“Evil Arabs” and Anxious Americans

Review by Jalal Parsa - 2013

Representing Arabs or Muslims   as evil has a long history in the  West. There is a deep sentiment   of Western superiority over Arabs and Muslims in general running   through European and North American culture. In the nineteenth century, European colonial powers revived and   utilised different aspects of the Middle Ages’ mythology against Arabs to legitimise their colonial conquests. This was particularly true of France in its conquest of Algeria, and is demonstrated by the popularity of orientalist paintings during the colonial years.  Across the Channel, the image of non- white people, who are described as “half-devil and half-child” in Rudyard Kipling’s   famous poem “The White man’s Burden” dominated western culture, even at the   beginning of the 21st century. Kipling   dedicated his poem to the United States as it began its colonial expansion in Philippines in 1899, but the image of non-white people as “half-  devil and half-child” still runs deep in the western imagination.

“Evil Arabs”, as its author says, ‘is a film   study written to encourage the American cinematic audience to look with   a more critical eye at the depiction of   the “evil” Arab.’ The book is inspired by   Jack Shaheen’s famous book “Reel bad   Arabs”. Shaheen catalogues Hollywood   films portraying Arabs as evil. He then challenges this stereotypical image of   Arab people and draws our attention   to certain conventions dominating   the portrayal of Arabs in Hollywood. Among them he identifies “Arab Kit” or “Instant Ali-Baba Kit”, which includes   things like curved dagger, magic lamp, giant feather fans, water-pipes, fake black beards, exaggerated noses and of course the veil. Like Jack Shaheen,Tim Semmerling shows   us, when a racial, ethnic or religious group is vilified within a   popular culture, innocent people eventually suffer the catastrophic consequences. In this book, Semmerling   identifies the constituents of America’s resentment or in his words “socially allowable phobia” towards Arabs. Among them, he identifies the destruction of the American  public’s trust in their government and military after the Vietnam War, the oil crisis of 1970s and the rise of the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) around the same time. These elements together with the Arab-Israeli wars shattered the American public imagination of the Middle East. Now it was not a child-like, containable colonised territory. It was proved to be unsafe and uncontrollable. This shattered   imagination causes a great deal of   anxiety, and this is where stereotypes   are brought in to help. Stereotype provides a false but clear cut image of   the evil other, and helps the public to   cope with its anxiety – the anxiety of confronting the unknown.  Semmerling asserts that the films analysed in his book ‘demonstrate that we are not stable in our ideological and  mythic structure as we might profess’ and he adds that ‘consequently these   films frighteningly and sadomasochistically entertain us’. He argues that although it is rather easy to dispute the realness and the accuracy of these   stereotypical Arabs, the disturbing fact  remains that we enjoy watching them. One of the interesting concepts that   he uses in this book is the idea of the   ‘American frontier myth’ that he borrows from Richard Slotkin. The American   frontier myth according to Slotkin ‘centres on the conquest of the wilderness (western frontiers) and the subjugation or displacement of the native peoples who originally inhabited it so that “we” Americans might achieve “national identity, a   democratic polity, an ever-expanding   economy and a “dynamic civilization”. He argues that because of the United States’ specific history and the   relatively long period of expanding   westwards, the frontier myth is deeply inscribed in the American psyche.   The central feature of this myth is of   course the constant struggle against   nature, native and non-white peoples,   violence, and conflict. Therefore according to this myth the American collective   consciousness usually tends to imagine itself in an everlasting battle with  nature and native people, or in other   words, a “savage war”.   Semmerling argues that ‘the concept   of “savage war” is based on the belief   that the enemies are “savage” and, by   the combination of their “blood” and  culture, are inherently incapable of and  opposed to progress and civilisation.  This makes white European-American   coexistence with the savage impossible   on any basis other than subjugation.’  The book analyses five films and two  TV series in depth and dedicates a   chapter to each. It starts with The   Exorcist (1973) and includes Rollover   (1981), Black Sunday (1976), Three   Kings (1999) and Rules of Engage  –  ment (2000).    Tim Semmerling is successful in his   core argument which is to demonstrate the fact that the “Evil Arab”, or rather the evil Muslim in the age of   the “war on terror”- reveals more about   American myths and ideologies than   Arabs and Muslims. He shows this   through the idea of “savage war” and   the “frontier myth” and by showing us   the extent to which   the hero is always   an American person   whose style is modelled after the white   male frontier hunter,   cowboy, corporate   manager or military   man, an intrinsic part   of civilisation who is   in an endless battle with the uncivilised and savage villains. But again,   as he puts it, this reveals more about   the American psyche, its self image,   its fears and its anxieties, rather than  proving anything about Arabs.

Tim Jon Semmerling,
“Evil” Arabs in American
Popular Film: Orientalist
Fear, University of Texas
Press, Austin 2006


Tim Jon Semmerling is
an independent scholar
in the Dallas/Front World
area who holds a PhD. in
Near eastern Languages
and Cultures from Indiana


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