The Western portrayal of Middle Easterners in music, film, literature, comics and advertising hasn't been a pretty one.
From Rudolph Valentino as the sloe-eyed seducer in "The Sheik" (1921) to the scimitar-wielding assassin in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), the 1962 pop hit "Ahab the Arab" ("there she was . . . with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes and a bone in her nose . . .") to the wife-beating tyrant of "Not Without My Daughter" (1991), Arabs often are depicted as lascivious, laughable or loony.According to experts such as Jack Shaheen, Americans have ingested a mishmash of cultural cliches and racist stereotypes of Arab peoples for decades. Shaheen, a specialist in racial and ethnic stereotypes, is author of "The TV Arab" (Bowling Green University Popular Press, $9.95) and professor of mass communications at Southern Illinois University.
"Historically we've treated the Arabs as if they didn't have a human face," said Shaheen. "In popular culture, comic books and motion pictures, most of us have failed to see the dehumanization process. There are so many insidious portraits and nothing to balance them that we accept them as reality."
The prevailing images in more than 450 movies and TV shows, 250 comic books as well as academic texts, children's literature and novels that Shaheen analyzed are "the men as lecherous billionaires intent on kidnapping our women and placing them in harems, destroying our economy, buying up our networks and corrupting our politicians," he said. "Arab women are either the bundle in black trekking behind the camels or the obese belly dancer."
Gail Stern of the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies of Philadelphia agreed. The institute recently retired a traveling exhibit on ethnicity in advertising and in comics and is undertaking a second one on ethnic stereotypes in toys and games.
"What is consistent throughout is Arabs are generally portrayed as terrorists or assassins," said Stern. "There's an attempt to dehumanize them as well as many other groups in popular American culture. It depends on who's creating the images, but generally ad and comic images are created by Anglo Americans. Right now, we're told Arabs are our enemy and our ally, so there's a sense of confusion in the public. How can they reconcile fighting for and against Arabs at the same time?"
Based on the progress of racial stereotypes of African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians, Stern expects racist Arab stereotypes to diminish as advertisers and corporations begin to view them as consumers and as people from these maligned groups move into positions of power in corporations. The rise of ethnic pride and civil rights struggles also creates awareness and appreciation for differences, she said.
"We've seen a real evolution in the media we've looked at, to the point of positive stereotypes replacing old negative stereotypes," she said. "Movies that used to feature African-Americans as villains now really avoid showing any black people in villain roles, for example." Shaheen compared the stereotyping of Arabs to that of Jews in Nazi Germany.
"The Germans dehumanized Jews by showing them as greedy bankers wanting the blond, blue-eyed German virgin, wanting control of the economy," he said. "If you look at the German editorial cartoon or movie of the late '30s and '40s, you'll see the Semitic features of that era are the same as those of the Arab caricatures of today: exaggerated nose, fat lips, beard. The Jews were depicted in black hat and cloak; today the Arab billionaire wears the robe and headdress. It's easier to hate someone who doesn't dress the same as you."
Arabs never are pictured as victims, he said, although since the "intifada," the Arabic term for the uprising in the Israeli-occupied territories, more than 800 Palestinians have been killed, including more than 160 children under 16.
Some of the most egregious examples, according to Shaheen are: Mario Puzo's new novel, "The Fourth K" (Random House, $21.95), in which a Palestinian terrorist kidnaps the president's daughter, assassinates the pope and is aided by an Arab sheik; and professional wrestling, in which a character called Palestina the Syrian Terrorist unfolds her prayer rug before she goes into the ring to bite and scratch Miss Liberty. Her male counterparts are Insane Abdul and Abdullah the Butcher, who has pointy-toed shoes and uses "camel locks" to pin his foes.
The stereotyping also parallels that of Indians, often portrayed as "bogeymen, savages who attacked as a horde, who were out to seduce our women, who worshiped a different god," he added. "Five percent of Arabs are Christians, but we never see one, they are always Muslim zea-lots."
"In the American psyche, Arabs, Muslims and Middle Easterners are lumped together," said Emily Smith, a Minneapolis member of the Islamic Council of Minnesota, who converted to Islam seven years ago. "This is completely inaccurate. Arabs and Muslims are not equivalent: There are Arab Jews, Arab Christians and Arab Muslims in the Arab world. Less than 20 percent of Muslim people are Arabs. Islam is a global religion, and most of its members are Asian.
"A lot of times Arabs are represented as wealthy, but most are middle class or lower class," she added. "The people of the gulf states who have oil are the few, not the many."
Smith cites the Sally Field film "Not Without My Daughter" as an attempt to inflame hatred of Muslims and Iranians.
"They are shown as unintelligible, irrational, unsympathetic wife-beaters draped in black," she noted. "The film uses the word `primitive' many times to describe the people.
"There's an attempt to demonize leaders, because it's easier to focus on a personality than to understand issues. So the government gives us someone we can hate: It was Khomeini then Gadhafi, now it's Saddam Hussein."