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Media defamation fosters exclusion
By Neveen A. Salem

Unfortunately, the days of spoofing Arabs and Muslims in the media are far from over. Just the other night, a television show called "That's My Bush," airing on Comedy Central, whose main focus is to debase U.S. President George W. Bush, once again proved that the media can deliberately further racism and discrimination against Arabs and Muslims (which, incidentally, amount to the same monolithic entity in the eyes of the general population) without fear of reprimand.

The show had Bush attempting to "seriously" address the death penalty when half a dozen men, dressed in Arab clothing - complete with headdresses - break into the Oval Office brandishing semi-automatic weapons and threatening his life. As his secretary runs for cover, the "Arabs" rip off their costumes and reveal themselves to be the President's rowdy fraternity brothers from his days at Yale. His secretary then emerges and says, "Wait…so you're not Iraqis?" (pronounced Iraqi… with a long I).

The above-mentioned spoof is just one example of thousands of instances in which Arabs and/or Muslims have been subjected to ridicule, misrepresentation and outright racist discrimination. And actually, compared to many other depictions, the above example is somewhat less malevolent (if you can believe that).

With Hollywood determined to portray Arabs and Muslims as terrorists hell-bent on destroying all that is "American" and "good," America's nearly 10 million Arabs and Muslims find themselves fighting an uphill battle to dispel these stereotypes and convince the West that they are, in fact, productive and vital members of society.

Sadly, the negative media portrayal does not end at merely feeding moviegoers' appetites, but rather, helps foster far more damaging consequences. Even with the increase of Arab and Muslim participation in American society, be it political or otherwise, there remains seemingly unending negative stereotypes that plague and undermine the community's efforts to prove that they are also Americans.

In a country where perception is reality, the media plays a vital part in shaping everything from mainstream America's ideas of Arabs and Muslims to influencing such things as U.S. foreign policy toward Arab and/or Muslim countries.

While much of mainstream America cannot tell the difference between fringe groups and the general Arab/Muslim population, the truly disturbing matter is that the U.S. government does not seem to have any more of a sophisticated idea.

Two weeks ago, Vice President Dick Cheney sent American Muslims the message that they are not only unimportant but, in fact, a liability, as he cancelled a previously confirmed appearance at the American Muslim Council's White House Briefing, held during their annual Convention. After a highly publicized attack on the American Muslim Council, in which the organization was referred to as a "pro-terrorist Muslim group," and lobbied against by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and American Jewish Committee (AJC), Cheney cancelled his appointment with over 150 American Muslims, citing a sudden scheduling problem.

It seems that the Bush administration has forgotten, or ignored, that the majority of America's seven million Muslims rallied behind him in the polls in November.

In a separate incident, during a June 28th briefing with Rev. Mark Scott, Associate Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Abdallah Al-Arian was approached by a secret service security guard who asked him to leave the premises without being given any reason for his removal from the meeting. Al-Arian is an intern at Democratic Whip David Bonior's (D-MI) office and the son and nephew of two former victims of the U.S.'s unconstitutional use of secret evidence. As a result, the participants of the meeting, including the event's organizers - the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) - walked out in protest. Again, the White House seemed to be sending a message to the Muslim community that further supports the view that Muslims are not seen as anything but insignificant.

Likewise, the latest trends of the media's abandonment of journalistic integrity can be illustrated by the one-sided coverage of the Palestinian uprising against the illegal Israeli occupation and continued vilification of 21 million Iraqis, solely as a means of justifying decade-long sanctions supposedly aimed at "containing" one man. However, with the advent of American Muslim and Arab organizations, and an increasing awareness among Muslims and Arabs of their civil rights, a movement to end the media's racism, has made some headway.

For over thirty years, Jack G. Shaheen, Professor Emeritus of Mass Communication at Southern Illinois University and former CBS News consultant on Middle East Affairs, has documented and addressed the portrayal of Arabs and Muslims in films and television and the subsequent consequences on the American Arab and Muslim population. Shaheen, the foremost authority on media images of Arabs, recently published a landmark book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, which meticulously indexes over 900 films that have included portrayals of Arabs. The newly released book also seeks to determine how and why it is that the media can so easily, and with little or no criticism, continue such detrimental stereotyping.

There can be no doubt that the media has been incredibly influential in shaping the perception of the Arab and Muslim community. More than any other population, Arab and Muslims continue to be vilified and defamed. And until such nonchalant spoofing and stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims are addressed and criticized for what they are: racism, the community will continue to be marginalized and sidelined by both the American mainstream media and those charged with ensuring the protection of civil rights of all America's inhabitants.
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