America is a nation of immigrants. Since its inception and formation of the republic America has attracted various peoples. They learned that pluralism is essential to forge a civil society. America has been struggling since to create a pluralist, accepting social order that is torn between race, gender, and hyphenated identity. Americans of Arab descent live in a pluralist society in spite of growing, institutionalized, anti-Arab sentiments. Film industry has historically used Arab-Americans to convey ideas of anger, violence, and death. Movies such as Crash, Don’t Mess with the Zohan, and Amreeka project a false image of Arab-Americans as foreigners, inexperienced people with an extravagant worldview that clashes with European-American culture.
In order to understand how artificially pluralist American society is, one ought to examine sincere social pluralism. Pluralism is a guiding principle which states that different views, groups coexist equally. Coming from a not-so-pluralist society, I have a trained eye that recognizes injustice and misrepresentation. I recently immigrated to this country and was given an alien number, not so long ago became a permanent resident, and soon I will become a US citizen. Although I have not spent long enough time to understand the culture per se, I think I know quite a lot. I consider myself part of this society. People like to think of themselves as accepting and tolerant, but in reality they seclude “the other” and hyphenate them, at best. I think that Paul Haggis, the director of Crash, does a good job addressing issues of racism and stereotypes for they communicates to the viewer how intolerant, or ignorant really, we are towards those who are different. This is evident through depicting blacks as thugs, Mexicans as locksmiths, Arabs as terrorists, and whites as influential. By casting everybody as different, one effectively fails to make a pluralist society. Nationally, America is a very diverse country where people form and debate various ideas and beliefs to govern their lives and suit their social structure. Internationally, however, America is far from diverse. In fact, I would argue that the United States has an exclusivist, somewhat distrustful, worldview towards the world. Perfect example of this is exporting “democracy” and civilizing people abroad.
Arab-Americans are not only vilified in visual media and culture, but also portrayed as naïve, ignorant, and alien. Don’t Mess with the Zohan is filled with such notions. Zohan, the protagonist and counter-terrorism Israeli soldier, played by Adam Sandler, seemed to be troubled by how uncivilized and quarrelsome the terrorists he fights are, namely Arabs. The movie not only portrays Arabs as barbaric, but also implies that Israel has the right to demilitarize and kill off Palestinians. This one-sided message echoes many sentiments championed by either AIPAC or policy makers in Washington DC. When I arrived the US I noticed that a considerable number of “educated” people base their opinion off of media and film industry, especially those who have not been to the Middle East or Israel.
Zohan moves to America in order to start a new life where he finds comfort and peace of mind. He meets a nice girl who happens to be Palestinian with whom he wants to settle. The only problem I have with this is that Zohan does not try to address problems in his home country. Rather, he leaves for the US, a more advanced, accepting country, to get a job and better his standards of living. While in the US, Zohan comes in contact with Arab-Americans. The movie here restates how backward and quarrelsome Arabs are indicating that our stereotypes of Arabs in the Middle East can be applied to those in the US. The Director of the movie goes as far as to show a Palestinian cab driver trying to bomb the shop where Zohan worked. The proess of acquiring the bomb wrongly shows that every Arab has easy access to bombs and to Hezbollah – anti-Israel organization that is viewed by both the United States State Department and the movie director as a terrorist group. While I’m not defending terrorists or Hezbollah, I think juxtaposing these images together is lethal to public opinion and those unfamiliar with the culture and people. If anything I believe that the movie augments people’s biases towards Arabs post 9/11.
The story of Arab-Americans is seldom told by mainstream media. Americans of Arab descent are doctors, lawyers, engineers, and entrepreneurs who enrich their society and improve the quality of life as much as those of European descent. Misrepresentation of Arab-Americans saturates U.S. popular culture starting with Disney’s Arabian Nights. Aside from glorifying Aladdin and Jasmine – who are conveniently light-skinned – and vilifying dark-skinned characters, the opening song describes home as “barbaric” where people “cut off your ear if they don’t like your face.” It is not a surprise, then, for children to grow up having an inaccurate image of Arabs that persists through their life.
This “barbaric” notion was especially cemented after events of 9/11 and emergence of radical, militant Islam. Very few Muslim Arab-Americans endorse Al-Qaeda and fewer than one in ten Americans think suicide bombing is justified – that is less that 1% of Muslim Arab-Americans. Dismissing all Arab-Americans as Muslim terrorists is preposterous. Neither all Arabs are Muslims, nor are all Muslims Arabs. Arabs, speak Arabic and share a common ethnic heritage, originated from the Arabian Peninsula before migrating north and westward. Muslims, however, represent a religious group that is not necessarily linked to an ethnic heritage. Arabs, Persians, Asians and so on can be Muslims; Arabs can be Christians, Jews, or non-religious. The reason, I think, why it is assumed that all Arabs are Muslims is because Islam was founded in the Arabian Peninsula and the Quran is written in Arabic. But regardless, violence and terrorism is discordant with the core values and worldviews of Arab-Americans who immigrated to this country to better their standards of living.
Discrimination against Arab immigrants was noted in American society since the beginning of the twentieth century. Arabs were perceived as parasites because they shipped money back to their home countries. Assimilation of Arab immigrants to the new culture meant learning new language, shedding old loyalties, and actively participating in society. Cherien Dabis is a perfect example of a first generation Arab-American who was “neither fully American nor fully Arab.” She directed Amreeka which tells the story of a Palestinian immigrant who struggles to fit in a pluralist society. I generally enjoyed the movie and thought it portrayed relatively accurately some of what immigrants – like myself – go through in the process of leaving their homeland and assimilating to a new culture. For example, I could relate almost vividly to the scene where Muna, the Palestinian protagonist, was saying goodbye to her mom and brother. I felt, however, that Dabis herself makes assumptions similar to those found in Crash and Don’t Mess with the Zohan in that Arabs are lost, naïve, and simply awkward to fit in the new culture. While there was not much of a language barrier, Dabis stressed the cultural barrier between Muna and her new society. It seemed as if clumsy Muna who lost her savings at the airport and advertised weight loss cream at a fast food restaurant was not fit for an American society.
Furthermore, I could not relate very much to the movie as I thought I would, especially given my own personal experience as an immigrant. Overall, I found her depiction of anti-Arab racism is a bit exaggerated. Although anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments were used in the movie to picture the sort of racism Arabs go through, I believe that it had a reverse effect. Using too much racist remarks and comments to illustrate intolerance is in and of itself wrong. Dabis fell in the trap of perpetuating the same stereotypes film industry sells to people.
Pluralism is an idea similar to ecumenism and the notion of unity in a society comprised of different groups. America as a nation is extremely diverse and, paradoxically, greatly segregated. People are split into different groups according to their race, beliefs, and other factors, or have their identities hyphenated such as Arab-Americans. I believe that American society is saturated with explicit anti-Arab sentiments championed by the film industry. Intolerance stems from ignorance which is perpetuated by media. In order to have a pluralist society, we need to challenge our beliefs, avoid generalizations, and accept others for who they are regardless of their affiliations and physical characteristics.