of information (Connelly & Welch 2005, p. 5). Although the emerged reflections and interpretations of warfare do not directly refer to the influence of Hollywood industry on the distorted representation of events in the Arab world, it still provides sufficient explanation for background for how film representation affects the overall course of actions during the war. The broader point is that prejudiced attitudes have been forming for decades by public and have been shaped remotely because of the inability to conceive the culture in other ways.

The ease in which information gets distributed to the public has drastically changed in the last several decades. First with traditional newsprint, radio, then with cinema, followed by television, and, finally, the emergence of the Internet, all of these mediums have been the major source of information transfer and distribution over time. However, widespread use of technology on the web has allowed the American public to receive greater access to information. As a result, Parker (2001, p. 18) has suggested that the Internet along with other mass media outlets possess four main functions that allow the government to hold political influence over the population: entertaining the audience, reporting the news, shaping the agenda for political debates, and making profits. In this respect, the public is affected by several forms of mass media distribution. One form of mass media impact is related to the selective process. The general public is good at using selective perception while there is dissonance with the information production. As an illustration, consider how during the war in Iraq the media used headlines like “Raid Zaps Iraqi Rat,” “The Vermin Have Struck Again” (Steuter & Wills 2008, p.72) animal metaphors that the authors portend signify the dehumanization. Exposure to this constant barrage of images, including the controversial photos at Abu Ghraib where the captives were treated like animals (Shaheen 2000, p. 84), reinforces the stereotypes depicted in movies; namely, of the uncivilized character who, for example, is in need of a shower and a shave (Shaheen 2000, p.25). So when an individual sees an Arab who does not fit these stereotypical media characterizations, rather than be persuaded that everything they have been shown in the media is incorrect, they will tend to disregard it as a fluke or find some other rationalization that allows them to maintain their beliefs.

Another form of the media impact is results from priming, in which cues trigger certain previous memories that are than associated and connected to newly formed concepts. While the media cannot have a direct impact on a person’s perception and thinking, media narratives can certainly set the agenda. For instance, when describing the 9/11 events, propaganda represented in the media shows how biased representation can distort the image of certain figures from the Arab world. In particular, the manufactured link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime, perpetuated by the Bush Administration and then filtering into news coverage, serves as a reminder of the power and influence of the media. The media attempted to connect the events of 9/11 and Iraq to great effect. Indeed, in the run up to the invasion, 76 percent of the American public believed Hussein provided assistance to the terrorist organization (Morton, 2003). But acceptance of such a connection contradicts arguments that were put forward by the U.S. intelligence agencies, which found no evidence to support the notion that representatives from Al-Qaida and the Hussein regime met in Prague (Pillar 2011, n. p). So even though this has been thoroughly debunked, nearly ten years later, 31 percent of Americans are still convinced of it (Rivera 2011). As this demonstrates, utilizing images through mass media production has a significant effect not only in the short term, but in the long term as well.

Because of the visual images of the 11 men of Arab descent who hijacked the four planes on September 11, priming results in the public concluding that all Muslims look the same way and would all fly planes into American buildings if given a chance. In fact, a study by Khan and Ecklund (2012, p.11) indicates that in light of the events on September 11, the public holds negative, fearful attitudes towards Muslims when boarding a plane with them. A vivid example that illustrates the power that fear of the Other can over the public was the case involving current American President Barack Obama, who one middle aged Caucasian woman at a town hall meeting hosted by Obama’s challenger Senator John McCain wearily proclaimed was, “An Arab” (Meckler 2008). The hosts of Fox & Friends on the Fox News Channel suggested that Obama had studied at a “madrassa” in Indonesia as a child, a report taken so seriously by some that rival CNN sent a reporter to visit the school to allow the school staff to assure everybody that the school is, in fact, moderate and tolerant. Other examples of prejudice against Arabs in the recent past have included bomb threats against mosques and a high school yearbook in Toledo, Ohio that included the comment “Kill all the camel jockeys” as part of an essay (Shaheen 2000, p.35). The accessibility and globalization of information, as that example demonstrates, has the power to influence perceptions in a way like never before.

Carruthers (2011, p. 142) recognizes the explicit role of media in representing war, as well as how it influences the perception of the population. In her book, the author takes a critical look at the range of war, from the military events in Vietnam to the current War on Terror in Afghanistan. While unveiling the limitations imposed on the media and press, the author understands the value of finding a balance between journalistic criticism while avoiding putting lives of soldiers in Iraq at risk. In this respect, the trend of self-censorship is utilized with the strong reliance on gaining support for war, while still suggesting alternative options to the war resolution.

The tools for exchanging and distributing news and war propaganda are constantly changing, and these shifts have contributed to a new paradigm in the relationship between the media, the military and politicians, leading to the formation of new policies that trigger international conflicts. For instance, the Gulf War in 2003 provided a strong platform for changes in terms of technology and the overall perception of existing stereotypes about Western and Eastern cultures. According to Connelly and Welch (2005, p. X), “in ‘total war’, which required civilians to participate in the war effort, morale came to be recognized as a significant military factor, and propaganda began to emerge as the principal instrument of control over public opinion and an essential weapon in the national arsenal”. In this respect, the U.S. government can make use of propaganda campaigns to persuade the American public to rally around the flag.

Additionally, Carruthers (2011, p. 143) provides an evaluation into why media coverage is concerned with the debate on terrorism. The epitomic symbolism in relation to film representation and war is evident because of the desired effect product by the media and other sources of information. The coverage of terrorist acts is too dramatic for the media to neglect because it ensures higher viewership and an affective response on the part of the target audience. Nonetheless, there is also opposition to the media because coverage of the Bush Administration’s “War on Terror” seemed to endorse repressive tactics on violent acts from the U.S. government (Carruthers 2011, p. 99). The detrimental effect of media is also highlighted when it comes to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Part of this may have been the result of pressure for journalists to not appear unpatriotic. For example, when journalist Susan Sontag had attempted to write about the need to put the September 11 attacks in proper historical context, her patriotism was put into question (Steuter & Wills 2008, p.9). The result is a campaign of misinformation to the American public. In fact, leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the “rallying around the flag” reporting exhibited by the media was perceived to be so one-sided that the New York Times would eventually feel compelled to publish an editorial apologizing for its role in promoting the war without any semblance of a critical eye (New York Times 2004). During the build up to the war, the U.S. Department of Defense developed a plan to allow reporters to be embedded with military units, ostensibly to allow for free, transparent coverage of the war as it was happening. The result is that it made unbiased reporting more difficult by neutralizing the media. During the first Gulf War, the reporters issued stories on civilian casualties in bunkers and milk factories and consequential conflicts, the media aired footage of tortured American soldiers in Somalia and dead Kosovar refugees (Rid 2007, p. 175) Rid contends that the purpose behind embedding reporters with army units was to avoid potentially negative publicity. First, when a journalist is eating, showering, and in the front lines with the soldiers, a strong degree of comradely may develop. Under those circumstances, a reporter might be likely to view the events with an objective lens. Furthermore, as Tumber and Palmer (2004) note, embedment spots were divvied up amongst the news organizations and not to individual reporters themselves (p. 14). This made it difficult for freelance journalists to be part of the process unless they were contracted out with one of the designated organizations. According to the authors, the DOD was able to ensure that coverage of the war on the ground was free of criticism by warning of sanctions against reporters for “misbehavior” (p.15). The perception that the Bush Administration was attempting to control media coverage in order to further its foreign policy agenda was not without precedence. According to Chomsky (2011, p.51) on August 1990, a few months before Operation Desert Storm, Iraq had offered a proposal to the United Nations to withdraw from Kuwait under the condition that unresolved border issues with their neighboring country were discussed. The United States, under the presidential administration of Bush 41, declined to take up the proposal or negotiate because foreign policy issues related to Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon as well as granting Iraq access to the Gulf, which had been restricted due to earlier agreements that went back to the waning days of the British mandate over the Middle East following the end of World War II, were against American interests. (Chomsky 2011, p.52) notes that the New York Times likely knew about the peaceful diplomatic solution and that while Newsday briefly touched on it, the media as a whole basically ignored it. The military presence in the Middle East served, of course, as Osama Bin Laden’s rationale for engaging in terrorism with the West (Encyclopedia Britannica 2014). While nothing justified the deaths of the 3,000 victims who perished on September 11, 2001, some commentators have suggested that that American foreign policy is at least partly responsible for the anger that ultimately leads to these acts of terrorism (Mauro 2007).

When reporting on U.S. foreign policy, the media has also neglected to report on the period of the Afghanistan Taliban movement existence from 1996 to 2001 and its rise in earlier years (Knightley 2001, n. p.). During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that began in 1980, the fighters who would eventually give rise to the Taliban regime embraced and supported US military strikes and were brought power under Washington’s indirect control (Knightley 2001, n. p.). The U.S.-led military groups called for their allies in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to support their bid for power. The extreme interest in cooperation and alliance is explained by the presence of billion-dollar gas and oil pipeline. The United States has supported Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, two countries that proved funding and diplomatic recognition of the Taliban, and has in the past encouraged them in their approval of the Taliban’s policies and their extremely conservative interpretation of the Sharia Law. The cooperation and support were largely predetermined by material interests, not by the intension to liberate the Afghan civilians from their Islamic dictatorship (Knightley 2001, n. p.).

This leads the paper to the discussion of Arab stereotypes in the media. Biased perceptions are often discovered in multiple forms of mass media. Although globalization has the potential to lead to positive efforts to counter existing stereotypes related to ethnic groups, Hollywood and American media seem to reinforce distorted images and depictions of the Muslim world (Shaheen 2000, p.25). Throughout her book, Filming the Modern Middle East, Lina Khatib (2006) makes a similar the argument that perceptions of the Arab world in Hollywood films seek to diminish Arab culture, but she also adds that cinema consistently contrasts this by presenting the Western world as superior. Media in the Arab world, including their film industries, have attempted to counter this message, but to no avail.

A common problem is that reporters and editors allow their personal or subjective beliefs to create disinformation (Parker 2001, p. 18). While the media must decide whether news reporting is beneficial and objective, the emphasis should also be placed on the ethical and cultural context of representing news. In this respect, when it comes to Hollywood movies, the directors often fail to take into consideration the accepted thoughts, beliefs and perceptions of the cultural group they intend to represent in a film, insisting that what they create is a true reflection of Arab behavior (Shaheen 2005 p.20). Although the attacks on 9/11 were obviously an unjust response to the contentious American policy in the Middle East, the majority of the movies and the media at large have failed to acknowledge the events that contributed and ignited the conflict between the United States and the Islamic world (Parker 2001, p. 20). Additionally, in the mainstream media, the commentators and journalists are not the general public representative because the majority of educated reporters tend to exaggerate the facts and emphasis news that focuses on sensationalism rather than significant issues. In this respect, stereotyping of minority groups in mass media is an important aspect because it outlines and predicts the tendency to misrepresenting certain groups. Similar concerns relate to the misrepresentation in the Hollywood film industry.

There are several significant problems with the way Arabs are portrayed in American cinema. The first has to do with cultural inaccuracies. According to Elouardaoui,(2011, p.3) Hollywood does not make a distinction between what constitutes an Arab and a Muslim, failing to recognize that the majority of Muslims live in non-Arab countries. This is key because without having information that provides a more nuanced understanding of both Arab society and Muslims as a whole, it makes it more difficult for the American public to understand fiction versus reality. But according to Steuter and Willis (2008, p.26) the fabrication of the Arabs through their “otherness” is what makes for effective propaganda. In none of these films does the audience get to hear the enemy’s side of the story. After all, having a personal story is what makes individuals human. But the construct of the Arab movie character is one who is “shadowy, unclear, or ambiguous” (Steuter and Willis 2008, p.26)” Prior to the terrorist attacks in 2001, Hollywood’s filmmakers depicted Middle Eastern culture and the Arab world in exotic terms, which served the perfect backdrop for movie producers who portrayed Arabs as villains who were opposite to the positive representation of Americans. While considering the representation, it should be stressed that Hollywood movies fail to differentiate between different cultural peculiarities of Middle Eastern countries (Arti 2007, p. 4). The existing diversity, therefore, is ignored, resulting in a distortion of historical images. Arti (2007, p. 3) argues, “Hollywood’s presentation of Arabs as a potential threat was wildly alienating…the Muslim Arabs continue to surface as the threatening culture ‘Others.’” The result is a packaged stereotype “Arab” character that does not have to take into consideration these real differences. Thus, American audiences are exposed to the Arab “billionaire, bomber, (and) belly dancer” that find themselves in movies set in the Arab world or feature Arabs as the villains. Compared to Hollywood, filmmaking in the Arab world does make the distinction between its various cultures. But beyond these stereotypes, there is also a certain message that American cinema sends that takes into consideration foreign policy or national aspirations. Khatib (2006, p. 108) states, “Pan-Arabism can…be seen as portrayed as a form of nationalism rather than ethnicity, i.e. it is a political project that utilizes common cultural aspects, language, and religion while recognizing and maintaining the ethnic diversity of the Arab world.” In other words, American cinema and the film industry of the various Arab countries involve a common set of differences and support subjective nationalism that shape a part of the permanent cultural fight over “homeland” that makes it difficult to create the mythical form of a nation. On the other hand, the point can be applied to Hollywood with several films that glorify the American nation (Khatib 2006, p. 110). This is done through several different means. When the Western actors are on foreign soil, the narrative often involves them being able to tame both the forbidding land and its people, as seen in Into the Sun and Three Kings, which both involve characters who successfully make their way through deserts to safety (Khatib 2006, p.23). There are also several other conventions that are employed in American films where the Western hero is fighting Arab enemies. Khatib terms this the portrayal as the “Tough American/nation” (2006, p.66). The American characters, like Agent Tasker in True Lies and Tom Bishop in Spy Game and are the prototype large, muscled action heroes who calmly emerge from exploded buildings unharmed as they take on scores of slender, weak Arab foes. Another typical scenario that arrives in movies featuring Arab villains involves not merely being against a particular group of Americans, but in fact being an affront to the world. This fact is highlighted in the movie Delta Force, which features an Arab character who hijacks an airplane in protest of Zionism and American imperialism. In the course of selecting passengers whom he believes are Jewish to be held in the cockpit, he also accidentally selects a Christian of Russian heritage, which is meant to imply his ignorance. When a Catholic priest tries to calm the Arab down, he is also forced to join the captives. This renders the villain’s political convictions meaningless, since the narrative is suggesting that he, in fact, does not have any convictions at all (Khatib 2006, p.73)

It should be noted, of course, that Hollywood cinema is not unique in its nationalism. For example, Palestinian and Egyptian movies about the Arab-Israeli confrontation also demonstrate how film can be perceived as the medium that guides nationalism, which has then become sort of the allegory that fails to correspond with reality. In this respect, countries in the Arab world could be regarded as equal offenders in the context of the films produced by Hollywood that distorts the overall perception about the world (Khatib 2006, p. 110). While considering the interpretation of the Arab-Israeli confrontation, the difficulty of employing conventional cultural theories to the emerging cultural ones is highlighted. The conflict is sophisticated in that, despite the fact that it has also been referred as an ethical disagreement. Therefore, media coverage of the events in the Arab world is accompanied by prejudiced stereotypes and biased assumptions. What is more important is that movie directors are often guided by political judgments that are introduced through many approaches to managing the information received from media (Khatib 2006, p. 108).

When it comes to the representation of religious and cultural dimensions in Hollywood, filmmakers fail to portray the Muslim religion in a way that propagates peace and equality, but instead suggests that the religion is sinister at its core. Take, for example, the term “Sheikh,” which is a harmless word that is defined literary as a wise person who heads the family in Arab culture (Elayan 2005, p. 17), Hollywood moviemakers misinterpret this title to, among other things, create the stereotype caricature of a wealthy Arab villain intent on doing harm to Westerners. The places in which Arabs live are also subject to stereotyping. While American landscapes are urban while maintain lushness, Arabs in Hollywood cinema live in overcrowded areas with overlapping houses, narrow alleys, and walls full of graffiti (Khatib 2006, p. 24). These scenes are meant to imply that the places where Arabs live are as uncivilized and disorderly as the people who dwell in them. Shaheen also makes a similar observation, describing the Arab world of Hollywood as one “dotted with oil wells, tents, run-down mosques, palaces, goats, and camels.” (2000, p. 26) Finally, Arab women are regularly depicted in a way that does not reflect reality. Indeed, the Elayan argues, “it seems that Arab women may be virtually invisible as well, or they are projected to seem that way” (Elayan 2005, p. 19). Thus, Arab females are represented as bundles of yashmaks and harem maidens. The existence of stereotypes based on costumes, rituals and traditions is another approach that image-makers employ to make political and personal statements. Due to these limited representations of reality in Hollywood, the American public is left with the assumption that Arab culture as enforcing submissive ideologies related to the attitude to women (Elayan 2005, p. 18). When Arab women are depicted in this way, it creates misguided, negative views of Islam and the Middle East. Positive portrayals of Arab women to counteract this stereotype are largely lacking in Hollywood cinema.

Although Hollywood has a potent impact in cultivating prejudiced and stereotyped attitudes of the Arab world, their own perceptions have earlier been shaped by other political and economic endeavors. In particular, the government itself strives to encourage the creation of fiction movies and documentaries that belittle the Arab world while at the same time elevating Western culture (Shaheen 2000, p. 23). As Shaheen (2000, p. 24) points out, “Muslim are a part of the American mainstream, people who contribute to their respective communities as doctors, teachers, artists, and lawyers”. Therefore, their respect for traditions and commitment to education and family should not be confined to rigid criticism because the American public as a whole equally values their cultural customs and traditions as well.

There are also a specific cultural, political, and economic context that Hollywood filmmakers have presented in their movies. In particular, Shaheen (2000, p. 26) notes that, “films project the diverse Muslim world as populated with noisy bargainers, bearded mullahs, terrorist bombers, billionaire sheikhs, and backward Bedouins”. For instance, Palestinians are depicted in Hollywood cinema as religious adherents endangering the freedom, culture and economy of the United States. Filmmakers depict Palestinians in demonic terms without any differentiation for women, men and children. What is more, Hollywood employs this technique in all their movies irrespective of genre and content. Indeed, American cinema is overwhelmed with clich?s, patterns and stereotypical behaviors that have long been perpetuated by directors, even as the world is constantly changing, producing shifts along borders nations and integrating cultures. Thus, Hollywood is guilty of reinforcing those stereotypes, leading to the possibility to imitate those behaviors (Elayan 2005, p. 37). In this respect, there are four major myths about Arab-Americans and Arabs that have been shaped by Hollywood. To begin with, they are also wealthy; they are barbarians; they are uncultured and cruel, and they are always out to take revenge on Westerners (Elayan 2005, p. 39).

According to Bradshaw (2011), the September 11th attacks smashed Hollywood’s monopoly on image production and mythmaking, and inspiring as they did revenge and horror, aimed a devastating blow at imagination, and damaged the reputation of cinema for sometime after. Therefore, in the period in the aftermath of the attacks, Hollywood largely refrained from movies that dealt with international terror. What is more important, the audience observed attentively how the country dealt with the political constraints introduced by the modern media environment during the subsequent armed confrontations (Rid 2007, p. 3). As the Bush administration went about its war policy, it was concluded that “the decision making of a democratically elected government is vulnerable to gruesome images of accidental civilian causalities and graphic pictures of its own soldiers’ suffering, dying, or being tortured” (Rid 2007, p. 3).

Representation of deterrence and violence has become a major theme in Hollywood movies. Action films are frequently dedicated to the depiction of Arab antagonists threatening to use nuclear weapons. In this respect, Cox (2004, n. p.) investigates a range of movies unveiling the theme of destruction and power control as it has been presented in Hollywood productions. In particular, the author refers to fiction movies that are overwhelmed with the weapon of mass destruction theme, reinforcing stereotypes. As Cox (2004, n. p.) states, “given the genesis of the American war plan against Iraq, is it unreasonable to view this bellicose, not-very-good “entertainment” from 1999 as part of a larger strategy – involving Hollywood – to dehumanize Iraqis”. At the same time, Hollywood filmmakers have convinced the audience that Western society as superior by highlighting its mastery over countries in the Arab world.

Terrorism serves as a political means for creating scenes of violence meant to be played and replayed by news media, which is something that both the Hollywood industry and international terrorist organizations recognize. For terrorists, news media coverage is a suitable platform for creating chaos and panic in society (Shaheen 2000, p. 25). At the same time, the commercialization of the film industry defines the success of different interpretations of international terrorism to large audiences. Additionally, people were shocked with the tragedy and, therefore, any display of these events was emotionally stressful. Due to the fact that new media, along with Hollywood, is regarded as a significant sources for information, fictional representations of terrorism have overcome real-life terrorism in their firepower and destructiveness (Vanhala 2011, p. 4).

In summary of this chapter, the multiple incidents of terrorism, the modern world is extremely concerned with the role and objectivity of the sources reporting on these acts. In this respect, the analysis of these events is essential for understanding the false stereotypes about Arab people. American news reporting on events related to U.S. foreign policy as it relates to the Arab world have been shown to be biased, intended to produce a “rally around the flag” effect and shielding the public from the more sensitive images of warfare, including casualities. The popularity of the Hollywood industry means it holds significant sway among the American public and its influence on the audience spreads all over the world as well. The majority of the news, facts, figures, images, symbols and appearances have a permanent impact on the consciousness of the audience. Hollywood also cooperates with mass media while introducing various plot lines and developing complicated characters. However, these biased perceptions and characteristics do not always correspond with the reality. In this respect, “increasing the public’s understanding of Arabs and Arab-Americans, groups…have been continuously misconstrued in public discourse” (Elouardaoui 2011, p. 8). What is more important and disconcerting is that the majority of the created stereotypes about Arab world are associated with terrorism. Creating the new stereotype of “otherness” is applicable to the Arabs and all movies created by the Hollywood filmmakers propagate the newly created identity. There are a great number of prejudice and biased assumptions that have been formed, both good and bad, that have perpetuated in the minds of the Western audience. Interestingly, most of them coincide with the Islamic perceptions, but the creation of the terrorist Arab frame has become the major aspect of debate.

Arab Portrayals in Film

Having provided background on American foreign policy related to Arab World, the role that media play in misinforming the public, and Arab stereotype conventions in the Hollywood film industry, it is now time to provide analysis of Arab portrayals in film and its effect on American public opinion. The films selected for this paper include True Lies, Rules of Engagement, The Siege, Navy Seals, Three Kings, and In the Army Now.

True Lies (1994)

True Lies was directed by James Cameron and distributed by 20th Century Fox. The plot involves a Palestinian terrorist organization that is bent on inflicting mass devastation by detonating small nuclear warheads in Florida. Meanwhile, Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a secret agent who is tasked with foiling the plot, is in essence a one-man army who is completely cool under pressure; able to deliver a series of perfectly timed one-liners as he takes out scores of Palestinian fanatics without so much as a scratch. It is not enough to merely portray them as cold-blooded killers; they are bumbling idiots who are so careless in their planning that it is a wonder that they almost manage to pull it off. In this respect, rather than making this something of a chess match where it is a battle of the minds, Hollywood has chosen to reinforce the stereotype that these Arab “Others” are intellectually inferior. In addition, Art Malik, who plays the role of the chief villain Salim Abu Aziz, is actually ethnically Pakistani (and thus not even Arab, much less Palestinian). This would seem to suggest that along with Hollywood’s propensity to portray Arabs in a negative and even evil light, the role of these characters are given without any regard to ethnical accuracy. Finally, like several of the other films that are discussed in this chapter, there was no explicit reason why the villains had to be of Palestinian origin since does nothing to advance the story. It could have just as easily been an anarchist group from Europe and the essence of the film would have been the same.

Rules of Engagement (2000)

Rules of Engagement was directed by William Friedkin and distributed by Paramount Pictures. It was described by Shaheen as “one of the most blatantly anti-Arab scenarios of all time” (2000, p. 31) is about an American soldier named Childers, played by Samuel J. Jackson, who opens fire on and killing 83 members of an unruly mob of angry, violent protestors who have convened around the U.S. embassy in Yemen. Shaheen contends that the stereotyping portrayals in this film encourage the audience to “hate Muslim Arabs” (2000, p.28). The women are all wearing veils and the men are wearing beards, dress in kuffiyeh, and are missing teeth (Elayan 2005, p.31)Like in virtually all of the other movies analyzed in this paper, Yemen is portrayed as a completely desolate desert wasteland, befit for the savage “Others” that define Arabs in Hollywood films (Khatib 2006, p.22). Thus, if the audience does not already recognize that the Yemeni crowd is undeserving of sympathy, the setting in which they live should serve as a reminder that they uncivilized and therefore less human. As the movie moves along, the key question is over whether Childers committed murder or other serious criminal conduct by killing those in the crowd, which included women and children. In the big reveal, video evidence from a tape that had been deliberately destroyed would have proven that those women and children were, in fact, armed themselves and therefore Childers was justified in his actions (Shaheen 2000, p.28). Thus, Yemeni were depicted as barbarians on no less than two levels; first, by attacking the embassy in the first place and second, by giving weapons to all of the protesters including women and children. It seems to reinforce the stereotypical belief that Arabs are willing to sacrifice the lives of their own women and children in the name of terror.

The Siege (1998)

The Siege was directed by Edward Zwick and distributed by,20th Century Fox. In this film, inspired by the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, New York City suffers through a reign of Islamic terror, ultimately resulting in the president declaring martial law and all Arabs living in New York (even those who are American citizens) being rounded up as the culprits are sought. The film could have served as platform for bringing the issue of racial profiling and the hysteria that comes with scapegoating an entire group to the forefront. Indeed, Arab-American rights groups had suggested that the movie mirror the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombings in which Arabs were the immediate suspects before it was determined that Timothy McVeigh, a Caucasian American, had been the real offender (Muslims under Siege 1998). But ultimately the film opted to keep Arabs as the culprits. The Siege blurs the lines between what it means to be an Arab Muslim and what it means to be an Islamic fundamentalist engaging in terror. For instance, in light of this film, hand washing as a spiritual ritual of purification suddenly becomes a sinister preclude to an act of deadly violence (Khatib 2006, p.175). Another issue is in the way Arabs who are victims of the detention are portrayed in a homogenized manner. The men all have turbans and beards; they dress the same and have the same facial features. Even the common stereotype of equating Arabs to animals (Steuter & Wills 2008, p.83) can be found in this movie when a female CIA agent compares the sexual prowess of Arab character Samir Nazhde (Sami Bouajila) to that of a stallion (Khatib 2006, p.79.).

The Mummy (1999)

The Mummy, directed by Stephen Sommers and distributed by Universal Studios, features Brendan Fraser as Rick O’Connell, an adventurer who leads an expedition to a fictional Egyptian city to hunt for an ancient book only to awaken a cursed mummy. As Elouardaoui (2011) observes, “Generally, the depiction of the way Americans interact with the Egyptians is absolutely not in favor of the locals.” He also adds that the Bedouins act “foolish” as an attempt at comedy relief, are dressed in unkempt, dirty clothing, and greedy, in contrast to the qualities that are more consistent with Bedouin life (p.4). The Arab characters are described as “stinky” and Egypt, the setting of the film, is thought of as “one messed up place.” (Shaheen 2000, p.27) Certain Arab characters are “mindless zombies” (Elayan 2005, p.29). The ability of the Westerners to be the masters of the “Other’s” land is also a prevalent theme of the film . In fact, Egyptologist Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) manages to one-up the locals with her ability to decipher an ancient script that they were incapable of solving (Elouardaoui 2011, p.4) As with Rules of Engagement and Navy Seals, the depiction of Westerners in this faraway place is consistent with the routine them of having mastery over the Other (Khatib 2006, p.27). Once their mission is over, the characters are able to not only leave Egypt safety, they successfully take ancient artifacts with them.

Navy Seals (1990)

Navy Seals was directed by Lewis Teague and distributed by Orion Pictures. Much like Yemen in Rules of Engagement, the Lebanon (and Beirut in particular) in Navy Seals is portrayed as a place of great ruin, in stark contrast to the beach resort destination more accurately describes Lebanon’s capital (Khatib 2006, p.25). Also like the inhabitants of Yemen, Beirut in this movie seems devoid of anyone but anti-American radicals, with “Death to America” spray-painted on walls (Khatib 2006, p.25). This serves as a vehicle that would seem to legitimize American intervention in Lebanon, since this portrayal implies that America’s security is threatened. Based on a viewing of this movie, the audience is left with the impression that Beirut is inhabited exclusively by Islamic extremists when, in fact, the residents are very much moderate and forward thinking. In fact, Beirut has a sizeable Christian community that lives in peace with its Muslim neighbors. Beirut serves as the backdrop for the movie, but does not appear essential since the plot does not incorporate any elements that are unique to Lebanon nor does it play a crucial role in the objectives of the Navy Seals, which is to secure missiles that had been stolen by Lebanese terrorists (Khatib 2006, p.74).

Three Kings (1999)

Three Kings was directed by David Russell and distributed by Warner Brothers. While Three Kings manages to show a degree of sensitivity that some of the other highlighted films are lacking, the message is still clear: even as the foreigners, the American soldiers are the masters of the land while the locals have become helpless cave dwellers in need of rescuing (Khatib 2006, p.27). Throughout the movie, the majority of the actors portraying the Iraqi characters were dressed in traditional desert clothing and nothing else (Elayan 2005, p. 47). The theme of Arabs as greedy is also on display in several scenes depicting Iraqi soldiers as fixated on gold wealth. Finally, when it comes to portrayals of the Iraqis, they are either the grateful populace who see the Americans as their savors (Khatib 2006, p.27) or they are the menacing soldiers with blind obedience towards Saddam Hussein; ruthless against their own population and of no redeeming quality (Khatib 2006, p.75).

In the Army Now (1994)

In the Army Now was directed by Daniel Petrie and distributed by Hollywood Pictures. This movie is about two young men (Bones Conway, played by Pauly Shore and Jack Kaufman, played by Andy Dick) who sign up for the U.S. Army Reserve after being fired from their job at an electronics store after engaging in a clumsy mishap. They assume that the two weekends per month commitment means they will have it easy and by choosing water treatment as their area, they assume they will never be sent overseas. But after Libya invades Chad, they are deployed to Chad to repel the Libyan attackers. While this movie is meant to be satirical, most of the jokes come at the expense of Arabs and the stereotype of being overly hostile and primitive (Steuter & Wills 2008, p.24). For example, enemy Libyan soldiers are depicted as brutish savages who speak harshly and dress roughly (Khatib 2006, p.23). While other movies that have been examined in this paper contrast the intellectual and moral superiority of the American heroes to the incompetence and hypocritical behavior of the Arab “Other,” In the Army Now shows Bones and Jack as incompetent soldiers who nonetheless outwit the Libyans and in the process win the war, returning to America as heroes.


The aforementioned films seem to confirm many of the stereotypes that have been observed in both Hollywood and in the media at large. In particular, they all present this dichotomy in which the Arab characters are the source of the mayhem while it is the Western characters who are tasked with bringing order. In two of the films, True Lies and The Siege, the threat takes place on American soil. Thus, it represents the Other threatening the well being of the American public at home. The other movies take place in Arab countries. With the exception of Rules of Engagement, those films entail American soldiers navigating through the foreign land and becoming masters of it. Further, Three Kings and In the Army Now incorporate plot elements in which the American characters are there to save and defend the Arab populace from itself while Navy Seals and Rules of Engagement involve missions to protect American interests and in the process taking out scores of faceless Arab enemies. Two of the movies (The Siege and Three Kings) do portray certain characters of Arab ethnicity in a positive light. For instance, FBI agent Frank Haddad (played by Arab-American actor Tony Shalhoub) not only plays a significant role, but his own son is among those who are detained, which may invoke sympathy from the viewer. Nonetheless, this fact is still overshadowed by the rest of the stereotypical Arab portrayals. Furthermore, Three Kings features friendly, hospitable Iraqi characters that help the American protagonists after one of them has been kidnapped. But even that never quite reaches the level where the audience ever gets a message that Americans and Arabs are equal partners in this endeavor. It is also worth pointing out that only The Mummy and Three Kings had to be placed in the Arab world by necessity. In none of the plots of the other films was it absolutely essential that the characters be of Arab origin nor did they necessarily need to take place in the Middle East in order for the film to carry out its narrative. Finally, all of the films reflect the position that American values matter above everything else. In viewing these films, Hollywood continues to perpetuate stereotypes about Arabs and has not demonstrated that promoting a message of tolerance or equality for Arabs is a priority in the industry.


In regards to the news media, it has a responsibility for reporting news in a balanced way that avoids propagating U.S. foreign policy. After all, the key to democracy is to provide information based on the facts, not on political biases. Calling for a more honest press can be done by showing support for media watchdog organizations that hold reporters accountable. As the New York Times apology for not fulfilling its duty in the lead up to the second Gulf War indicates, the press are willing to own up to their mistakes. It is also up to the American public to education themselves and not be drawn in by rumors and stereotypes by reading different sources of information and keeping a critical eye on events, especially when they relate to politics and U.S. foreign policy.

As it relates to Hollywood films, based on all of the evidence from the readings, it is clear that portrayals of Arabs in the news media and in Hollywood are disproportionately negative and serve to reinforce stereotypes about the Arab World while asserting Western dominance in the region. Arab stereotyping, which is as old as the movie industry, seems to have evolved very little even as other ethnic groups have seen a significant decrease in stereotypical portrayals. As gatekeepers of information, the American media have a responsibility to provide news that presents a balanced approach to reporting. Furthermore, the Hollywood film industry has to make a concerted effort to entertain and inform without deliberating targeting individual ethnic groups. These suggestions are by no means a call for censorship nor do the media have to subscribe to extreme forms of political correctness. The Arab world, much like Western society, has its flaws and there is no reason why these cannot be topics to be confronted in the news and on film. However, this does not provide the industry with an excuse to make films that disproportionately portray the enemies as Arabs or set the movies in Arab countries when, as this paper has previously noted, so much evidence exists that the ethnicity of the antagonists and the setting of the movies has no baring on their plots. Ultimately, the Hollywood industry is most concerned with the bottom line, so it is important for studios to recognize that movies will still be blockbuster hits and serve their purpose of providing excitement and tension to the viewer without having to include Arabs as the enemy.

From the standpoint of Arabs, especially those who live in America, it is important to bring attention to this problem and seek dialogue with the Hollywood industry. It is also essential that Hollywood recognize that offensive portrayals of any individual group cannot be tolerated, which is why boycotts and campaigns that generate negative publicity for the studios could be utilized. Engaging in activism that resonates with the public is also essential. As the backlash over Abu-Ghraib, the perpetual detainment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and other incidents prove, the American public has shown itself to be sympathetic towards ill treatment of members of the Arab world. Thus, various Arab lobby groups should take advantage of this by linking up with other interest groups that seek to promote universal tolerance in films. Coalition-building and framing this as an issue that affects everybody – not just Arabs - could be an effective means to gain broad support among the general American public.

Finally, various Arab rights groups and Muslim organizations could design public service announcements and organize interfaith exchanges with other faiths in order to educate the broader public about what it means to be an Arab or Muslim. Ultimately it is going to take several different approaches to combat the stereotyping and prejudices that have caused great harm to the Arab world and Arab-American community. But an atmosphere of tolerance and understanding is not out of the question.

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