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Celluloid stereotypes of Islam - The Times of India

Edward Zwick ()
November 19, 1998

Title: Celluloid stereotypes of Islam
Author: Edward Zwick
Publication: The Times of India
Date: November 19, 1998

"Insidious, incendiary and dangerous."

That is how the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has
chosen to characterise my film: "The Siege" in a letter sent to
every major media outlet in the Americas. The group's objections
are based on the film's depiction of radical Islamic terrorists
who have chosen to attack the United States.

What the critics are saying, as best as I can understand it, is
that any portrayal of the life of Muslims that includes
representations of violence no matter how well documented - is
not only offensive, but also inflammatory. Forget the World
Trade Center and the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania;
their position simply put, is that all one billion Islamic
people in the world can be portrayed only in their most positive
aspect.

Even though members of this group who saw "The Siege" have
privately told me they were moved by the film, the
organisation's official position has been to attack it as
promoting stereotypes, a stand also taken by other Arab-
American groups.

But what, exactly, are these stereotypes? The Arab-American
community is as diverse and divided against itself politically,
religiously, socially - as any vibrant community in the United
States.

And this film portrays Arab-Americans as cops, landlords, people
with families, community leaders - and yes, terrorists. In
fact, the film (in which growing fear leads to the wholesale
internment of Arab-Americans) is about stereotypes, about what
happens when stereotypes are played out to disastrous effect.

Beneath the objections of groups like the American-Arab Anti-
Discrimination Committee, I sense a fear that the image of Arabs
and Muslims in America is so poor that any negative depiction
even if part of a balanced whole, is inherently perilous.

This argument has been promulgated before by Jewish-Americans,
Italian-Americans, and many others. It is a time-honored
expression of the insecurity of any new immigrant group, so
worried about the pains of acculturation. But the logic, so
emotionally persuasive and understandable, is, I am afraid,
finally as redunctionist and disrespectful as the imputed
offenses that it protests.

The single conclusion "The Siege" draws is that it is impossible
to generalise about Arab-Americans, that the distinction between
them and terrorists must be understood before we Americans, as a
nation, can grapple with our fear of the "other".

Only then, if push ever comes to shove in the new war against
terrorism, will we be able to respond prudently and with
conscience. The film makes clear that even in the fight against
vicious and committed enemies, the ends, if they include the
deprivation of civil liberties to any group, can never justify
the means.

If "The Siege" engenders a dialogue on ethnic stereotyping, on
terrorism, on the increasingly cloudy legal landscape between
personal rights and the public interest, then it will have
accomplished far more than I might ever have imagined for a
Hollywood thriller.

Movies about aliens and asteroids cannot offend anybody, but
neither do they try to hold up a mirror to unattractive aspects
of our country. And the truth sometimes hurts, In what a friend
of mine calls the new American hurt game, if you are not
offended by somebody, you are nobody.

These days, it seems, people wake up in the morning not only
waiting to be offended, but also hoping to be offended. Central
to any multi-cultural orthodoxy is the notion that, unless you
are offended, you have no ontology.

I imagine the US Army also might be offended by its portrayal in
the film. Maybe the CIA, and Congress, and Bill Clinton, too.
But I do not expect they will protest. They are used to it by
now. The beauty of a pluralistic society, I have always been
taught, is that it can contain the giving and taking of
offenses.

This overheated chorus of lamentations began, tellingly, before
the film was ever seen. But it is the job of an anti-
discrimination organisation to complain. Mine is to make films.
I am not accustomed to defending them.

What I am trying to do as a filmmaker is to look at the world.
And to write about what I see. To shrink from any subject
because it is hurtful or politically incorrect, or Islamically
incorrect, is to deny one of the most important functions of
art, which is to be provocative. So, I'm sorry I offended
anyone. But I'm really not.

(Edward Zwick is a director, writer and producer whose films
include "Glory " and "Legends ofthe Fall".)


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