How Hollywood Embraced the Notion of ‘Arab Terrorist’ and Ran with It

I vividly remember seeing the movie Back to the Future with my friends in Kansas City in the summer of 1985. I was captivated by this movie in which seventeen-year-old Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox) travels back in time to 1955 and meets his then-teenaged parents using a time machine built from a modified DeLorean by his friend Emmett “Doc” Brown. At the edge of our seats, we watched as Marty jumped into the DeLorean to make the thirty-year leap—when, out of the blue, a van full of “Arab terrorists” speeds onscreen, shooting at Marty and Doc! As is normal among young boys, my friends teased me after the movie, poking fun at my Arabic background given the pejorative representation of Arabs in the movie. I was a “Westernized” boy who did not know much about the history of my ethnic culture, and I was very upset about the portrayal of Arabs in the movie and the taunting by my friends.

Just like Back to the Future, which became one of the most culturally beloved movies of all time, The Exorcist (1973) is considered one of the greatest horror films of all time. It depicts the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl, played by Linda Blair. Where did the demon come from? Iraq. In The Exorcist, Iraq is portrayed as a source of evil, but the true story is much more complicated. The real Baghdad, Iraq, was not a birthplace of demons; it was the origin of one of the greatest civilizations of human history, which in its Golden Age of the Arab Muslim Empire (eighth to fourteenth centuries) created our number system, the concepts of algorithms, light, modern medicine, philanthropy, and the official state funding of research. Ironically, none of these or any other accomplishments of the Arab world have ever been represented in any Hollywood movie.

Daniel Kahneman, an Israeli American psychologist and world expert on behavioral economics, was awarded the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (shared with Vernon L. Smith) for establishing the cognitive basis for human errors, best explained in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. According to Kahneman, cognitive bias arises from heuristics, shortcuts we use to form judgments. Priming is one phenomenon that can guide thinking by creating artificial associations between various ideas and images. He gives an interesting example to explain the phenomenon: if you are asked to fill in the blank in SO_P and had just been exposed to the word EAT, you are more likely to fill the blank in with a U to create SOUP. But if you were shown the word WASH just beforehand, you are more likely to add the letter A and create the word SOAP. Having an “Arab” as the villain in Back to the Future, a movie that otherwise has nothing to do with the “Middle East,” serves to “prime” the population to associate Arabs and Muslims with violence and villainy. Priming, Kahneman explains, operates entirely subconsciously and involuntarily, which of course makes it all the more dangerous. Through repeated depictions of Muslims and Arabs as a threat to American life, Hollywood creates the notion that they are the enemy. With repeated exposure to such films, this idea becomes more normalized to audiences each time.

Kahneman’s concept of causes trumping statistics explains why the film industry has been so successful in driving the American public’s perception of Arabs and Muslims. This idea refers to the tendency to overlook data-based stories and real historical facts in favor of stories that we find emotionally or personally moving, which is the heart of moviemaking.

Jack G. Shaheen’s book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, identified 1,100 movies that vilified Arabs prior to 9/11! Beyond the sheer volume, there is something more sinister at play in the insidious way that Arabs are portrayed in movies that don’t involve race or religion. Instead, these disparagements are slipped into the dialogue. For example, in the 1966 classic movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, starring the beloved actors Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, an American professor tells his wife in the heat of an argument, “You can go on like a pumped-up Arab, slashing at everything in sight, scarring up half of the world if you want to.” The quote, which takes up only a few seconds of the movie’s screen time, nonetheless serves the function of priming the audience by reinforcing the stereotype of Arabs as violent, dangerous people.

Storytelling is as old as humanity itself. In early civilizations, people would sit around a campfire and tell stories. Starting in the twentieth century, Hollywood became the biggest storyteller in the world. When I was a boy, watching movies with American Indians versus cowboys, I grew up believing that American Indians were “bad” and “violent” people, and when my friends and I played Cowboys and Indians, none of us wanted to play the Indians! There are exponentially more movies vilifying Arabs and Muslims than those vilifying the KKK! The U.S. fought in World War II against Nazi Germany and Japan, but there are more movies portraying Arabs as “evil” than there are of Nazis or the Japanese. In actuality, there are more movies vilifying Arabs and Muslims than any other ethnic group on the planet.

There are many examples of how Hollywood has greatly influenced real-world situations. Following the release of the 1942 animated movie Bambi, which depicted a mother deer being shot by a hunter in front of her fawn, deer hunting dropped by half in the United States. Following the release of the 1975 movie Jaws, which depicted a beach terrorized by a great white shark, beach tourism in the U.S. saw a significant decline from coast to coast. Most importantly, the 1915 movie Birth of a Nation inspired the reawakening of the KKK movement in the U.S. in the twentieth century. These examples all demonstrate the impact of singular movies. We can only imagine the impact that over a thousand movies depicting Arabs and Muslims as nefarious have had on the public consciousness and world events. I believe that it is immeasurable. Logic dictates that generations of U.S. government policymakers who grew up “primed” to view Arabs as villains have made decisions subconsciously and involuntarily that have impacted the conflicts in the Middle East over the decades.