Possibly the most striking thing about “The Kite Runner,” opening Friday, is that the film’s lead characters are all Muslims, but not one of them is a terrorist, convenience store owner, cab driver or woman wearing an all-enclosing burqa.
“These characters just happen to be Muslim,” says Khaled Hosseini, author of the bestselling novel on which the film is based. “The concern of the film is not the role of Islam in the world; it’s a family story. Their struggles are things that people identify with.”
Which makes “The Kite Runner” a real anomaly. Because when it comes to Muslim or Middle Eastern images in American films, “Arabic or Muslim equals the evil cultural other, the terrorist, the oil sheik,” says Jack Shaheen, an expert on Muslim and Arab images in the movies, whose book and documentary “Reel Bad Arabs” is a history of negative film portrayals of Middle Easterners.
In some ways, this stereotyping is simply business as usual for Hollywood. In the past, African-Americans, Latinos and other groups have been the victims of Tinseltown’s casual racism and one-note portrayals. But Muslims, particularly Arabs, have been the villains du jour for quite some time, in such recent films as 2000’s “Rules of Engagement” (in which a Marine colonel who orders a massacre of Muslim civilians is acquitted at trial), 1998’s “The Siege” (the threat from home-grown Muslims is deemed so great, they are thrown into concentration camps) and this year’s “The Kingdom” (bloodthirsty terrorists massacre U.S. military families in Saudi Arabia). The reasons for this type of portrayal range from the tensions caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the relative lack of Muslim-American political clout.
After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, there was a change in the way Arabs were depicted, says Jackie Salloum, a New York-based filmmaker whose “Planet of the Arabs” - available on YouTube - is a punchily edited short documentary featuring numerous Arab-as-terrorist cinema images.
“They became terrorists and hijackers, complete barbarians,” Salloum says. “It’s extremely dangerous for this sort of thing to keep going on because it has a huge effect on foreign policy.”
To be sure, several groups, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), have complained about a number of recent films, such as “The Siege,” which the organization said delivered a message that “Islam will bring violence to this country and that Muslims pose a threat to the society.”
Nevertheless, Shaheen says, “When an Arab or Muslim group protests these images, their protests are usually greeted with yawns ... Hollywood has not made any effort to recognize the stereotype, and to bring into the workplace talented and qualified Arab-American image makers.”
Shaun Toub, a self-identified Persian-American actor who has a major role in “The Kite Runner” - and is probably best known as the disgruntled convenience store owner in 2004’s “Crash” - has appeared in more than 100 films and TV shows since the 1980s. “For years, the only roles that were out there were the convenience store owner or terrorist,” he says. But, citing a recent part he took on the TV series “NCIS” playing an imam (a Muslim religious leader), Toub says, “I do see a change in the way the writers are writing the roles, the sensitivity they have, that people are just people.”
Jack Shaheen believes, however, that even though pre- and post-9/11 Arab images in the movies are essentially the same, they’ve gotten worse on TV, where “American Arabs and American Muslims are now being projected as clones of al-Qaida,” from the hugely popular “24” to Showtime’s “Sleeper Cell.”
It’s noteworthy that Arabs make up about 12 percent of the world’s Muslim population. Many more Muslims come from Indonesia, Pakistan, Africa and China. Turks and Iranians are predominantly Muslim, but aren’t Arabs (Shaun Toub is Jewish).
Yet this diversity of nationalities and ethnicities is almost never reflected in movies or on TV. “Because many Americans don’t know an Arab, they get their information from TV,” Jackie Salloum says, “and that’s partly the problem.”
Khaled Hosseini, who says the “collective image of the shrill Middle Eastern character” is what stands out on film, nevertheless believes that even though 9/11 “has created this convenient villain, it has also made people think about that part of the world in a more nuanced fashion.”
Shaheen begs to differ. He sees a recent film such as this year’s “The Kingdom,” in which FBI agents go to Saudi Arabia to investigate a terrorist attack at a U.S. Army base, as something “where killing Arabs is not only acceptable, but applauded.” And even though the film features a sympathetic Saudi policeman trying to help the Americans, Shaheen says, “This is a film where they tried to cover the racism by trying to inject a good Arab.”
The news is not all bad. Salloum feels a new, hip generation of Muslim-American artists could change things, that “the more people start to see we’re just like you, it will make a difference.”
And Shaheen points to a film like “Babel,” with its positive Moroccan characters, as something that breaks new ground. He also says young artists such as Salloum and the Arab-American comedians who perform on what is known as the “Axis of Evil” comedy tour “are making a difference. It’s gradual; it won’t happen overnight,” he says. “But the young Muslim-American professionals are really concerned about this issue.”
The bottom line, Toub says, is balance. “If you want to show that negative side, fine,” he says. “9/11 was a reality. But I have a million friends who are doctors, engineers, wonderful people. You have to balance it out. Bring the balance in.”
Muslims have been a part of Hollywood’s fantasy life for decades, and the images have generally ranged from exotic to outright offensive. Here are a few (mostly) lowlights from over the years.
“The Thief of Baghdad” (1940) - This “Arabian Nights”-style fantasy about a young boy battling an evil magician is filled with wonderful effects and exotic atmosphere. A fairy tale for all ages.
“John Goldfarb, Please Come Home” (1965) - Idiocy about two American pilots who help an Arabian chief’s football team beat Notre Dame. Poorly made and unsavory.
“The Message” (1976) - The story of Islam’s founding, and how it spread across the world. Because the religion prohibits images of Muhammad, the main character was his uncle, played by Anthony Quinn. Filled with spectacle, this was an honest attempt to bring Islam’s story to the non-Muslim world.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) - Indiana Jones battles a truckload of Arab stereotypes. `Nuff said.
“The Siege” (1998) - Terrorist attacks in New York City lead to the declaration of martial law, and concentration camps for Muslims. Lebanese-American FBI agent Tony Shalhoub is one of the good guys - or is he just a token to make the film’s producers look good?
“Three Kings” (1999) - Four American soldiers during the first Gulf War set out to steal a cache of gold, then discover a group of displaced Iraqi civilians who need their help. Plenty of sympathetic Muslim images, particularly Cliff Curtis as the group’s leader.