In March, the TV network ABC Family cancelled the show Alice in Arabia after a campaign by the Council on American-Islamic Relations [CAIR], a controversial group with links to extremism, and accusations of racism in the liberal media. The show was to be about a Muslim American teen that is taken to Saudi Arabia by her extended family after the death of her parents and never allowed to return. ABC Family were apparently taken aback by the opposition to the show. "The current conversation surrounding our pilot was not what we had envisioned," they said. They had seemingly set out to make an inoffensive program. Its writer, Brooke Elkmeier, said the show was pro-Arab and pro-tolerance and "meant to give Arabs and Muslims a voice on American TV." The protagonist was an Arab Muslim.
What were CAIR and the liberal media so outraged by? The plot is hardly far-fetched. According to a report by Human Rights Watch , women of all ages in Saudi Arabia "are forbidden from traveling, studying, or working without permission from their male guardians." Depicting the bigotry of Saudi society is itself seen as bigoted. Saudi Arabia is a country where women cannot drive; where veiling is mandatory; where adultery, apostasy and "blasphemy" are crimes punishable by death; where, under sharia law, a woman's testimony is worth half that of a man's; and where limbs are amputated for theft. In the politically correct attempt to avoid "stereotyping" and be safe from discomfort, have we been blocking out reality?
An Indonesian maid is beheaded in Saudi Arabia, in 2011. (Image source: PressTV/YouTube video screenshot)
The big-budget star-studded film, Kingdom of Heaven, released by Ridley Scott in 2005 and set during the crusades, features a scene in which, after the sacking of Jerusalem, the Muslim Sultan Saladin walks through a smashed-up room, picks up a cross from the floor and respectfully returns it to its proper place on the table top.
Was this historically plausible? Scott had gone to the trouble of hiring Dr. Tom Asbridge, a scholar at Queen Mary University in London, as a historical advisor. As revealed in the latest issue of QMA, the university's alumni magazine, Asbridge told Scott "there is compelling first-person, Arabic testimony from an advisor to Saladin, that tells us in great detail about their entry to Jerusalem. And Saladin ordered the cross to be removed from the roof of the Dome of the Rock and smashed."
Scott reportedly reacted with annoyance. The scene stayed and Asbridge got his name taken off the credits. The PC untruth was more pleasant than reality. The film went on to depict a priest assuring Christians that "killing an infidel is not murder. It is the path to heaven."
Similarly, during production of the film 2012 the director Roland Emmerich had considered demolishing the Grand Mosque in Mecca on screen but was persuaded not to. In the film, which depicted a global apocalypse, the obliteration of the Sistine chapel and St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican and the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro is vividly rendered while Middle Eastern landmarks are spared. Emmerich stated, "We have to all, in the western world, think about this. You can actually let Christian symbols fall apart, but if you would do this with [an] Arab symbol, you would have ... a fatwa... so I kind of left it out."
Emmerich went on to direct White House Down. The New Republic was accurate in saying it resembled 24 re-written by Noam Chomsky. Jamie Foxx played a souped-up action-man Obama about to bring peace to the world by pulling American troops out of the Middle East. Evil American patriots violently take over the White House in order to launch a nuclear strike against Iran.
Even the liberal Jonathan Chait, writing in New York Magazine, had to conclude that, "You don't have to be an especially devoted consumer of film or television to detect a pervasive, if not total, liberalism... We liberals owe not a small measure of our success to the propaganda campaign of a tiny, disproportionately influential cultural elite."
In Iron Man 3, Ben Kingsley plays an Osama bin Laden-esque baddie, Mandarin. The director, Shane Black, referred to the nefarious comic book version of the character as a "racist caricature." In the film, by contrast, he turns out to be a harmless actor named Trevor, hired by the real terrorist (a rich white guy) to deflect attention. Shane Black said of the decision "it offers up a way that you can sort of show how people are complicit in being frightened. They buy into things in the way that the audience for this movie buys into it."
Are people "buying into" a fear of Islamist terrorism? The director starts to sound like the demented conspiracy theorists who think 9/11 was an attack by the American government or Israel: "I think that's a message that's more interesting for the modern world because I think there's a lot of fear that's generated toward very available and obvious targets, which could perhaps be directed more intelligently at what's behind them."
Or take The Sum of All Fears. Tom Clancy's 1991 novel featured Palestinian terrorists detonating a nuclear device at the Super Bowl. The film's writer Dan Pyne, however, dismissed Islamic terrorism as a cliché. Rather than aiming for political relevance and believability, Hollywood has been indulging in a sort of reverse racial profiling: cinematic terrorists could be anybody other than Muslims. "Before we had typed a word on paper," producer Mace Neufeld has said, "I was getting complaints."
The complaints came from CAIR. Director Phil Alden Robinson wrote to CAIR saying "I hope you will be reassured that I have no intention of promoting negative images of Muslims or Arabs, and I wish you the best in your continuing efforts to combat discrimination." The film switched Palestinians with neo-Nazis. As Reihan Salam notes in his article, The Sum of All PC , "Movies have always relied on politically relevant villains, from Russian spies to South African apartheidniks to Serbian ethnic cleansers. Tom Clancy's much-loved Jack Ryan series is the gold standard. Based on Clancy's best-selling novels, the movies featured hero Jack Ryan tackling the decaying Soviet empire in The Hunt for Red October, Irish nationalists in Patriot Games, and Colombian drug lords in Clear and Present Danger."
But Muslim terrorists? As can be seen in the Liam Neeson movie Non-Stop, Hollywood would sooner cast the family members of 9/11 victims as potential terrorists than reflect that such a thing exists.
Oliver Williams, based in London, is currently working on a book about foreign policy and globalization.