Aren't You the Terrorist on TV?
Several years ago I came home from work one night to find my Egyptian husband and his Jordanian friend up past midnight watching "Aladdin." Our daughter, then a toddler and the rightful owner of the video, had gone to bed hours earlier and left the two of them to enjoy their own private cultural studies seminar in our living room.
"Oh, God, now the sultan's marrying her off!" cried Jordanian Friend. "It's barbaric, but hey, it's home," quipped my husband, repeating lyrics from the film while rolling his r's in a baritone imitation of an accent he's never had.
I admit it: I purchased Disney crap. In my own defense, I try to avoid all strains of happily-ever-after princess stories. But, other than a few grainy videos that you can order from, say, Syria, "Aladdin" is one of the rare movies with an Arab heroine available for the 2-to-6-year-old set. And so I had taken my chances with it.
My husband preferred to tell my daughter bedtime stories taken straight out of "1,001 Nights", before they'd been contorted at the hands of Hollywood. (Tales of Ali Baba's clever servant Morghana are far more feminist than the big screen version of "Aladdin" ever was.) For my daughter's sake, I think this is wonderful. But it's also disappointing to see yet another example of unadulterated Middle Eastern literature trapped in Middle Eastern communities, told in whispers to children at bedtime, while the world at large is bombarded with a mammoth distorted Hollywood version replete with hook-nosed villains, limping camels, a manic genie and Jasmine's sultan dad who is (of course) a sexist.
While Native Americans, Asian Americans and numerous other ethnic groups have had significant success in battling racist and inaccurate media images of their communities, Muslims and Middle Easterners are just beginning to decry stereotypical portrayals of Arabs and Islam. In April, following another crisis in the West Bank, Edward Said wrote a short piece, published in both the American and Arab press, stressing the importance of media savvy. "We have simply never learned the importance of systematically organizing our political work in this country on a mass level, so that for instance the average American will not immediately think of 'terrorism' when the word 'Palestinian' is pronounced."
After Sept. 11, an astonishing number of films and television programs were cancelled, delayed or taken out of production due to unfortunate coincidences between their violent plotlines and, well, reality. It went without saying that all this mad scrambling was for the benefit of a nation momentarily unwilling to see the fun in shoot-em-up action adventures, and that it was not indicative, at least in the case of movies with Middle Eastern characters, of a sudden dose of sensitivity towards anti-Arab stereotyping.
But apparently Hollywood has either declared the grieving period over, or has decided that what we need most right now are "more" escapist fantasies of Americans kicking the asses of aliens and foreigners. A number of films initially pushed back have since been released (some, like "Black Hawk Down" and "Behind Enemy Lines" were actually moved up), and television series that were hastily rewritten to eradicate any terrorist references have now been rewritten again, this time to highlight them.
This first became obvious back in March, when CBS was bold enough to broadcast "Executive Decision" (albeit opposite the Oscars). "Executive Decision", originally released in 1996, is a mediocre thriller that depicts Muslim terrorists hijacking a 747 en route to Washington, D.C. Like most films in its genre, wild-eyed Arabs are foiled by the technological, intellectual and ultimately moral superiority of Americans.
"Executive Decision" has since appeared repeatedly on various cable networks, along with "True Lies "(1994), "The Siege" (1998) and "Not Without My Daughter" (1991). NBC's "The West Wing" has written a fictional Arab country into its plotline (and assassinated its defense minister); "Law and Order" opened this year's season with the story of an American convert to Islam who murders a women's rights activist. Islam is treated with varying degrees of nuance in each of these works, but it is always approached as a dilemma to be overcome (one always needs to "do" something about these troublesome Muslims) rather than folded unproblematically into the background, the way Josh and Toby's Judaism is presented on "The West Wing", or the way Betty Mahmoody's Christianity is portrayed in "Not Without My Daughter".
According to a recently released report from Human Rights Watch, the federal government received reports of 481 anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2001, 17 times the number it received the year before. It also noted that more than 2,000 cases of harassment were reported to Arab and Muslim organizations. The Bush administration and the Department of Justice have responded on the one hand by condemning hate crimes against the Muslim and Middle Eastern community, and on the other by rounding up Muslims and Middle Easterners for questioning. Most notoriously, the FBI and Justice Department announced last fall their intent to schedule "interviews" with 5,000 men of Arab descent between the ages of 18 and 33. More than 1,000 men were detained indefinitely and incommunicado in the aftermath of Sept. 11, most of them on minor visa charges.
Yet racial profiling and ethnic stereotyping are nothing new to Americans of Middle Eastern descent. Hollywood has long used images of bumbling, accented Arabs and Iranians as shorthand for "vile enemy," depicting them as stupid (witness the terrorist lackey in "True Lies" who forgets to put batteries in his camera when making a video to release to the press), yet nevertheless deeply threatening to all that is good and right with America. So ingrained is the image of Arab-as-terrorist that Ray Hanania, an Arab-American satirist, titled his autobiography "I'm Glad I Look Like a Terrorist" (Almost every TV or Hollywood Arab terrorist looks like some uncle or aunt or cousin of mine. The scene where Fred Dryer [of TV's "Hunter"] pounces on a gaggle of terrorists in the movie "Death Before Dishonor" (1987) looks like an assault on a Hanania family reunion).
Within hours of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, there were rumors of Arab or Muslim involvement, and real fear within the Middle Eastern community about being falsely associated with the atrocity. Despite the regular drum of tension in Northern Ireland and the civil wars that burn throughout Africa and the Americas, only those who look Middle Eastern, even Sikhs, young women and members of the Secret Service have been the targets of this particular brand of racial profiling.
Nowhere is this game of Pin The Bomb Threat On The Muslim more obvious than at the airport. A few years ago I flew out of Cairo with my husband and discovered that F.W.A. (Flying While Arab) is no joke. We landed in Paris with a crying baby and were ushered to the back of the line while the airline attendants processed every other passenger. My husband was unconcerned; he was used to the routine. But I was acutely aware of two things: 1) that the baby was on her last diaper; and 2) that diaper was feeling heavy.
Our turn finally came a good three hours later, whereupon we spent another 45 minutes having our carry-on luggage examined and re-examined, answering the same questions again and again, and waiting while security checked and re-checked their computer database. All this over a graduate student from Egypt, married to an American citizen, during a time when world politics were calm enough that Bill Clinton's main preoccupation was rubbing lipstick smudges off his fly.
As it happened, most of the French airline workers were on strike that week (imagine that!) so we were sent to an airport hotel for the night and told we could take our connecting flight to D.C. the next day. While the other Americans and Europeans on our flight took the opportunity to spend a free night in Paris, my husband was instructed not to leave the hotel. I suppose the baby and I could have taken our crisp blue passports and gone into the city without him, but the thought of taking advantage of my American citizenship, something I'd just been born into by chance, mind you, while he stayed behind watching bad French television in the hotel lounge was too much to take.
Of course, it would be a mistake to assume that the most egregious offenses of racial profiling take place at the airport. The Council on American-Islamic Relations reports that half of the discrimination complaints it received in 2001 were work-related, and there has been a leap in the number of outright hate crimes, including at least three murders, since Sept. 11.
April's "Atlantic Monthly" featured an essay by Randall Kennedy, Harvard law professor and author of "Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word", comparing racial profiling to its "alter ego," affirmative action. "Supporters of profiling, who are willing to impose what amounts to a racial tax on profiled groups, denounce as betrayals of 'color blindness' programs that require racial diversity," he wrote. "A similar turnabout can be seen on the part of many of those who support affirmative action. Impatient with talk of communal needs in assessing racial profiling, they very often have no difficulty with subordinating the interests of individual white candidates to the purported good of the whole."
Kennedy's piece reaches no conclusions, other than to affirm the need for the debate in the first place, but I see no contradiction here. When workers are paid unequally for doing equivalent work, union organizers naturally argue that all workers should be paid what the highest-earning worker is paid, a process called "leveling up." Both the opposition to racial profiling and the support of affirmative action are about leveling up.
In both cases, marginalized groups who have suffered from stereotyping and injustice are asking to be considered full-fledged participants in our culture, to be given the same benefit of the doubt that white people have been given for centuries. Membership has its privileges, including job promotions, tenure, the ability to speed in a school zone and get off with a warning, and impromptu nights in Paris cafes. Whether one considers these things rights or luxuries, they are the aspects of citizenship that make one feel both accepted in and loyal to one's community and culture.
Some, like Ann Coulter (a columnist so out of touch even "The National Review" fired her) calls those who complain about such matters "crazy," "paranoid," "immature nuts" and (my favorite) "ticking time bombs." Though most people would find her language over-the-top, there are many people who agree with the sentiment: that an increase in security, even if it means engaging in racial profiling, is a necessary evil in these dark times.
Lori Hope, in a "My Turn" column published in "Newsweek" last spring, worried that in alerting a flight attendant of a suspicious-looking traveler ("He was olive-skinned, black-haired and clean-shaven, with a blanket covering his legs and feet"), she might have "ruined an innocent man's day" when the man was removed from the flight. Nevertheless, she said, "I'm not sure I regret it ... it's not the same world it was half a lifetime ago."
And for her, it probably isn't. But for the thousands of people who have been falsely associated with a handful of extremists for no reason other than their ancestry or their religion, for those who have been targeted not for their crimes but for color of their skin, not a whole lot has changed.
The assumption in all these discussions is that getting kicked off a plane is merely a "hassle". Granted, no one should be hassled because of their race or ethnicity, but c'mon, be reasonable. This is just a little annoyance we're talking about, the way watching the mad professor getting chased around by psychotic Libyans in "Back to the Future" is "fun," "just a joke," you know, like someone in blackface. National security is the real issue. Anyone who can't see that must have something to hide.
But those who argue that it's an inevitable necessity should look to countries like Egypt, where racial and religious profiling as a manner of combating Islamic extremism is obviously unworkable. Ethnic stereotyping, whether by Hollywood or by the FBI, solidifies the wedge between what we call "mainstream" culture and those who are perceived to be on the outside of it. "Ruining an innocent man's day" isn't the point, just as the "hassle" of moving to a different seat on the bus wasn't the point for Rosa Parks. Didn't we hammer all this out 40 years ago?
Laura Fokkena was living in the Cairo district of Imbaba when it was seized by government forces in 1992. She has been following Islamist movements ever since. Her writing has been published in a variety of newspapers and magazines in the United States and Middle East. She currently lives in Boston.