A racist demonisation of Arabs

'Directors may now hesitate to show Africans as savages, but there is no compunction about showing Arabs as shifty liars'
Click to follow

Picture this scene: a white American man is walking through an alley in an Arab town. He sees a little girl, about six years old, in a sweet pink dress. The poor girl is stumping along on crutches, since one of her legs has been amputated above the knee. He kneels down to talk to her. "What's your name?" he asks. How does she respond to his friendly approach? She spits out something in Arabic, which he can't understand, but which is subtitled: "Killer! Killer!"

Picture this scene: a white American man is walking through an alley in an Arab town. He sees a little girl, about six years old, in a sweet pink dress. The poor girl is stumping along on crutches, since one of her legs has been amputated above the knee. He kneels down to talk to her. "What's your name?" he asks. How does she respond to his friendly approach? She spits out something in Arabic, which he can't understand, but which is subtitled: "Killer! Killer!"

The scene comes from the new Hollywood film Rules of Engagement, which has been packing in audiences in the US this summer. Much of the film is more or less straightforward, full of the clichés of the combat movie and the courtroom drama. But one aspect takes it into a different world. It is the most racist film to come out of Hollywood for many years. The target of its hate is the Arab: not just the gun-toting fundamentalist with a checked scarf on his head - though he is pretty ubiquitous - but also the Arab woman, with her eyes just showing above her chador, full of secret malevolence, and the Arab child, such as that little girl in the pink dress, already trained in aggression.

By the end of the film, we have learnt how the little girl lost her leg. We take in the story gradually, via truncated flashbacks, so that we can learn by stages how to turn any sympathy we may have for her into hate. We see her in a crowd of civilians demonstrating outside the American embassy in Yemen, when marines on the embassy roof open fire indiscriminately on the crowd, mowing down women and children. Pity and sympathy are possible at this point. But by the end of the film we have come to know her in another light: just before the marines open fire, we see her along with other women and children in the crowd, reaching into their clothes or behind their backs for weapons, which they point up at the marines.

This absurd sequence is designed to reassure audiences that all Arabs, even civilians, even women, even children in sweet pink dresses, are deserving targets of the full weight of American military force. Does it work? Well, I saw the film on a Friday night in Camden Town, north London - not the American Midwest, not some hotbed of mad patriotism - and when the marine commander, played by Samuel L Jackson, has to defend his actions in a court martial with these immortal words: "I was not going to stand by and see a marine die just to live by the fucking rules," applause erupted in the auditorium.

It's easy to shrug off the film as an isolated freak-show, one of those odd throwbacks to a less tolerant age. But the film bolsters anti-Arab sentiment when it has become less and less acceptable to demonise other races in mainstream culture. Hollywood directors may now think twice about showing Africans as childish savages, but there is clearly no such compunction about portraying Arabs as shifty liars and aggressive terrorists.

The film, in which even doctors, women and children are uncovered as crazed terrorists, frankly demonises all the Arabs that it presents. There are no exceptions. There is no back-story that attempts to give any explanation for Arab hostility. The only moment when some political propaganda is found, on a cassette tape, it turns out to be the most naive and terrifying expression of pure hate, translated thus: "We call on every Muslim who believes in God to obey God's command to kill Americans wherever he finds them."

Even the smallest details of the film work in the same direction, to show all Arabs as essentially vicious, from the Arab civilians who surround individual Americans in the streets, shouting and shaking their fists, to the Arab policemen who shiftily cover up evidence. When the character played by Tommy Lee Jones is sitting in hot rooms in Yemen with Arabs, his skin is cool and dry, while sweat drips down the Arabs' dark faces from their head-dresses. When Jones visits a Yemeni hospital, weeks after the massacre, he finds patients still lying in the same clothes that they were shot in, since Arabs are, of course, filthy and wouldn't bother to wash their wounded. It is through such detail, as well as through the plot, that the image of the repulsive Arab is propagated.

Fear and loathing of Arabs is hardly a cultural innovation. As Edward Said documented in his book Orientalism over 20 years ago, Western writers and artists have continually tried to frame Eastern culture as something mysterious and dangerous, in need of interpretation and control by the West. But Rules of Engagement represents a step up from the traditional viewpoint: in its desire to present Arabs as the most loathsome enemies of our time, it feeds off and nurtures a wider political picture.

A recent article in The New Yorker by the redoubtable investigative journalist Seymour Hersh laid out evidence of war crimes committed during the Gulf war. In it, he quoted one former member of a scout platoon in the Gulf who said he had witnessed American troops firing indiscriminately at a group of more than 300 Iraqi prisoners of war and, on another occasion, opening fire on Iraqi forces in retreat after the official surrender. At the time, he pretty much accepted what was going on. "I was as patriotic as they come," he said; "I was a gung-ho ass-kicking patriotic son of a bitch. I hated the Arabs. We all did. I dehumanised them." For this particular soldier, seeing his colleagues mow down defenceless men made him think again about that dehumanisation; for others, the turning-point never came.

If military behaviour on the ground is driven by blanket hatred, so, too, is defence strategy at the highest level. As we are seeing in the presidential campaigns, there can be no dissent in the US from a hawkish defence policy. The National Missile Defence (NMD) strategy may be eating up billions of dollars and failing every one of its test runs, but how could either George W Bush or Al Gore now suggest that it may be a rather pointless exercise? That would be electoral suicide, as every voter knows that America must do everything in its power to counter the eternal threats from its eternal enemies. Those include not only international pariahs such as North Korea, but, above all, the so-called "rogue states" of the Middle East.

The deployment of the NMD, which is meant to counter those potential nuclear threats from states such as Iran and Iraq, would require massive extensions of existing US bases in Britain. And this is something thatour government seems ready to contemplate, rather than question, this picture of a new Cold War, with Arabs rather than Communists seen as the natural enemies of the West.

The British public seems more than ready to accept that Arabs are terrorists at worst and probably less than human at best. Yes, it's right that we should still excoriate Saddam Hussein's government and attempt to punish him for his crimes against humanity. But if we were pursuing, against any other state, a policy of sanctions that was resulting in a huge increase in infant mortality and the suffering of civilians - at little obvious cost to its rulers - would British disgust be as muted as it is at the sight of the effect of sanctions in Iraq?

It seems that we are able to put up with the pointless waste of civilian human life if the civilians are Arabs. Because, as Rules of Engagement so carefully reminds us, even Arab children must be held guilty for the sins of their fathers. n.walter@btinternet.com

Comments