- Books

APR 2002

Reel Bad Arabs:
How Hollywood Vilifies a People
by Jack G. Shaheen
New York, Olive Branch Press, 2001

Reel Bad Arabs provides an in-depth look at how Hollywood has consistently denigrated Arabs in movies over the last hundred years. Author Jack Shaheen (professor emeritus of mass communications at Southern Illinois University and the world’s foremost authority on media images of Arabs) examines more than 900 feature films and describes the negative portrayal of Arab characters in each. "Reel Arabs," as Shaheen calls the Hollywoodized version of people from the 22 Arab states, are murderers, rapists, terrorists, hijackers, religious fanatics, and greedy oil-millionaires. They are bearded, camel-riding, harem-overseeing, bumbling, swarthy, hateful, crazy, and obnoxious. Almost entirely absent from the big screen are ordinary Arabs—the "man who works ten hours a day, comes home to a loving wife and family, plays soccer with his kids, and prays with family members at his respective mosque or church."

Hollywood’s worst treatment, Shaheen argues, is reserved for Muslim Arabs. "Today’s imagemakers," writes Shaheen, "regularly link the Islamic faith with male supremacy, holy war, and acts of terror, depicting Arab Muslims as hostile alien intruders, and as lecherous, oily sheikhs intent on using nuclear weapons. When mosques are displayed onscreen, the camera inevitably cuts to Arabs praying, and then gunning down civilians."

While the negative stereotyping of Arabs in American movies is nothing new (it began in the early 1900s), the practice took on a new viciousness toward the end of the century. This trend is evidenced by movies such as True Lies (1994), G.I. Jane and Operation Condor (1997), and The Siege (1998). In True Lies, the all-American hero, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, prevents a group of pyschotic-yet-idiotic Arabs from destroying the United States with nuclear weapons. In G.I. Jane, Demi Moore plays an enlisted Navy woman who has to prove her mettle by killing scores of Arabs. Jackie Chan, in Operation Condor, battles evil Arabs as he attempts to recover a chest of gold hidden by the Nazis at the end of World War II. And in The Siege, heroes Bruce Willis and Denzel Washington outwit a group of Arab Muslims planning to bomb New York City.

Particularly racist depictions of Arabs have been presented by the American film company Cannon, which was co-founded by Israeli producers Yorum Globus (former director of Israel’s Film Industry Department) and Menachem Golan. By the end of the 1990s, Cannon had released twenty-six "hate-and-terminate-the-Arab" movies; three of the most notorious being Hell Squad (1985), The Delta Force (1986), and Killing Streets (1991). In those films, Palestinians were killed by Las Vegas showgirls, U.S. Marines, and U.S. Special Forces, respectively.

What is the consequence of this steady stream of negative portrayals of Arabs and Muslims? According to Shaheen, the movie stereotypes contribute to a climate of Arab-hating—that the substitution of "reel Arabs" for "real Arabs" dehumanizes Arabs and makes them vulnerable to mistreatment. Shaheen draws the parallel between past cinematic abuses of Asians and the ease with which the American people accepted the imprisonment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. He makes a similar case for the prior demonization of African Americans, American Indians, and Jews on the silver screen, and the injustices that have been done to those groups of people. While it is no longer fashionable to discriminate against the aforementioned groups on screen, Shaheen claims, Arabs remain fair game. He draws a connection between unsavory Arab film images and the more than 300 hate crimes committed against Arabs in the direct aftermath of Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 (Arabs were initially suspected by law enforcement officials in the incident).

Shaheen makes the following recommendation to Hollywood movie-makers: "The time is long overdue for Hollywood to end its undeclared war on Arabs, and to cease misrepresenting and maligning them. All I ask of filmmakers is to be even-handed, to project Arabs as they do other people—no better, no worse. They should enjoy at the very least relative immunity from prejudicial portrayal." R


Editor’s note: In an exhaustive survey, Shaheen was able to find only three post-WWII fighting films made by major Hollywood studios that treat Arabs largely sympathetically. The most recent is Three Kings (1999), an antiwar movie set in 1990s Iraq that helps erase damaging stereotypes; the script was modified under consultation with Arab-American and Islamic anti-discrimination organizations after intense criticism of Warner Brother’s earlier film Executive Decision (1996). A smaller studio, New Line, released The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) in which "renegade" US intelligence agents frame Arab Muslims for terrorist attacks. And their forerunner is Universal’s Hanna K. (1983), which sympathizes with a displaced Palestinian protagonist—but which, under conservative pressure, was withdrawn from distribution by the studio.

Shaheen is able to recommend as nondiscriminatory towards Arabs only two Hollywood films set in WWII: Paramount’s Five Graves to Cairo (1943), which features the widespread Egyptian resistance to the Nazis (in contrast, say, with Raiders of the Lost Ark), and Columbia’s Sahara (1943), starring Humphrey Bogart, which was remade respectably by Showtime in 1995. With the exception of United Artists’ Khartoum (1966)—about 1880s Sudanese rebellion against British rule—every other commendable Hollywood fighting film is set in the ancient world—20th-Century Fox’s Cleopatra (1963), MGM’s Ben Hur (1959), United Artists’ Caesar and Cleopatra (1946), and Paramount’s Cleopatra (1934)—or in the medieval world:

The 13th Warrior (1999), Touchstone—Viking-Arab 10th century cooperation without fanaticism.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), Warner Bros.—A dignified Saracen warrior with superior judgment aids Robin.

King Richard and the Crusaders (1954), Warner Bros.—Saladin as a chivalrous leader.

By contrast, there are many good or commendable independent, minor-studio, and international war films (including many made in Israel). For a sampling of the standard Hollywood/Pentagon fare, read excerpts about key films below (Rules of Engagement, True Lies, Navy SEALs, Network, and Exodus), after a detailed account of Black Hawk Down by a local professor …


Excerpted from Reel Bad Arabs
by Jack Shaheen (see p. 4)

Rules Of Engagement (2000), Paramount. Samuel L. Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Ben Kingsley. Screenplay: Stephen Gaghan. Director: William Friedkin. Based on a story by former Secretary of the Navy James Webb, and produced in cooperation with the US Department of Defense (DOD) and the US Marine Corps.

Ten minutes into the film, the camera reveals scores of violent Yemeni demonstrators outside the American embassy in Sana’a, Yemen. A chanting mob of veiled women, bearded kuffiyeh-clad men with missing teeth, and unruly children toss rocks, throw firebombs, and brandish anti-US banners, written in Arabic. All raise their fists. Positioned away from the crowd of protestors, some Yemeni snipers appear on rooftops; they fire away at the Americans trapped inside the embassy; bullets narrowly miss the US ambassador (Kingsley). To the rescue, Marine Colonel Childers (Jackson). Three helicopters deliver the marines to the embassy compound. Abruptly, Yemeni snipers begin firing. Three marines are fatally shot—the camera displays the bloodied marine casualties. Incessant firing from the Yemeni endangers the rescue mission. As Childers and his men are pinned down, the colonel orders his marines to open fire. Questions a captain, "Are you ordering me to fire into the crowd?" Affirms Childers, "Yes. Waste the mother-fuckers!" Bodies of 83 dead Yemeni fill the screen. As several rooftop Yemeni snipers fire at the marines and riddle the American flag, viewers assume the snipers killed three marines, and that the angry civilian demonstrators were unarmed, innocent victims. This scene lasts 15 minutes.

Later, a three-minute flashback reveals the angry Yemeni crowd of civilians outside the embassy. Gun-toting Yemeni men, women, and children shoot at the marines. Childers visualizes their attack. No wonder he said: "Waste the mother-fuckers!" The film’s message? Colonel Childers’ made the correct call; his order to kill 83 Yemeni is justified. This movie’s Yemeni are, after all, hateful marine-killers and anti-American terrorists.

No such violence directed at American marines has ever occurred at a US embassy in Yemen, a nation with whom the US has had diplomatic relations for decades. For his scenario, former Secretary of the Navy James Webb chose an attack on an American embassy "because it could happen." Originally, "the locale was to be South America, but that became too topical." He selected Yemen, he said, "because it is sufficiently remote. I mean we don’t get up every morning and ask ‘How are things in Yemen?’"

Some movie reviewers were outraged at the films stereotypes. Writes the Toronto Sun critic, "Little attempt is made to humanize the Yemeni. On screen... they are stock villains, human cattle ready for herding and slaughter to demonstrate the right and might of the U.S. policeman’s role."

US advisors and the use of American military equipment play a role here. Several questions need to be addressed. Why and to what extent did the DOD and the US Marine Corps cooperate with producers of Rules of Engagement and help slander Arabs? Did the DOD provide technical advisors for free, and free equipment as well? Annually, how much taxpayer money is spent to fund DOD’s film offices? We should ask congresspersons with the Armed Service Committee and the Senate Relations Committee to request, from the General Accounting Office (GAO), detailed reports stating exactly what kind of cooperation DOD extended for Rules of Engagement. To expedite the GAO review, activists should view Rules of Engagement with their respective congresspersons.

Since 1980, the DOD has been actively involved with motion pictures vilifying Arabs. What’s happening, here? Assuming that screenplays are given to the military in advance are there any guidelines that enable those reading the scripts to approve/disapprove movies that denigrate peoples? Perhaps all copies of notes and memos, etc. pertaining to the DOD movies should be submitted to the GAO. The GAO review should examine the files that contain the names, titles, and ranks of those individuals responsible for reviewing the screenplay[s].


True Lies (1994), Twentieth-Century Fox. Arnold Scnwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis. Writer & Director: James Cameron.

The studio thanks for their cooperation, the US "Department of Defense" and "United States Marine Corps Aviation."

Cameron presents Palestinian Muslims as fanatical kuffiyeh-clad terrorists. Although the stale Arab-as-nuclear-terrorist image is a familiar one, True Lies is the first feature showing Arabs exploding a nuclear bomb inside the US. Cameron labels his Palestinian terrorist group, "Crimson Jihad", wrongly implying that jihad means violence.

When US agent Harry (Schwartzenegger) becomes depressed about his marital life, his agent partner helps to cheer him, exclaiming, "We’re gonna catch some terrorists and we’re gonna beat the hell out of ‘em. And you’ll feel a lot better." Feel gloomy? Pulverize an Arab!

Arabs function as mad murdering machines and as blundering dunces, nothing much in between. Trying to launch a missile, the Palestinians kill one of their own. When a bumbling terrorist tries to videotape Jihad’s leader, Aziz (Malik), the camera’s battery goes kaput. Aziz, who is tagged "sand-spider," shouts, "Get another one, you moron." When Harry and his partner spot Arab assassins in Washington, DC, they quip, "Beavis and Butt-head." Cut to Arabs trying to shoot Harry; they shoot each other. A truck driver mistakenly runs over a fellow Arab.

In the restroom, Harry punches out several Palestinians. Then, he stuffs one Arab’s face inside the urinal.

Sighed CBS’s Gene Siskel, "The terrorists are totally boring." And, "He [Schwarz-enegger] just might as well be working in a carnival, knocking off stuff with a BB gun!"

Arabs abuse women. Jihad’s leader, Aziz, smacks the villainess Juno (Carrere), calling her a "whore [and] sharmoota, stupid bitch." Later, in a hotel elevator, Aziz nabs and holds hostage, an attractive African-American woman.

Sadly, moviemakers, audiences, and film critics applauded True Lies status-quo stereotypes. Explains Schwarzenegger, "So many people are excited about it... and what made me really happy with the film were the reviews, that the critics were one hundred percent behind this movie... the New York Times, to the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, People magazine." Many critics gave True Lies a "thumbs up." "A Heck of a Ride" said Good Morning American Joel Siegel; "There’s something for everybody," wrote Richard Corliss of Time.

Syndicated columnist Russell Baker, however, was not enthused, writing, "Schwarze-negger... slaughters multitudes for a laugh... the murdered villains are Arabs, apparently the last people except Episcopalians whom Hollywood feels free to offend en masse." Watching "two hours" of the kind of "violence," says Baker, "is vulgar, immoral and disgusting." Don Bustany and Salam Al-Marayati point out in their Los Angeles Times "Counterpunch" essay: "[If Schwarzenegger] wore jeans instead of a tux, carried a six-gun instead of a Beretta, rode a palomino instead of a Harrier jet, and killed ‘Redskins’ wearing feathers instead of ‘brown skins’ wearing beards (and kuffiyehs), we’d have a classic and racist cowboy and Indian movie."

Outside a Washington, DC, movie theater, marchers protested True Lies. They carried placards stating: "Hasta La Vista, Fairness," "Reel Arabs are not Real Arabs," and "Open Your Eyes and Terminate the Lies."

Yet True Lies topped box office charts, pulling in $62 million in just two weeks. Because of the movie’s striptease, performed by Jamie Lee Curtis, some women’s groups thought the film was sexist. Even so, says Tammy Bruce, president of the National Organization for Women’s Los Angeles chapter: "Compared to the Arabs, women come off relatively well in this one."

FOX brought in and paid the Humane Society to oversee True Lies treatment of animals. The studio also invited critics to pre-release showings. Yet, the studio refused to consult with or to meet with America’s Arab and Muslim specialists. Nor were the specialists allowed to attend pre-release showings.

Soon after True Lies debuted, the studio made a feeble attempt to placate concerned viewers. They added the disclaimer "This film is a work of fiction and does not represent the actions or beliefs of a particular culture or religion"—at the very tail end of the credit roll, so that it appears after virtually everyone has left the theater.


Navy SEALs (1990), Orion. Charlie Sheen, Michael Biehn. Screenplay: Chuck Pfarrer, Gary Goldman. Director: Lewis Teague.

Arabs snatch US-made Stinger missiles and hold hostage an American helicopter crew. To the rescue, seven Navy SEALs (an acronym for Sea, Air, and Land).

Supposedly, some good Arabs aboard a ship in the eastern Mediterranean are in danger, "taking gunfire." Unaware the Arabs have set a trap, the Americans answer their call for help, dispatching a US helicopter crew. Abruptly, Palestinians wearing kuffiyehs appear. They kill one crewman, taking the Americans hostage.

In Washington, DC, Israelis and SEALs work together, mapping an attack that will terminate those Palestinian "assholes" that have " a warehouse full of [Stinger] missiles." Palestinians are tagged "cheese-dick," "fucker," "rag heads," "scum bag."

One SEAL tells a half-Lebanese reporter that "Beirut" is a "shithole filled with ragheads." Not only does the reporter fail to contest the "ragheads" slur, but she also refuses to tell the SEAL where the Palestinian terrorists are based. This slanderous scene, especially, reveals prejudice in its implication that because of her heritage, she is lenient toward terrorists. Would the writers use similar dialogue had she been projected as an American-Italian reporter?

In May 1989, Orion Pictures submitted this script to US naval authorities, seeking approval. The navy objected to the scenario’s gratuitous and random violence, pointing out that "SEALs would not fire ‘make sure’ rounds into each of the [Arab] bodies... that is murder."

Writes Caryn James in the New York Times, "What will Teen-Age Mutant Turtles be when they grow up? On the evidence of Navy SEALs, they are perfectly suited to be members of an elite navy commando team. The men who fight Middle Eastern terrorists in this new action film are a mere step away from the adolescent Turtles in maturity and complexity of character."

Some newspaper ads for this film stated: "GET AN OFFICIAL ‘NAVY SEALS’ HAT BY MAIL. Only $5.00 with Pepsi purchase. Details at participating 7-Eleven stores."


Network (1976), United Artists. William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch. Screenplay: Paddy Chayefsky. Director: Sidney Lumet.

Arab oil conglomerates seek control of an American TV network. Arabs are projected as "medieval fanatics [who are] simply buying us." Chayefsky received the Academy Award for this screenplay. No major critic, studio executive, or performer seems to have protested Chayefsky’s prejudicial Arab colloquies.

TV newsman Howard Beale (Finch) delights in smearing Arabs. He shows his viewers a news clip of OPEC ministers deciding "how much to increase the price of oil." On screen, stock footage of Saudi Arabia’s minister. Beale tells his viewers, "I want you to get up out of your chairs, go to your windows, stick your head out and say, ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!’"

Later, Beale warns his audience that the Saudis intend to take over his network, UPS-TV. UPS, explains Beale in a highly charged emotional speech, "is controlled by CAA, the twelfth largest company in the world... Somebody’s buying up CAA, somebody called the Western Funding Corporation. They’re buying it for the Saudi Arabian Investment Corporation. They’re buying it for the Arabs." The Arabs, predicts Beale, "are going to own what you read and what you see. Not a single law in the book to stop them. We all know Arabs control $16 billion dollars in this country. They own a chunk of Fifth Avenue, 20 downtown pieces of Boston, part of a port of New Orleans, an industrial park in Salt Lake City. They own big chunks of the Atlanta Hilton, the Arizona land and cattle company, part of a bank in California." And, "they control ARAMCO, so that puts them in EXXON, Texaco, and Mobil Oil. They’re all over: New York, Louisville, St. Louis, Missouri. And that’s only what we know about them; there’s a hell of a lot we don’t know about because all of those Arab petrodollars are washed through Switzerland and Canada and the biggest banks in the country... Right now the Arabs have screwed us out of enough American dollars to come right back and with our own money buy General Motors, IBM, IT&T, AT&T, DuPont, US Steel, and twenty other companies. Hell, they already own half of England. So listen to me, the Arabs are simply buying us. There’s only one thing that can stop them—you, you. So, I want you to get up now, out of your chairs and go to the phones... By midnight tonight I want a million telegrams in the White House, [saying] Tm mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore. I don’t want banks selling my country to the Arabs. I want the CAA deal stopped now."

Cut to members of his studio audience applauding thunderously.

Later the victorious newsman goes on the air and tells viewers, "Last night I got up here and asked you people to stand up and fight for your heritage and you did. Six million telegrams were sent to the White House. The Arab takeover of CAA has been stopped. The people spoke. The people won. It was a radiant eruption of democracy."

Would it be acceptable for screenwriter Chayefsky to label Israelis "medieval fanatics" who control US media, who are "buying us"? Americans fed up with Hollywood’s anti-Arab scenarios should consider emulating Howard Beale’s plan-of-action. If more "people spoke" up, notably Arab-Americans, if they were "to stand up and fight for [their] heritage," and if they were to become "mad as hell" and decide not "to take this [Arab-bashing] anymore [and] send six million telegrams" to the White House protesting Hollywood’s Arab portraits, perhaps a "radiant eruption" of humane Arab images would appear on movie screens. And, like Howard Beale, Arab-Americans could claim: "The people spoke. The people won."

Contrary to the blustering racist tirade in Network, consider the facts about who is "buying up" this country: According to department of commerce reports, during 1980 approximately "90 percent of direct foreign investment in the US was accounted for by the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands Antilles, Japan, Switzerland, and France." As for OPEC s seven Arab nations, "together [they] accounted for less than one percent of the total."

In December 1977, one year after Network was released, CBS’s 60 Minutes telecast a segment entitled, "The Arabs are Coming" which perpetuated the myth that Arabs are invading and buying up England.


Exodus (1960), United Artists, Otto Preminger Productions. Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint. Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo. Director: Preminger. Based on Leon Uris’s novel.

In the 1950s, when Americans were largely apathetic about Israel, the eminent public relations consultant Edward Gottlieb was called on "to create a more sympathetic attitude" toward the newly established state. And so, he sent Leon Uris to Israel to write a novel, which became the bestseller Exodus. Art Stevens writes, "Uris’ novel solidified America’s impressions of Israelis as heroes, of Arabs as villains; it did more to popularize Israel with the American public than any other single presentation through the media."

Exodus introduced filmgoers to the Arab-Israel conflict, and peopled it with heroic Israelis and sleazy, brutal Arabs, some of whom link up with ex-Nazis. The movie’s only "good Arab" becomes a dead Arab.

Zionist organizations such as Irgun tried to end the British occupation of Palestine through a campaign of attacks, for example, bombing the King David Hotel. Under such pressure, Britain handed the problem off to the UN, and the UN simply handed more than half of Arab-owned Palestinian land for the Zionists to establish a Jewish state. Throughout the film, Jewish nationalists are tagged "freedom fighters"—though with the tables turned today, films follow the Israeli and US governments in denying this label to Palestinian "terrorists" trying similarly to end the Israeli occupation.

Likewise, the film’s British, unlike the real British, seem more concerned about Arab than Jewish violence. A British solider tells an Israeli youth, "Don’t wander into the Arab section. Run into one of the [Jerusalem] Grand Mufti’s gangsters [and] they’ll kill you, son. They’ll slice your throat." A British General declares, "The Arabs simply won’t keep the peace... The Arabs are fanatic on the subject of Jewish immigration."

At no time does a character reveal that Jewish troops are terrorizing Palestinians, forcing them from their homes. Ari’s father Barak (Cobb) addresses Jews, saying, "[We] changed these mosquito-infested swamps into such [fertile] fields. On a quiet night you can hear the corn grow... The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem has asked you [Palestinians] to either annihilate the Jewish population or abandon your homes, and your land, and seek the weary path of exile. We [Jews] implore you, remain in your homes and we shall work together as equals in the state of Israel." Ari echo’s his fathers advice, telling the crowd: "Now, we’ll be equal citizens in the free state of Israel. Why should they [the Palestinians] go anywhere. This is their home as well as ours. Don’t you see, we have to prove to the world that we can get along together."

Never spoken in this movie are these words: "Palestinian," "Palestinian Arab," "Palestinian village," "Palestinian state." Instead, Exodus Jews, Arabs, and Westerners say: "Arab," "Arab village," and "independent Arab state." On two occasions, the phrase "Palestinian Jews" is mentioned.

In 1937, two-plus decades prior to Exodus, the Ray Film Company’s, The Holy Oath, a Yiddish language film with English subtitles advanced a similar "good" Jews and "bad" Arabs theme. Screened in New York City, The Holy Oaths objective was not so much to entertain audiences, rather to muster viewers’ support for a worldwide Jewish movement to gain and rebuild Palestine. To engage viewers, The Holy Oath shows Arabs, not Jews, at Jerusalem’s wailing wall. Throughout The Holy Oath, the Jewish protagonist declares that God gave this land [Palestine], flowing with milk and honey, to the people of Israel. To illustrate, footage selectively displays bedouins roaming the sterile cities of Hebron and Jerusalem. Even Eleanor Roosevelt thought the Palestinians were all nomads, so she believed there would be no problems evicting Palestinians from their homes. R


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