At Salon, Sandy Tolan writes:
Society has forged standards of respect and unacceptability about racial, ethnic, anti-Semitic and homophobic slurs. Rightly or wrongly, the message is: use certain hateful words in public, and you’ll pay the price. So why is there a different set of values at work when it comes to the hurt caused Muslims by hateful, Islamophobic characterizations of the Prophet Mohammed, or denigrations of Islam?
There is little in the public conversation that seeks to understand and explain the hurt caused to Muslims by these slurs. “To mock, to denigrate, to make fun of, somebody who’s deep…[in] the hearts of the Muslims? Really?” asked Sheikh Hamza Yusuf at a packed forum at Zaytuna College, a new Muslim college in Berkeley, in the aftermath of the … furor [provoked by the YouTube trailer to "Innocence of Muslims"]. (I was the forum’s moderator.) Yusuf argued that religious denigration should be seen in the same light as racial slurs, where “there are consequences. You will lose your job! We don’t accept racial denigration anymore. I think religious denigration has to be seen as identity.”
Islamophobia, and the accompanying hating on Arabs, helps provide cover for exceptional denigration. At the Zaytuna forum, Hatem Bazian, a co-founder of the college, described “an Islamophobic production industry that is dedicated to demeaning, to speaking ill of Muslims and attempting to silence Muslims from civil discourse.” This “othering” simply does not spur the same kind of outrage as slurs on blacks, gays, Jews, Asians or Latinos. In Hollywood especially, from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to “Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” Arabs and Muslims are the last fair game for attacks with impunity.
The question is: why should this apply especially to Hollywood?
The entertainment industry likes to portray itself in the humble position of giving people what they want — that it mirrors this society much more than it shapes its values. But when it comes to issues like homophobia, there’s no question that Hollywood has taken a lead in combating prejudice; it hasn’t simply kept in step with changing societal attitudes. So why has this socially progressive force more often fueled rather than challenged Islamophobia?
A couple of years ago, JewishJournal.com reported on the history of Hollywood as described by Werner Hanak-Lettner, a curator for the Jüdisches Museum Wien (the Jewish Museum Vienna).
Hollywood’s founders went West, Hanak-Lettner said, because the East Coast was code for Jewish emigration. Way out West, they could not only become American, they could envisage the ideal of what it would mean to be American.
“They created not only a whole history, a whole industry, but they also recoined the American myth and gave images to it,” Hanak-Lettner said. “It isn’t very often that somebody comes from the outside and has the eye for what is the core of the society and can make [it into] a narrative that then is accepted by the whole.”
“Hollywood helped Jews find a place in America, and it is a very special cultural life that Jews gave to Hollywood and to Los Angeles: Just look at the historic sight of Wilshire Boulevard Temple with the murals inside. Nobody else in the world, even in a Reform synagogue, has murals like that. There you feel [a sense of] some sort of kingdom that was once here.”
It was Warner Bros. chieftain Jack Warner who commissioned the biblically inspired murals in 1929, and they are emblamatic of Hollywood’s importance to the Jewish community, a reminder that the Kingdom of Hollywood was a Jewish response to the modern world.
“A guy once said to me — a musician working in TV — ‘It would be interesting to work in Hollywood, but you have to be a Jew.’ I said, ‘I don’t believe that, because I know other musicians in Hollywood who aren’t Jewish; you just have to face [the fact that] they invented it!’ ” Hanak-Lettner said.
To assert that Islamophobia should reap consequences in just the same way that other forms of prejudice do is to fail to address the more fundamental question: why is this form of hatred so widely accepted in America?
When it comes to Hollywood’s portrayal of the Middle East, Arabs, and Islam, the narrative that Americans have been fed has indisputably been shaped by tribal animosity.
“In every movie they make, every time an Arab utters the word Allah? Something blows up,” said Eyad Zahra, a young filmmaker who organized the Los Angeles premiere of Jack Shaheen’s documentary “Reel Bad Arabs.”
Islamophobia emanates from many sources in America yet an entertainment industry that has for decades vilified the Middle East, its peoples, cultures and predominant religion must be seen as a primary agent in legitimizing and sustaining this prejudice.