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Casting The Villain: Framing the Arab World in the War on Terror

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Sarah Reif

on 14 October 2012

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Transcript of Casting The Villain: Framing the Arab World in the War on Terror

Media Framing of the Arab World
in the War on Terror Casting the Villain Movies Television Looking Forward The New Threat The New Threat Western Film and TV have always responded to reflect perceived political threats
for many years this enemy was Russia and Communism, both depicted as the antithesis to American Freedom Shifting Attentions Movies “a new breed of Islamic terrorist has emerged from the downtrodden societies of the Middle East. Attached to no nation but infiltrating many, its strategy is to inflict mass casualties and their aim is to attack no less than the heart of Western civilization. The preeminent practitioner of modern terrorism is Osama bin Laden, and in the space of a decade he has managed to draw the United States into a declaration of global war: new tools of counterterrorism, more aggressive strategies and tactics—and an unprecedented focus on the threat of devastating violence in the American homeland.” (9/11 Commission Report, 2004). The end of the Cold War sees a shift in perception. No longer is American entertainment media dominated by the Russian villain.
Instead the shows and movies of the 1990s indicate a new threat identified as "the unpredictable use of terrorism by militant Islamic fundamentalists" (Arti, 2007).
As seen in the quote from the 9/11 Commission shown above, the message to the American people from their government was one condemning and othering the Arab world -- painting a portrait of a "new breed" of terror at the hands of Islamic fundamentalism.
This atmosphere of political distrust of all things Arab was and continues to be perpetuated to the american people through entertainment media, indeed "it is hard to find any Arabs represented as talented and hospitable citizens: lawyers, bankers, doctors, homemakers, engineers, or environmentalists" (Arti, 2007). Let's Consider... The Othering of the Arab world illustrated through Edward Said's "Orientalism" stating that "the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience" (Said, 1978).
How is this us vs. them mentality exhibited in modern forms of entertainment?
How has the role of "Villain" in western culture evolved?
Are television and film partially to blame for western Islamiphobia?
Does the entertainment media hold a mirror to political conflict?
Often it seems that political conflict and war create the enemies for shows and movies, while fear created by those same shows and movies serves as justification of political conflict.
What obligation, if any, does entertainment media have to create accurate depiction of the characters it is trying to other? "the early depiction of Middle Easterners showed the absence of a diplomatic strategy in the region before WW2, focusing only on ethnic and stereotypical exoticism rather than politics; the second depiction of the region gained in popularity after the Iranian revolution, when the Middle East took on the role of enemy in American films. As time wore on, the growing numbers of attacks by Middle Eastern terrorists gave Hollywood ample opportunity to show Middle Easterners in a strongly negative light" (Arti, 2007) Revisiting Old Friends The New Genre Bond, James Bond I am Iron Man Pre-9/11 Post-9/11 Surveying over 900 films produced in the last 20 years portraying Arabs, Jack Shaheen notes that in an overwhelming majority of them "seen through Hollywood's distorted lenses Arabs look different and threatening... they are Public Enemy #1—brutal, heartless, uncivilized religious fanatics, and money-mad cultural ‘others’ bent on terrorizing civilized Westerners, especially Christians and Jews.” (Shaheen, 2001) The Arab world is the source of a potential threat
films concentrate on American heroes stopping that threat before it gets to civilian doors.
The example here is the 1998 film "The Siege" which is largely considered the eeriest precursor to the 9/11 attacks to come three years later.
details little distinction between terrorist practices and the Islamic/Arab world. focus on American heroism in the face of an Arab threat
promotes American nationalism against terrorism even for the ordinary civilian
the Arab terrorist is solidified as the new anti-western villain, however because we are now dealing with a fully realized threat, no longer just the potential, care is taken to distinguish between "good" and "bad" members of the Arab world. (More on this later) A perfect example of the switch from Cold War enemies to modern Arab enemies.
Bond, traditionally depicted foiling the soviet threat, finds himself facing off against a terrorist-financier in Casino Royal
This switch is even acknowledged by the film's character M who utters the oft-quoted monolog ending with "I miss the Cold War" The modern revival of superhero films have also adopted the "Arabs are the enemy" approach.
The recent 2008 Iron Man film updates the hero's origin story, having him captured in Afghanistan by a terrorist cell and forced to free himself.
The remainder of the film deals with illegal weapons vending to Afghanistan and the destruction of the terrorist cell. Television Television dramas, transmitted directly into our homes, "participate in defining and redefining racial dynamics (which bodies are threatening, deviant, suspect, criminal, terrorist, and un-American and therefore merit justifying denying rights" (Alsultany, 2008). Such programs "even when seeking to resist hegemonic racist configurations of the monolithic Arab Muslim terrorist, participate in reworking U.S. sovereignty" promoting nationalism and cultural superiority in the face of an outside threat (Alsultany, 2008).
This throwback to Anderson's "Imagined Community" is important because unlike many feature films, television programs are often only broadcast in a couple of countries. Therefore even the viewership is nationalistic. 24(2001)/Homeland(2011) The 2001 television show 24 created a fictional Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) and traditional male action hero Jack Bauer who was willing to do anything to stop the terrorist threat.
once again promotes nationalism and american supremacy, depicting non-americans as threats.
Slogan on the poster "hope has a fighting chance" depicting Jack in a stereotypically eastern environment, showing him as a freedom fighter and a liberator.
Creators of 24 come back in 2011 with critically acclaimed Homeland
Tag line for the show is "An American Prisoner of War has been turned."
follows a CIA agent as she attempts to reveal that a rescued American POW has been converted to terrorism.
The rescued POW, having indeed been "turned," has also converted to Islam. This perpetuates the racist association between the religion and terrorism. Coinciding with Said's concept of Orientalism which observes how Western countries are two quick to generalize all aspects of the East. Issac and Ishmael: The Case of the West Wing "Issac and Ishmael" was a special non-canonical episode of the West Wing was was written and aired shortly after the 9/11 attacks It depicted a terror threat trapping a group of high school juniors and seniors in the white house where they are lectured by various characters on the situation in the Middle East, partial US blame, as well as the difference between Islamic Extremism and the rest of the Muslim world.
This is an example of a show using its power to educate its viewers rather than vilify a people.
However it falls short on this message. The lecture becomes an "ethnocentric celebration of American superiority" when the character Josh begins expressing his "outrage at the cultural customs of Islam" and criticizes women wearing veils and men being made to pray (Spigel, 2004).
(un)intended consequences "The continuing sense of threat provides support for the power of the state, but it also provides the groundwork for securing 'the Nation' as a cultural and social entity" (Alsultany, 2008). Racism and anti-Islamic sentiment
support for military endeavors
nationalism But Also, interestingly, after 9/11, entertainment media did make attempts to distinguish between Muslim Terrorists and regular Muslim citizens
this well-meant effort was largely unsuccessful however, for they still fell prey to Said's Orientalism -- depicting ordinary Arabs as people who need rescuing from their own culture
therefore Islamiphobia as it has been termed, still runs rampant in many parts of the USA representing the destruction of freedom in fact many still call Obama both a Muslim Terrorist AND a Communist in order to smear his political campaign References 9/11 Commission Report (New York: Norton, 2003), p. 421.

Alsultany, E. (2008). The prime time plight of the arab muslim american after 9/11. In A. J. Jamal & N.
Christine Naber (Eds.), Race and Arab Americans Before and After 9/11: From Invisible Citizens to Visible Subjects (pp. 204-228). Syracuse University Press.

Arti, S. (2007). The evolution of hollywood's representation of arabs before 9/11: the relationship between
political events and the notion of 'otherness'.Networking Knowledge: Journal of the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network, 1(2), 1-20. Retrieved from http://ojs.meccsa.org.uk/index.php/netknow/article/view/23/23

Merskin, D. (2004). The construction of arabs as enemies: Post-september 11 discourse of george w. bush.
Said, E. W. (1979). Orientalism. (3 ed.). New York: Vintage Books.

Speigel, L. (2004). Entertainment wars: Television culture after 9/11. American Quarterly, 56(2), 235-270.
Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40068195

Shaheen, J. (2003). Reel bad arabs: How hollywood vilifies a people. Annals of the American Academy of
Political and Social Science, 588, 171-193. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1049860 What Next? does American entertainment media need to do more to promote a balanced portrayal of Muslims and Arabs in a positive light?
how exactly would it be possible to combat this growing racism?
maybe we need a show about anthropologists! BONUS! Anthropology-Major Fox Meme TLC's "All American Muslim" in 2011 the television network TLC created a show called "All American Muslim" which followed five Muslim-American families living in Michigan
despite initial sensationalist advertising labeling the show controversial and promising viewers an exciting ride, the show was pulled after just one season.
This has been largely attributed to the cast of the show being "too normal"
Perhaps all Muslim's aren't terrorists after-all. by Sarah Reif Further Consideration Jack Shaheen's Film, "Reel Bad Arabs"
examination of other forms of entertainment media such as the internet and video games
the role of news media
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