The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 34.0°F | Mostly Cloudy

Arabs Under 'Siege' in Film

Zareena Hussain

It is hard, even for some within Arab and Muslim communities in the United States, to understand the objections raised in opposition to The Siege, a new film about how America reacts when several cells of Arab terrorists wreak havoc in New York City in order to garner the release of their leader, a fictional sheik, from U.S. authorities.

But for me, as a Muslim born and raised in the United States who grew up cringing at the sight of blatant stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims in film and television, all the while having to deal with the backlash that the Persian Gulf War and World Trade Center bombing caused, this movie, in particular, proves perplexing. It's not in the class of such inflammatory anti-Arab and anti-Muslim films as True Lies, Not Without My Daughter, and Executive Decision. At the same time, however, contrary to claims made by writer and director Edward Zwick, it is not anti-discriminatory and in no way does the film do anything to dispel the stereotypes about Muslims and Arabs that has pervaded American film and television for the past decade.

In fact, the film uses some highly incendiary incidents from recent history to market the film. Hence, the fear among many that the film will prove a catalyst for hate-crimes against Arabs and Muslims is not unfounded.

One would be an idiot not to realize the connections made between The Siege and the World Trade Center bombing. Other events in the film are all too familiar. The opening scenes show news clips of the aftermath of the bombing of military barracks in Saudi Arabia that killed several U.S. soldiers stationed there. The recent missile attacks against suspected terrorists are alluded to in the film through news clips of press conferences with President Clinton announcing these measures.

Now, given that Arab-Americans have been targets in the past and are susceptible now, did this film, which in the end reinforces anti-Arab stereotypes, really need to be made?

This is probably at the heart of why this movie is altogether unsettling. The exhibition of the first trailer advertising the film, pulled after an outcry from within Arab and Muslim communities criticizing it for unfairly linking religion to terrorist acts, juxtaposed the rituals of ablution and prayer with exploding bombs. While the trailer was scrapped, it speaks to how the film was being marketed to audiences. What is disturbing is that, at the same time, the filmmaker and actors in the film had preached how The Siege is really about how America reacts to such a threat, in the meantime saying xenophobia is bad and impressing the point that there are good Arabs too.

You might say that this is a neat trick: get your average American moviegoer into the film by telling him this is a story about bad Arabs and good Americans and then blow his mind by adding a good Arab and a few morally ambiguous Americans into the mix.

Despite its premise, The Siege does attempt to be even-handed in its portrayal of Arabs and Muslims in the film. There is an Arab good guy and an Arab bad guy. But these distinctions are so clumsily added on that the good Arab character never comes out as believable and the traditional stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims used in so many Hollywood movies goes largely unchallenged.

You could say the movie is really about the three main characters, an army-general played by Bruce Willis, a CIA operative played by Annette Bening, and the ultimate good guy FBI agent, played by Denzel Washington, as they embody the forces within the U.S., with some Arab- terrorists and Arab good guys on the side.

But thrown in is the character of FBI agent Frank Haddad, sidekick to Hub', played by Tony Shalhoub, and a faceless mass of persecuted Arabs. Watching the film, it is almost painfully clear that he is there so the filmmaker and writers can say, "Hey, this film is OK, we put in an Arab good guy too."

Even these nuances, if you would dignify them by calling them such, would be lost on most audiences. Moviegoers will go to this film to see big stars and big action sequences, not to consider questions of constitutional powers or take a critical look at America's ambiguous role in the Middle East. The overriding message of the Arab as villain, is both the most simplistic, and the one audiences, who are there to see an action thriller, take away.