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Again, Islam is an Easy Villain
Ibrahim Hooper


Ibrahim Hooper comments on ‘The Siege’. He is National Communication Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. (Editor)

Producers of The Siege would have us to believe that art is merely imitating life in the film’s portrayal of crazed Muslims killing hundreds of innocent New Yorkers. I’m afraid that it is life that may imitate art, however, as moviegoers are yet again introduced to Islam through a relentless barrage of terrorism and violence.

Yes, the film does have a few positive lines of dialogue about Islam. But it is far more effective at linking Islam to terrorism. For example, the ritual washing Muslims must perform before praying is used to cue the audience to impending bloodshed. In one instance, this act of religious observance precedes a shot of a detonator’s being inserted in a bomb; another time, hand washing is quickly followed by a shot of a terrorist leader strapping explosives to his chest.

Other images, characters and juxtapositions give the impressions that every Muslim student, business owner and activist should be considered a possible threat. And one Muslim whom the film initially portrays as co-operating with the government turns out to be a terrorist. The clear message is, ‘Don’t trust them.’ In defending the ‘Arab community,’ the character played by Denzel Washington says: ‘They love this country as much as we do.’ Just who does he mean by ‘we’ and who are ‘they’?

Most of the Muslims portrayed in The Siege also have total disregard for human society: children and the elderly. In his review of The Siege, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote: ‘prejudicial attitudes embodied in the film are insidious, like the anti-Semitism that infected fiction and journalism in the 1930’s – not just in Germany, but in Britain and America’.

The producers say the film, makes clear that the terrorist images and associations reflect only the lunatic fringe of the Muslim world. This ‘fringe’, however, is about the only segment of the Muslim population that most moviegoers have seen for decades. Consider the ruthless Muslim skyjackers of Executive Decision and the fanatical Arabs who detonated a nuclear warhead in the Florida Keys in True Lies. When American  Muslim groups took their complaints about True Lies to 20th Century Fox, the studio only tacked a brief disclaimer onto the end of the credits stating that the film did not represent the actions or beliefs of a particular culture or religion.

Much of the negative reaction on The Siege could have been avoided if American Muslim organisations had been consulted from the beginning. My organisation became involved only after concerned Muslims in New York called our Washington office inquiring about ‘Islamic graffiti’ being used by film crews in their neighbourhoods. We met with Edward Zwick, the director, and Linda Obst, his co-producer, but they decided to alter only a few scenes that we found offensive.

Throughout our discussions, they insisted that The Siege dispelled stereotypes rather than reinforced them and that the movie took pains to make a case for preserving people’s civil liberties. But it seems likely that the average moviegoer may be slow in getting that message. One critic noted that at a preview screening, the audience cheered as the military officer played by Bruce Willis ‘tortured a suspect and then calmly shot him.’

I am not saying that people will leave theatres and attack the next Muslim they see. The reality of life for American Muslims is more complex than that. There have been random arson attacks on American mosques and assault on our children. But we also feel the accumulated ugliness of prejudice every day. At work or just walking down the street, Muslims are the target of taunts about their being terrorists. Muslim women who wear a head scarf routinely face job discrimination. We are frequently stopped for ‘random’ security checks at airports.

In response to Muslim and Arab criticism of the film, Mr Zwick has said that anti-defamation are in the business of seeing defamation everywhere. One has to wonder whether he would have said the same thing about the Anti-defamation League or the NAACP. Movies that reinforce the stereotypes of Muslims are still seen by much of America as a reflection of reality, not as the gross simplifications that they are.


(Courtesy: The Nation, Lahore)

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