The portrayal of Arabs and Arabic culture in American films changed to reflect broader sociopolitical contexts in recent U.S. history. In the early 1980s, the image of a Russian enemy served as a convenient articulation of foreign fear--a kind of xenophobia that makes for good film as well as for reinforcement of cultural boundaries. As U.S. foreign policy shifted from involvement with the Soviet Union following the end of the Cold War, the characterization of Arabs as a threat to American interests intensified. Though Hollywood movies have included anti-Arab sentiments throughout moviemaking history, the fall of the Soviet Union, corresponding roughly with the Gulf War in 1990-91, brought a rapid escalation of the demonization of Arabs in American film.
Oversimplification of good versus evil, with a nationalist face on each, is effective propaganda and masks underlying ideologies. The more subtle the message and cinematic device, the more powerful and effective the process of creating the Other. With the splintering of the Soviet block, a threat loosely portrayed as Russian persisted in American film, and political discourse prevailed to construct a generalized sense of insecurity. The Gulf War, the attack on the USS Cole, and bombings of the Oklahoma federal building and U.S. embassies reinforced this ideology. An ideology of fear does not require concrete evidence of an enemy actually on our doorstep, only that they might be someday.
Following the events of 9/11, depictions of terrorism in film shifted almost exclusively to faces of Arabic origin. This is not surprising, given the tremendous impact of that day on U.S. society. However, factual accounts document that the threat of Arab terror was hardly a salient construct on the American collectivity prior to 9/11. Not only did these events change many facets of daily life, but also media images permeated America's psyche. America now has one enemy, it seems, and the face is Arab.
In the early 1980s, with the ghosts of Vietnam and involvement of the Soviet Union, Russians were the embodiment of evil portrayed on screen. This is easily observable in movies such as the Rambo trilogy. America was continually involved in battling communism and was seen as champion of the free world.
Interestingly, the Rambo movies allow us to view through a hyperbolic Hollywood lens the transition of one group from heroic ally to vile terrorists. As late as 1988, Arabs were still presented as good people fighting for freedom against Russian tyranny. Following 9/11, Russians virtually disappeared from the cinematic subconscious, despite the fact the Russia still maintains a substantial military force and the world's largest stockpile of nuclear weapons.
During this period of cinematic production, Arabs remained the noble warrior, doing exactly what Americans would expect if our homeland were under attack. Masoud, the mujahideen leader, proclaimed: 'Most of the Afghan people are very strong, and we are determined not to be driven from our land... What you see here, are the mujahideen soldiers, holy warriors.'
Following the events of 9/11, the admirable traits of Arab freedom fighters as portrayed by American film virtually disappeared. Gone is the scourge of communism and present is a new global threat from non-Christian fundamentalists, portrayed as endangering our way of life. Such portrayals overgeneralize, leading the naive observer to believe all followers of Islam are potential terrorists. It also distorts reality. While most Americans believe that Christianity is predominant globally, less than one third of the world population reports their religious affiliation as Christian (ABC News, 2007). To connect the American idea of religious 'minorities' to evil, films such as Syriana and The Kingdom serve to clearly connect Islamic fundamentalism to terrorism. The silver screen operates as an ideological tool for a culture of fear.
With subsiding support for the war in Iraq (World Public Opinion, 2007), the cinematic focus continues to link Arab culture with terrorism. As a term of popular discourse, terrorism is loaded with 'culturally-specific meanings' that are transcoded in film as non-Christian and Arab (Jackson, 2006). The link between politics and cinema becomes clear in the participation of the U.S. Department of Defense in the production of anti-Arab and anti-Islamic Hollywood films. Iron Eagle (1986), Death Before Dishonor (1987), Navy Seals (1990), Patriot Games (1992), True Lies (1994), Executive Decision (1996), Rules of Engagement (2000), and Black Hawk Down (2001) were all films made with the assistance of the Department of Defense (Blauvelt, 2008). In Rules of Engagement, written by former Secretary of the Navy James Webb, justification for killing civilians is provided in the story line when it is discovered that even children were armed and trying to kill U.S. soldiers.
We end this discussion by asking the so-what question: Why does any of this matter? What are the implications of a culture of fear perpetuated and enhanced--perhaps even created--by a celluloid image? As Barry Glassner (1999) reminded us, we are all too often afraid of the wrong things. We focus almost exclusively on a country and a people--or our idea of them--when in actuality they pose little threat to our way of life. In such an increasingly borderless globe, group differences may become less defining. We do not downplay the significance, and the horror, of 9/11. We do invite readers to question and critique media representations of cultures, especially as they parallel political and economic realities in an increasingly global network of interdependent social worlds.
[This essay was extracted from L. Susan Williams and Travis W. Linnemann, 'Scripting an Enemy: Portrayals of Arab Terrorists in American Film,' in Jean-Anne Sutherland and Kathryn Feltey (eds.), Cinematic Sociology: Social Life in Film (Pine Forge Press, 2010), pp. 203-5). For further reading on this topic, see J.A. Progler 'The Utility of Islamic Imagery in the West,' Al-Tawhid: Quarterly Journal of Islamic Thought and Culture, vol. 14, no. 4, Winter, 1997.]