Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies A People

Before I begin, I want to recognize that the video posted above is about media portrayals of Arabs in American Hollywood films, not Muslims. I mention this difference because although most of the people who frequent this blog undoubtedly know the difference, this claim cannot be easily generalized to include the majority of the American public.

An “Arab” is a person born and raised in an Arabic-speaking nation, one in which Arabic is the primary language taught in schools and used in public forums.  To be thorough, all nations from which citizens can be considered “Arab” are as follows: Mauritania, Western Sahara, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan (UNESCO).  It is important to note, however, that each of these nations have their own spoken dialects based off of the standardized MSA used for reading and writing.  It is also important to note that not all peoples in these countries practice the Islamic Faith; Lebanon in particular has a relatively large population of Maronite Christians that would also be considered Arab.

“Muslim,” in contrast, is a religious designation.  A Muslim is a believer of the Islamic faith.  All Muslims do not share a primary language or live in geographically related areas.  In fact, the largest concentration of Muslims in the world is in Indonesia, nowhere near the “Arab World.”  A “Muslim country” is a nation that has assigned Islam as its official religion.

Thus, not all Muslims are Arab, and not all Arabs are Muslim.

There is so little understanding of the difference between these two terms in American popular culture that I would go so far as to say the video posted above might as well claim to represent Muslim stereotypes as well.

As a 20 year-old university student, I am often surrounded by bright, motivated, well-educated people—who rarely know the difference.    It frightens me how powerful media images can be in shaping the perceptions of Americans.  A recent article in the Washington Post by Nicole Neroulias highlighted President Barack Obama’s attempts at a initiating a “new beginning” with the Muslim World, and how it is being complicated by the images presented by movies like “Sex and the City 2.”

I agree with Neroulias’ claim that while much energy is being expended attempting to change Muslim’s view of America, little is being done to change America’s view of the Muslim and Arab worlds.   Movies like “True Lies” (1994) and “Aladdin” fill our heads with negative, violent images of Arabs (and as I have argued, Muslims).  Even movies like “American Dreamz” (2006) (that attempts to poke fun at the dramatized stereotypes) still manages to leave a bad taste in one’s mouth.

If there is to be progress in bridging the divide between the so-called “Muslim World” and the American public—in hopes of staving off a Huntington-esque “Clash of Civilizations”—attention must be paid to the way we are entertaining ourselves, and at whose expense.

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Showing 4 comments
  • Jonathan Wright

    For the record, although Djibouti and Somalia are members of the Arab League (for political reasons that are not relevant here or now), the peoples of those two countries are not Arabs — Arabic is not their indigenous language and only a small educated minority speak it.

  • Ahmed Salem Amr Khaddad

    A little mistake becoming great on the Internet, Western Sahara isn’t a country but a territory. It’s actually administered by the kingdom of Morocco. It’s becoming a great mistake because it became a fait accompli. The line separating Morocco into two parts in worldwide maps doesn’t make sense as there is no border or customs over there. The line is definitely virtual :).


    Ahmed Salem Amr Khaddad

  • Tanenbaum

    I agree, there are many negative stereotypes of Muslims in America that are perpetuated by films, news media, advertising and more. Just recently, 30 buses in New York City started running ads to “assist” Muslims who are “leaving Islam” ( when really they are spreading a hateful message that Muslims need help to “escape” Islam. These ads are unfortunate – you can check out our response in the New York Daily News and join us in countering these stereotypes of Muslims and Islam (

  • Alan smith

    It’s really helpful for me which I have ever seen.Its presented well and nicely written which easy to understand.Thank you very much for the information.

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