The extent to which 21st Century American culture is imbued by anti-Arab racism
By Ernest A. Canning on 8/21/2009, 4:02am PT  

Guest Blogged by Ernest A. Canning

Shortly after my original piece, “Hate Speech and the Process of Dehumanization,” I received a form of constructive criticism. A friend suggested that while I provided a coherent explanation of Prof. Zimbardo’s basic concepts regarding the process of dehumanization as it relates Nazi atrocities and the Jim Crow South, my application of Zimbardo to the more contemporary question of Muslims and Arabs failed to do justice to Prof. Shaheen’s academic study of American films.

While the criticism is valid, that certainly had not been my intent.

The problem entails issues of length in the blog format --- the risk that length will reduce the size of the audience one hopes to educate.

For those who feel they’ve read enough, please stop here.

For everyone else, there is Prof. Shaheen’s Oct. 19, 2007 appearance on Democracy Now, and the following….

As revealed by the previously cited Egypt Today review, Jack Shaheen’s study of early 20th Century films exposed Hollywood's application of “the generic ‘Ali Baba kit’ comprising of lecherous, barbaric Arab men flanked by erotic belly dancers.” Just as African American men were cast as lusting after white women in the Jim Crow era, these early films depicted the “prize of every Sheikh’s harem” as “the abducted American woman who bravely fights off her sinister master’s sexual advances.”

These disparaging images morphed into an even more sinister caricature of Arabs in the post World War II era --- images that coincided with the advent of the Arab/Israeli conflict, the early 70s oil embargo and the Iranian hostage crisis. Against a backdrop of a reality in which intelligent Arab women today are “succeeding in all professions,” Sheehan laments, Hollywood replaced the erotic image of the belly dancer with projections of the Arab woman “as a bomber, a terrorist.” Added to this is what Shaheen calls “’bundles in black,’ veiled women in the background, in the shadows, submissive."

The threat of Arab/Muslim terrorists finds its ultimate embodiment in Rules of Engagement, a film which was written by former Secretary of the Navy and now U.S. Senator James Webb (D-VA); a film Shaheen describes as “the most racist.”

Shaheen described the action, which takes place in Yemen:

There are violent demonstrations at the American embassy, and the Marines, led by Samuel L. Jackson…open fire on the crowd and kill scores of Yemeni, including women and children. And in the investigation that follows, Tommy Lee Jones, the lawyer who represents the Samuel L. Jackson character, goes to Yemen to investigate….He follows [a one-legged little girl to a hospital ward where he discovers a videotape which when translated states that it is the duty of every Muslim to kill Americans.] We discover that the Yemeni civilians aren’t so innocent after all. It turns out they fired on the Marines first. And in a moment that will live in Hollywood infamy, we suddenly learn that the little girl we’ve been sympathizing with, the very girl whose humanity and innocence may have broken down our stereotypes, well, she’s no better than those other Yemeni terrorists. As a result, when Samuel L. Jackson delivers the key line --- [“Waste the mother fuckers”] --- we’re now on his side.

"Why does it matter? Shaheen asks. "Because in the end, the massacre of even women and children has been justified….It’s a slaughter, but it’s a righteous slaughter.”

Shaheen points to a rant by the character Howard Beale from the 1970s movie, Network, in which Beale not only expresses rage against the system in general but especially against a perceived financial takeover by Arabs.

Beale shouts:

Listen to me, God damn it!. The Arabs are simply buying us! There’s only one thing that can stop them! You!

Shaheen observes:

This kind of anger, the anger born of fear, all of it in response to a perceived conspiracy and threat by a specific group of people --- well,we’ve seen and heard this before. If we look at the anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazis, at its core is an identical type of economic threat.

Neil Simon’s Chapter Two underscores the disparity between the presently dehumanized Arab and the formerly dehumanized African-American. The film begins with the protagonist, George Schneider, returning from London. “How was London?” his brother asks. “Full of Arabs,” Schneider replies.

“Imagine,” Shaheen states, “”if he had said, ‘Full of blacks,’ ‘Full of Jews’….”

As the Don Imus story reveals, one does not have to imagine. If Beck had openly questioned Barack Obama’s loyalty because he was an African American in the same manner that he questioned Keith Ellison’s loyalty because Ellison is a Muslim, Beck’s career would have been over.

Beck is hardly alone in his dehumanized conception of Muslims. Consider some of the words of America’s Eva Braun, aka Ann Coulter.

Writing about Muslims on Sept. 12, 2001 for the National Review, Coulter said, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” In a Dec. 21, 2005 column, Coulter wrote: :” “I think the government should be spying on all Arabs, engaging in torture as a televised spectator sport, dropping daisy cutters wantonly throughout the Middle East and sending liberals to Guantanamo.”

When her use of the words “camel jockeys” was challenged during an October 1, 2006 appearance on Fox News’s Hannity & Colmes, Coulter responded with sarcasm: “Oh. Yeah. No. They killed 3,000 Americans. I’ll be very careful with my language.”

In her November 30, 2006 column Coulter took the NAACP to task for speaking up for Muslims who had been subjected to racial profiling at airports. Coulter wrote:

The only reason Americans feel guilty about ‘racial profiling’ against blacks is because of the history of discrimination against blacks in this country. What did we do to the Arabs? I believe Americans are the victims in that relationship. After the attacks of 9/11, profiling Muslims is more like profiling the Klan.

Coulter’s conflation of the actions of nineteen 9/11 hijackers into “they killed 3,000 Americans” and Beck’s obnoxious demand that a United States Congressman “prove” he is “not working with our enemies” are but a reflection of what Prof. Zimbardo described as the “cortical cataract” brought on by the process of dehumanization; a myopic inability to distinguish the actions of a handful of individuals from the larger, objectified "they," meaning all Arabs, all Muslims. (Most, but not all, Iranians are Muslim, but they are not Arabs. They’re Persians.)

The extent to which American culture is imbued with anti-Muslim racism helps to explain the ease with which the Bush administration succeeded in falsely linking Iraq to al Qaeda and 9/11. While the administration doctored intelligence, lied about WMD and links to al Qaeda, Bush and Cheney never flat-out accused Saddam Hussein of complicity in 9/11. They didn't have to. Against a backdrop of the televised images of burning towers, grainy photos of hijackers, and black-garbed, gun-wielding terrorists in training camps, Bush and Cheney laced their pre-invasion speeches with references to terrorists, 9/11 and WMD. The terrorists attacked us on 9/11. We don't want the "smoking gun" to come in the form of "a mushroom" cloud.

Cultural dehumanization aided the deception. The 9/11 hijackers were Arabs. Bin Laden is a Muslim. Iraq is filled with Arab Muslims. Coulter's inability to distinguish between those who were actually responsible and the ubiquitous "they" was shared by many.

While much had been made of a Le Moyne College/Zogby Poll released on February 28, 2006, which contained the number 72, representing the percentage of troops serving in Iraq who felt the U.S. should withdraw within a year, the telling statistic was the number 85 --- the percentage of troops serving in Iraq who, at that late date, still believed the U.S. mission was intended “to retaliate for Saddam’s role in the 9-11 attacks”

Of course, dehumanization does not provide the only explanation. Keep in mind that the top-down organization of the military; the fact that on Sept. 27, 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld publicly stated that there was “bulletproof” evidence of links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, and that, according to Steve Tatham, who had headed the British Royal Navy’s Media Operation in Iraq from November 2002 to April 2003, “the only TV station that was broadcasting continuously into military accommodations, the eating areas, the living spaces, even on the ships, was Fox News."

As revealed by Norman Solomon in War Made Easy A study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) of the University of Maryland concerning people who erroneously believed either that we invaded Iraq because of WMD or links to al Qaeda revealed not only that 80% of Fox News viewers held at least one of these misperceptions but that viewers of other major networks were not far behind—the number was 71% at CBS, 61% at ABC, 55% each at CNN and NBC as compared to only 23% at PBS.

The ease of the manipulation lies not simply in the process of dehumanization but in the mainstream media's failure to convey information vital to intelligent participation in a democracy.

Coulter’s “what did we do to Arabs?” even more than George Bush’s “why do they hate us?” reflects a fundamental ignorance of issues of “blow-back” that relate to U.S. efforts to acquire and consolidate imperial hegemony throughout the oil-rich Middle East.

Coulter seems totally unaware that 13 years of devastating U.N. economic sanctions, imposed at the insistence of three successive U.S. Presidential administrations, caused the deaths of more than 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five. Indeed, as a result of the psychic distance created by the dehumanization process, Coulter appears blinded to the reality that more than one million Iraqis lost their lives as a result of the U.S. invasion and occupation, an unprovoked imperial aggression carried out against a nation and a people who had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11.

“What did we do to Arabs?” she asks.


Ernest A. Canning has been an active member of the California state bar since 1977. Mr. Canning has received both undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science as well as a juris doctor. He is also a Vietnam vet (4th Infantry, Central Highlands 1968).

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