Tommy Lee Jones. Samuel Jackson. Gratuitous violence. Action- packed thriller. You've seen the arresting trailers. Ingredients of a box-office hit? Yes, indeed. William Friedkin's new movie "Rules of Engagement" has topped the weekend charts in the first two weeks of its release. Those Moslems are at it again, but this time America was prepared! --- Well, at least Hollywood was.
While Hollywood has produced another hit, Muslims and Arabs are bracing for another thrashing as a result of the slew of stereotypes, dangerous inaccuracies and associations contained in the movie.
The movie dehumanizes Arabs and Muslims by depicting them as hateful, vicious murderers obsessed with killing Americans. What makes this movie even worse then the earlier ones is its focus on women and children. Women in Islamic garb and young children are shown as bloodthirsty killers shouting religious slogans and firing automatic weapons at a peaceful American embassy.
At one point, the audience is moved to feel for the civilians gunned down by the marines, in particular a young girl who lost her leg in the shooting. The sympathy quickly fades when we discover that even this little girl - barely old enough to hold a gun - was firing at the marines. In essence, the clear message is "they are all animals," thank God for the marines who do what they have to do to keep "us" safe from "them."
"Nothing in my 36 years as an Arab-American, and my years as a graduate student studying literature and popular culture at the University of Massachusetts, and my one and half years as Communications director for the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), during which I thought I had seen it all, prepared me for the explosion of hatred that burst through the screen during "Rules of Engagement," wrote Hussein Ibish of the ADC. "[it] was like being physically beaten." My feelings exactly.
The average moviegoer who sees this film leaves with the impression that all Muslims and Arabs have a religious duty to kill Americans. Indeed, some in the audience cheered when the demonstrators were gunned down. The effect is all the more pronounced given that some even thought it was based on a true story because of the epilogue.
Sadly, Hollywood is still oblivious to the detrimental repercussions of depicting Muslims and Arabs at large as terrorists. According to the Washington-based Muslim civil rights group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), there were more than 350 reported incidents of anti-Muslim violence in 1999. CAIR's fifth annual report, released on April 18, 2000 which is the fifth anniversary of the wave of anti-Muslim hysteria in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, reveals a 57% rise in total incidents since the year of the bombing which was falsely blamed on Muslims. Similar statistics are not available for Canada, though Muslim organizations here report increased incidents during times of crisis in the Middle East.
Thanks to the continuous stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs in the media and by Hollywood, the figures are bound to be much higher next year if the aftermath of the Gulf War and the rush to judgment in the wake of the Oklahoma bombing are any indication.
Perpetuation of such stereotypes and inaccuracies have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable -- the children. Growing up as a Muslim or Arab child in North America is a challenge in itself without the added burdens imposed by the media and Hollywood. Many feel ashamed of their cultural and religious heritage -- thanks to their popular portrayal as intolerant, fanatical, violent, anti-modern, etc. The impact is also manifested in actions as diverse as discrimination in the workplace, the singling out of Muslims in airports, harassment of Arab and Muslim children, and even threats against Muslim and Arab institutions.
The effect of exaggerated Hollywood images of Arabs and Muslims is very real. Unfortunately, in times of crisis in the Middle East, which has nothing to do with Muslims or Arabs living in this part of the world, there is a surge in hate crimes and discrimination. The trend is pronounced even though most go unreported. Negative coverage in the media and depictions of Muslims and Arabs in movies such as "True Lies", "Executive Decision", "Not Without My Daughter," "The Siege" and now "Rules of Engagement" contribute significantly to the marginilization of these two communities.
It is imperative that all conscientious people speak out against this movie and the growing marginalization of Muslims and Arabs and call for a more responsible and accurate depiction of their fellow Muslim and Arab citizens, who are law abiding contributors to society.
Muslims and Arabs have launched a campaign of protest and education, but need the support of others to drive home the point that enough is enough. The issue is not one of censorship but rather one of speaking out against the promotion of hatred. As Ibrahim Hooper of CAIR said "We are not in favour of censorship. In fact, it is the movie industry that engages in censorship every time it fails to show the reality of the Muslim experience and instead offers a narrow and distorted view of Islam."
The media and the movie going public must question whether the acts of a few should be a green light to indict two communities and a religion. No other religion is defined by the actions of its followers acting outside the boundaries of the faith as determined by the general consensus. For instance, the bombings by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Northern Ireland do not define Catholicism. Judaism is not defined by the actions of fanatical settlers in Israel. Similarly, Islam should not be defined by those who harm civilians in its name. For too long, Islam, Muslims and Arabs have been defamed with impunity. It is time that others joined the fight to bring about responsible portrayal of Arabs and Muslims, for selfish reasons if not for the sake of fairness -- after all, today it is Muslims and Arabs, tomorrow it will be another marginalized community.
One thing is for certain, as a movie reviewer once said about "Not without my daughter," this is the best in-flight movie for U.S. bombing missions over the "no-fly zones" over Iraq. Who knows how many potential terrorists there are being obliterated from the sky by the brave air force pilots.