Putting the Arab and Muslim image debate into perspective

True, there is still over-representation of Arabs and Muslims in terror-related scripts but there is more sophistication and there is greater avoidance of flat characters.
Sunday 30/09/2018
(L-R) Egyptian-American actor Rami Malek, Turkish-American actor Ennis Esmer and Iranian-American actress Necar Zadegan. (AP)
Faces of MENA. (L-R) Egyptian-American actor Rami Malek, Turkish-American actor Ennis Esmer and Iranian-American actress Necar Zadegan. (AP)

Despite decades of activism by Arab-American advocates clamouring for a fairer image of Arabs in the US film and TV industry, the negative stereotyping of Arabs and Middle Easterners seems to endure but the terms of the debate have, in many ways, changed.

A report by the MENA Arts Advocacy Coalition (MAAC) complained that the overwhelming majority of TV cast members of Middle Eastern and North African background were playing roles associated with terrorism and despotic rule. “78% of the time, we are playing threats,” tweeted actress Azita Ghanizada, who founded MAAC in 2016.

Further driving stereotypical characterisations, “67% of the MENA characters speak with pronounced foreign accents, reinforcing the stereotype of MENAs as foreigners,” she added.

The coalition’s conclusions are contained in “Terrorists & Tyrants: Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) Actors in Primetime & Streaming Television,” which surveyed 242 television shows from the 2015-16 season.

In many ways, Hollywood functions as a sort of stereotype factory for US and world markets. As an institution driven by commercial imperatives, it cannot realistically challenge mainstream assumptions. Or if it does, only to a certain extent: The US film and TV industry was never meant to be a counterculture vehicle.

MAAC said the negative portrayal of Arabs and Muslims has practical fallouts on the lives of the 10 million Americans of MENA origin, counting US nationals of non-Arab Middle Eastern descent.

“The characterisations of MENAs as foreigners and threats can contribute to the rise of anti-Muslim and immigrant sentiments in US society,” said the report, which legitimately recommends that studios “create storylines/characters and greenlight projects that avoid stereotypical depictions of MENA. Do not limit MENA representations to geopolitical and/or terrorist narratives.”

There is a potentially problematic twist in the MAAC viewpoint, however. In examining the presence of Middle East and North Africa actors in the TV shows, it uses fundamentally racial, not cultural or ethnic criteria.

“Whites dominate the television landscape, making up nearly 70% of television series regulars, compared to MENA actors, who comprise only 1% of regular actors on TV,” said its report.

The coalition might have an understandable concern about protecting the interests of actors of Arab and Middle Eastern origin in Hollywood by insisting that “studios and producers categorise MENA hires as “MENA,” not “Caucasian.” However, categorising Americans of Middle Eastern and North Africa extraction among non-white minorities might offer the potential for alliances with other minority groups but could further alienate “MENAs” from the mainstream.

The main purpose of the coalition is to promote career opportunities for actors of Middle Eastern descent but if there is no change of mindset and no new sociopolitical perceptions, the odds are that actors of Middle Eastern background will be solicited only when the scripts deal with fear-inspiring terrorists and dictators.

Their greater presence in the studios will broaden the options for stereotypical representation.

Then what to do about the stereotypes themselves?

Maybe cease being hypersensitive about them even when trying to correct them. A less denunciatory attitude does not mean validating the argument that behind every stereotype there is a “kernel of truth.” There is far more to the Arab and Islamic worlds than terrorism and tyranny. In Arab societies, the freedom reflex is much more widely shared than that of despotism, even though the credibility of the unmitigated democracy narrative seems, at times, sorely tested in the blood-soaked region.

True, there are extremists with Arab and Muslim backgrounds but there are many, many Arabs and Muslims who are victims of terror.

Considering the disheartening shape of the Arabs’ and Muslims’ reputation prior to the September 11 attacks, it is a relief that the Arab and Muslim image is where it is today and not much worse.

The effect of September 11, 2001, was devastating and one could not expect the United States and the rest of the world to remain the same after that date but one must admit that, after the initial years of shock, things have painstakingly evolved. There was improvement but not because of exogenous factors. In simple terms, slow change for the better did occur but it was not because of pressure or lobbying from the Arab or Muslim world.

It happened because of the universal shift in all walks of life everywhere in the West away from blatantly biased attitudes. Change in the United States eventually happened because of the pushback by American progressives and the persistent efforts throughout the decades of Arab-American and Muslim-American advocates.

The efforts of the likes of Jack Shaheen, Edmund Ghareeb, Jim Zogby, the late Clovis Maksoud and others since the 1980s did not all come to nought after all.

New challenges have nonetheless emerged. The populist wave fuelled by the migration debate in the United States and Europe has accentuated some of the old stereotypes.

Still, the pushback continues. The United States and the West do not speak in one voice when it comes to the migration issue. There are positive stirrings in the United States, including the new acceptability of Arab- and Muslim-American political candidates, especially within the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

The US entertainment industry also evolved. There is still stereotypical casting but there is also more caution not to wantonly denigrate Arabs and Muslims in TV series and movies. Some scenes today can still make the viewer cringe but it is a far cry from the 1980s, and even later, when most, if not all, Middle East-related scenes used to make you want to scream.

True, there is still over-representation of Arabs and Muslims in terror-related scripts but there is more sophistication and there is greater avoidance of flat characters. In such series as “NCIS,” “Person of Interest” and “Homeland,” Arab and Muslim characters are not predictably evil. That’s progress, even if limited progress.

Arab Americans and Muslim Americans could benefit from the Arab and Muslim public better engaging the rest of the world by clearly rejecting religious extremism and terror, shedding anachronisms and clearly adhering to the norms of modernity.