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
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)