Circles of Antognism: Popular Culture
Antipathy towards Islam in the West has been well established as a daily ingredient in the
media culture and as a recurrent theme in more serious instruments shaping opinion. At both
levels, negativity and fear are the regnant idioms. In the realm of popular culture,
especially in the United States, mean-spirited, often vicious distortions of Islam and
Arabs have been with alarming frequency, increasing since the Arab oil embargo of 1977.
Much has been written about such influence in the media; A few contemporary examples
demonstrate that themes of vilification have not disappeared.
Leon Uris' provocative book The Haj had a dustcover which styled the J in Haj as a
scimitar, thus correctly foretelling its substantive contents. The movie Aladdin, an
animated feature film produced by the Walt Disney Studio, was the most financially
successful animated film ever made. Released in 1993 in both theater and home video format,
it had lyrics, which originally read:
Oh I come from a land
From a faraway place
Where the camel caravans roam
Where they cut off your ear
If they don't like your face
It's barbaric, but hey, it's home.
After meetings with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the fourth and fifth
lines were changed to read:
Where it's flat and immense
And the heat is intense.
However, the word "barbaric" was not changed. Even the New York Times editorialized that the
Aladdin lyrics were racist. Deploring "nasty generalizations about ethnic bigotry retains an
aura of respectability in the United States: prejudice against Arabs. Anyone who doubts this
has only to listen to the lyrics in a song from the animated Disney extravaganza 'Aladdin'."
One of the most bizarre characterizations of Arabs was the New York Times piece by Karl
E. Meyer in 1992, which sated "The fanatic comes from the desert, the creator from the woods.
That is the main difference between the East and the West."
The documentary film Jihad in America, which was aired on the Public Broadcasting System
in late 1994, characterized Muslims as bent on destroying American institutions. Muslim
American leaders met representatives of all three major television networks at a press
conference at the national Press Club in Washington, D.C. to denounce the 'fiery rhetoric,
unsupported allegations and spurious juxtapositions to build a case against Muslims in America."
The 1994 movies True Lies, with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead role, is blatantly
racist, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab. Movies slanted against Arabs or Islam are not a new
phenomenon. Time magazine listed films starting with The Sheikh (1921), Protocol (1984)
and Jewel of the Nile (1985)--all of which emphasized Arabs as exotic, sex-crazed lovers.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) depicts the Arab as "a political naif in need of tutelage from a
wise Westerner." The Formula (1980), Rollover (1981) and Power (1981) emphasize the Arab as
an unscrupulous, oil-wealthy plutocrat. Black Sunday (1977) and Delta Force (1986) portray
the Arabs as terrorists.
The most comprehensive and frightening treatment of Islam as a potential enemy of the
United States is found in the work of Yossef Bodansky , former technical editor of Israeli
Air Force magazine. Bodansky was staff director of the House Republican Task Force on
Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, chaired by Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida. The report
of the task force viewed Islam as the successor to communism, aiming to "topple the
Judaeo-Christian new world order." Bodansky, whom according to McCollum, was the author
of this report, wrote a paperback book on the same subject after the World Trade Center
bombing of February 1993. The theme of the book is suggested into the author's preface:
"Islamic terrorism has embarked on a Holy War, Jihad, against the West, especially the
United States, which is being waged primarily through international terrorism."
Two subtle rhetorical aberrations further cloud our perception of Islam. The first is
use of the term "fundamentalist" to describe those Muslims who engage in violence. This term
is a transmutation from Christian thought where its meaning is well settled and precise.
There it refers to those who believe in the literal, rather than the metaphorical,
interpretation of the Bible, particularly the prophesies of the Old Testament. Most
evangelical sects, the currently dominant portions of Southern Baptist (where there is a
schism on this issue), followers of televangelist such as the Reverends Jerry Falwell,
Jimmy Swaggart and Pat Robertson-—all fit into this category. The criterion of belief in
biblical inerrancy does not apply to a significant potion, probably a majority, of Christians.
But in Islam, all believers are fundamentalists. While there may be debate over some beliefs
and practices, all Muslims believe the sacred status of the Qur'an, i.e. that it was dictated
by God through the Archangel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad and that the text has remained
unchanged for some 1,400 years. To refer to those who commit acts of violence as
fundamentalists is to insult the whole of the Muslim community. Further, it betrays either
an abysmal ignorance of Islam or a deliberate effort to distort its image by linking violence
to Muslims generally and the quintessential of their belief.
Closely related to this is the expansive use in Western media of the term "Muslim" to
describe violent acts. Terrorism knows no religious or ethnic limitations. A few examples
are illustrative of its universality and of the double standard used in the media for
identifying its perpetrators. The Irish Republican Army, supported in part by contributions
from Irish-Americans, has repeatedly bombed targets in London and elsewhere, fatally bombed
Lord Mountbatten, and in 1992 alone killed or wounded 189 persons and permanently crippled
133 more by "kneecapping". Media accounts have not referred to these terrorists as Catholic.
Terrorists' acts against Muslims in India, especially in Kashmir, where tens of thousands have
been tortured and killed, are not identified as acts by Hindus, nor are the killings of
thousands of Muslims in Burma identified as Buddhist actions. The genocide often by
mutilation, rape and torture, of Bosnian Muslims (estimates are in the hundreds of thousands)
does not label the perpetrators Orthodox Christians. The nerve gas attacks in the Tokyo
subways in April 1995, allegedly committed by a group known as Aum Shinri Kyo has been
referred to as a cult but not as a Buddhist cult. The Wall Street Journal of April 20, 1995,
reporting on the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, commented that there were
two theories about who was responsible. The first suggested "Islamic extremist"; the second
named "Branch Davidians". Since the first group was given a religious identity, the second
should have been similarly labeled as "Christian". In all of these examples labels of
nationality or of a non-religious group are used. Yet comparable acts by groups often not
even declaring a Muslim identity are identified as Muslims. In recent years the terms
"Islamist" and "Islamicist" have been used, presumable to distinguish varying degrees of
militancy among Muslim groups. This adds to the confusion and perpetuates the problem of
prejudicially applying a religious designation to abhorrent acts. The term "militant" is
equally unsatisfactory when it is modified by "Muslim". The simple and correct solution
would be to identify terrorists by nationality. Egyptian, Libyan, Iranian should be used
in the same manner as Irish, Indian, Serb and Burmese. This would be a much more accurate
designation since perpetrators of acts of violence, seldom practicing or pious Muslims,
often use Islam as protective coloration. If such groups use the Muslim label in their
name or announce their actions as a jihad, which is exclusively a Muslim term, then the
media cannot be blamed for replicating this identification. When such a label is not used,
it would be equitable to apply the same criterion as is used for non-Muslim violence, namely
identification by country or by ethnicity.
Acts of violence against innocent victims are perpetrated throughout the world by a
variety of groups. Those who commit these acts are a small minority of fanatical individuals
whose acts are politically rather than religiously inspired. They are universally condemned
by world and national authorities not least by responsible Muslim leadership. The alacrity
with which public media jump to conclusions as to the source of violence is stunningly
illustrated by the April 1995 bombing of the Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City.
Government's spokesmen warned against premature speculation about the identity of
perpetrators. Despite this the immediate media reaction was to suspect Middle Eastern
involvement. An American citizen of Jordanian ancestry traveling form Oklahoma City to the
Middle East was apprehended in London and returned to the Unites States for questioning.
He was released without prejudice though the only apologies came from television news
broadcasters and talk show hosts. Within three days after the bombing an American citizen
connected with a white supremacy movement was arrested and charged. This episode revealed
not only the stereotyping of terrorism as Middle Eastern, but also exposed a whole range of
sources of homegrown American terrorism.
The annual reports, Patterns of Global Terrorism, issued by the Office of the
Coordinator of Counter terrorism of the U.S. Department of State support this observation.
In the reports for the five years from 1990 through 1994, 44 groups classified as terrorists
are described. They include such entities as the National Liberation Army in Colombia,
Sandero Luminoso of Peru, United Liberation Front of Assam Chukaku Ha of Japan, New People's
Army of the Philippines, Liberation Tamils of Sri Lanka, Red Army Faction of Germany , and
Basque Fatherland and Liberty of Spain. Fourteen (31 percent) of these groups are said to
have Middle Eastern connections. Three of these groups are avowedly Muslim; one, the Kurdish
People's Party (PKK), has no connection to Islam except that it is based in Turkey. The
remainder are associated with Palestinian liberation efforts. This list includes only groups
engaged in international terrorism. If it included newly discovered domestic groups such as
the Japanese Aum Shinri Kyo or American groups given notoriety by the Oklahoma City bombing,
the percentage of Middle East-connected groups would be lower.
The reports for the 1990-1994 period show a total incidence of 2,096 acts of
international terrorism. The greatest number, 695 (33 percent) were committed in Latin
America. Except for one incident in Argentina in 1992 these were unrelated to any Middle
Eastern or Islamic issue. Ranking next was Western Europe with 648 (30 percent). There
were 436 incidents (21 percent) in the Middle East. The remaining 16 percent of the incidents
occurred in Asia (218), Africa (98), and North America (1). Some of the incidents in Asia and
Europe had a Middle Eastern connection although the reports do not explicitly describe this.
My own estimate would be that some 25 incidents in Europe and Asia had a Middle Eastern
(perhaps Islamic) connection. This would only slightly increase to 21.1 percent the
proportion of possibly Muslim–related incidents.