Our country's leadership has gone out of its way to distinguish between Islam and terrorism in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Yet, Hollywood has ignored that distinction completely. Major television networks -- including NBC, Fox, ABC and CBS -- have not only gone to great lengths to vilify Arab Muslims since then, but have introduced a very dangerous new equation: Arab Americans and Muslim Americans equals terrorist.
A few weeks ago CBS televised the movie "The President's Man: A Line in the Sand," with Chuck Norris. In it, swarthy-looking Arab Muslims try to set off a nuclear bomb in Texas. Islam is vilified. Assisting the Arab Muslims from overseas are Americans of Arab heritage. Such an outrageous depiction has never before appeared on television.
The movie does have a good-guy Arab-American attorney general who interviews the Arab-Muslim terrorist. His scene lasts three minutes, then he disappears. CBS was effectively saying, "Our movie has one good Arab-American character, so it's fair." That is tokenism, a lie, a network's way of trying to protect its backside.
Also on CBS: In "JAG," Arab Muslims in the Middle East plot to blow up 30 children in an American school, and beat a female Marine who heroically blows herself up with the villains; in "The District," Arab fathers are labeled brutish to their children, and a mosque president destroys his mosque (such an incident has never happened, but vandals have destroyed more than a dozen U.S. mosques); in "The Agency," Arab Muslim terrorists blow up a London department store, killing thousands including children (since Oct. 4, CBS has run this episode three times); on "Family Law," an attorney defending an Arab American is betrayed when his client skips town on bail (you just can't trust "those people").
NBC's "The West Wing" and ABC's "Alias" have also made caricatures out of Arabs and Muslims, making them hateful.
Do Arab women even exist on television? You never see them. In the history of television, there has never been an Arab American woman in a starring or supporting role. Arab women in the Middle East are portrayed mainly as bundles of black cloth, submissive harem maidens or carrying jugs on their heads. They have no identities whatsoever. And they're always mute.
Anybody who has ever been to the Middle East knows who runs everything there -- don't think the men do. There, you know who's in charge of the home, who flies the airplane, works on the computers, serves as the nurse. But on U.S. TV, the image of Arab women is as bad as -- if not worse than -- the image of the Arab male.
Hollywood has chosen to focus on a few stock caricatures and repeat these images over and over again. These images project American Arabs, American Muslims, Arabs and Muslims as members of a lunatic fringe. We come to think all "those people" are this way. We are never allowed to see, for example, Arabs and Muslims who do what normal people do -- go out on picnics, go to work, love their children.
This has a profound impact even within our own community. It breeds anxiety and a sense of helplessness, particularly in children. You hear some say, "I'm not Arab, I'm Spanish," or I'm Italian." The pervasive negative images breed a denial of heritage, a fear, a sort of shying away. It makes some not even want to speak the language.
It is not only the Arab and Muslim communities in the United States that are affected. In more than 150 nations, American TV and movies are hugely popular. Recently, I met with a group of Middle Eastern students at Vanderbilt University, and I asked if they watched American movies. Everyone had. "When you see Islam being vilified as a faith of violence, when you see yourselves portrayed as terrorists, what do you think?" I asked.
"We ask ourselves why Hollywood hates us," they said.
Show only vilifying images of any group, incessantly, and after a while -- 100 years in the case of the Arab stereotype -- it becomes "natural" not to like certain people. It is a sin of omission -- we omit the humanity -- and of commission -- we show only hateful images that make a stereotype that injures the innocent.
One reason these images and stereotypes continue is politics. The Arab-Israeli conflict has played a paramount role in shaping these images. Many of the movies I write about in my book "Reel Bad Arabs" were shot in Israel, with the cooperation of the Israeli government. It is naïve to overlook this. Another reason is that there is no American Arab or American Muslim presence in Hollywood moviemaking.
However, the primary responsibility rests with men and women who know exactly what they're doing and continue to do it because they know they can get away with it. They do it because they are prejudiced and greedy -- these movies make money.
We've been programmed to hate "these people" they distort, and as a result, no one really cares.
Things are bad, and getting worse. Innocent Americans are being brought into the Hollywood stereotype. "Worse" isn't a strong enough word -- it's dangerous.
Jack Shaheen is a professor of mass communications at Southern Illinois University and author of "Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People."