15 Jul Episode 114: Anti-Muslim Racism in Hollywood (Part II) — Oscar-Bait Imperialism
Citations Needed | July 15, 2020 | Transcript
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: So often, our cultural context for understanding what we see on the news, and hear in our politics, is informed by the films and TV shows we’ve grown up watching. Pop culture is powerful and persuasive — and, for a century now, racist, orientalist and cartoonish portrayals of Arabs and Muslims have littered our screens, big and small. This is the second episode in our three-part Citations Needed series on anti-Muslim racism in Hollywood. Last week, we talked about big budget action and adventure films like Delta Force, American Sniper and True Lies, where Muslims get blown away at every turn.
Adam: But not every movie and TV show is quite so overt in its vilification of the designated enemy. Since the release of these movies, the state-sanctioned and curated narrative in film has diversified, broadening to include savvier Oscar-bait productions in which anti-Muslim racism is dressed up in elaborate plot structures and tongue-in-cheek references.
Nima: Films like Argo, Syriana, and Zero Dark Thirty are lauded for their ostensible complexity, subtlety, and nuance, such as their willingness to suggest that government agencies like the CIA are bloated and bureaucratic. Instead of scenes with a tough action hero bodyslamming or mowing down teeming hordes of Muslim terrorists, these films are part of a smarter genre of jingoistic action film — the prestige thriller — featuring flawed protagonists, some meta comedy, and women CIA agents excelling in a historically male-dominated field of coups and torture.
Adam: But ultimately, they project the same tired nationalism and ideology reinforcement just in a sleeker, superficial, more modern form. On today’s episode, we’ll examine how anti-Muslim and anti-Arab propaganda is disseminated through the contemporary prestige thriller genre.
Nima: Later on the show we’ll be joined by Dr. Maytha Alhassen, historian, writer, poet, journalist and contributor to Al Jazeera’s The Stream and The Young Turks. Her writing has been featured, among other places, in The Baffler and the Boston Review and most recently the second season of the Hulu show Ramy. As a Senior Fellow at the Pop Culture Collaborative, she authored the report “Haqq and Hollywood: 100 Years of Muslim Tropes and How to Transform Them.”
Maytha Alhassen: They took that framework, it was a really sharp binary of good Muslim, bad Muslim, but there was something specious underneath and that was that you could only be a good Muslim, if you could transcend the things that made you bad and the things that made you bad were your affinity to Islam or even more so Muslims are regarded as being automatons. So it’s this idea that Islam is this evil, dirty thing that originates from our lands, and it infects us, and unless we do the thorough work of expunging it from our beings, and then replacing it with hardcore American patriotism, we’re bad.
Adam: On last week’s episode, we talked about the build up to pre-9/11 and just post-9/11 anti-Muslim racism in cinema and the ways in which those created the ideological foundation to justify US and Israeli aggression in the region. And today we’re going to talk about a phenomenon that sort of deserved its own episode because we don’t want to lump them all in the same genre, but in some ways, they’re sort of more sinister.
Nima: We didn’t want to sully Argo with Delta Force and yet —
Adam: No see, I didn’t want to sully Delta Force with Argo. I like my war propaganda on the nose.
Nima: That’s right.
Adam: What we wanted to talk about, which is a recent genre of kind of prestige, CIA-adjacent or pro US propaganda that presents itself as being liberal with varying degrees of credibility and we’ll talk about those degrees of credibility and that’s focusing on three films that came out in the past fifteen years, which is Argo 2012, Syriana 2005, and Zero Dark Thirty, also in 2012.
Nima: So to start, there’s Argo. Now I’m going to really do my best to be a professional podcaster and not just yell throughout all this. So here goes, Argo, which Adam just said, came out in 2012, directed by none other than Ben Affleck, written by Chris Terrio. It tells the story of six American officials trapped in Tehran, Iran during the 1979 seizure of the US Embassy there. CIA officer Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck, conjures a scheme to get them out of Iran and bring them home safely. The plot is to pretend that the Americans are actually a film crew that is location scouting for a fake Canadian sci-fi movie called Argo. After a series of meetings with Hollywood producers and very suspenseful encounters with sinister Iranians, Mendez engineers the safe return of the Americans and for the sake of protecting the escapees identities, nobly credits the Canadian government with the action. Now, Argo was quote-unquote “based on a true story,” its screenplay was adapted from the book, The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA, by aforementioned Tony Mendez, the CIA operative that Ben Affleck plays in the film. It was also based on a 2007 Wired article “The Great Escape: How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran,” which, of course, celebrated Mendez and the CIA for this patriotic effort.Now, here’s the thing though, basically the entire plot of Argo is bullshit. Hardly any of the things that happen in the movie actually happened in real life. The CIA played a very minor role, the Canadian government played a very major role. It was not the CIA just basically saying, ‘Oh, well, we’ll say it was Canada to protect the truth.’ No, it actually was Canada who did the bulk of the planning and operationalizing of what happened, and all this to say that even when recounting this story in all of its Hollywood flourish, there are these major tropes, major anti-Iranian, anti-Muslim tropes that suffuse the film, which both Adam and I have written about in the past, but they are really, I think, important to dissect a bit.
Adam: Well, so I want to talk briefly about the idea of creative license. It’s something I think we’re going to have to tackle specifically on this episode, because I think there’s this sort of thing you can say, whenever you receive criticism of ‘Oh, we had to take some creative license,’ and this is true to an extent, you know, a documentary, date by date, play by play documentary version of history would be extremely boring. Where I draw the line, generally, philosophically, and you can tell me if you agree with me, Nima, is if you’ve materially and continually effect history to promote a certain political point of view consistently across a certain viewpoint, where reality is no longer recognizable. I think you’ve crossed an ethical mind. I want to give you an example. The 1995 overtly nationalist, bordering on fascist film Braveheart, by Mel Gibson, the sort of pro-Catholic ideologue, there’s a bunch of things not correct about the movie, you know, they didn’t wear kilts for another 300 years, et cetera, et cetera, but what the primary focus in the movie is sort of British tyranny over the Scottish, which was true for the Irish and was true for the Welsh to large extent, it was sometimes true with Scotland, but Scotland and England were more or less symmetrical powers and the movie presents English control over Scotland for I think they say a hundred years, decades. In reality, Edward I and then Edward II, really only occupied Scotland for two years. Now, that’s a meaningful distinction because one is sort of the yoke of an oppressive colonial power, which then effectively reignited nationalism and Scotland in the mid-’90s, for better for worse, and the others like oh, it’s a sort of vaguely symmetrical conflict, and England’s probably more the bad guy because England was always more of the bad guy but it’s something you’ve just made up, right? And so you see this with a lot of these movies where it’s a little creative license here and there, but all the sort of lies go in one direction, they go to reinforce the narrative, in the case of Braveheart, it was sort of a victim narrative on behalf of Scottish nationalism, and on the part of Argo, it’s to paint the CIA as noble and the Iranians as a bunch of blubbering, irrational, violent actors.
Nima: Who just yell all the time. There’s constant, constant yelling.
Adam: So we just want to clarify what the goalposts are because I don’t think it’s wrong to make shit up, but you can’t just make shit up that always makes you look good.
Nima: Well, right and actually, amazingly, when the movie came out, Affleck himself made this point, but didn’t realize that he wasn’t doing the thing that he was saying he was doing. So for instance, he said in one interview, quote, “It’s okay to embellish, it’s okay to compress as long as you don’t fundamentally change the nature of the story and of what happened.” End quote. He also told reporters at Argo’s BFI London Film Festival premiere in October of 2012 this, quote:
This movie is about this story that took place, and it’s true, and I go to pains to contextualize it and to try to be even-handed in a way that just means we’re taking a cold, hard look at the facts. I didn’t want it to be co-opted by people who had an axe to grind or who wanted to make a certain point and use the movie for those purposes.
End quote. So, I want those quotes to ring in our ears as we continue to talk about Argo, and then see what Argo’s purpose really is.
Adam: So the vast majority, if not all, depictions of Iranians in Argo are defined by violence and hostility and shouting. The one exception is the opening minutes of the movie, which feature a storyboard prologue explaining in very brief context the Iranian Revolution. It mentions how the Iranian Revolution was a result of a US-backed coup of Mosaddegh in 1953. This is part of the prestige thriller theme, right? You sort of do some liberal box checking, so you kind of cover your ass, but you kind of briefly run through it and you never sort of mentioned it again, and never mention the neocolonial context of 1979, it’s sort of this black-and-white gaze, we did a bad thing, but then we sort of move on and then Iranians are sort of independently evil. In fact, it takes almost 30 minutes of the film before any Iranian person has a speaking role when they’re not either shouting or menacing someone with a gun and it lasts for less than a minute.
Nima: Even this opening, which I think has been praised a lot for being even handed table setter, ‘Oh, it actually tells the story, you know about the coup, you know about the Shah,’ but it is amazingly sloppy. I mean, not only are the caricatured storyboard images very orientalist, but there are fundamental problems. The voiceover narration says this:
[Begin Argo Clip]
Narrator: This is the Persian Empire, known today as Iran. For 2,500 years, this land was ruled by a series of kings, known as shahs. In 1950, the people of Iran elected Mohammed Mosaddegh, a secular democrat as prime minister. He nationalized British and US petroleum holdings, returning Iran’s oil to its people. But in 1953, the US and Great Britain engineered a coup d’etat that deposed Mosaddegh, and installed Reza Pahlavi as Shah.
The young Shah was known for opulence and excess. His wife was rumored to bath in milk, while the Shah had his lunches flown in by Concord from Paris. The people starve. The Shah kept power through his ruthless internal police, the SAVAK, an era of torture and fear began. He then began a campaign to westernize Iran, enraging a mostly traditional Shiite population. In 1979, the people of Iran overthrew the Shah. Dying of cancer, the Shah was given asylum in the US. The Iranian people took to the streets outside the US Embassy, demanding that the Shah be returned, tried and hanged.
[End Argo Clip]
Nima: The narration has some really fundamental flaws in it. It says in 1950 the people of Iran elected Mosaddegh and that he nationalized British and US petroleum holdings. Mosaddegh was actually elected to the Majlis, the Iranian parliament in 1944, and didn’t become Prime Minister until April of 1951. He was definitely not elected by the people of Iran to be prime minister because at that time, prime ministers were appointed to the position by representatives of Parliament. Also the United States did not have any oil interests in Iran at the time. It also then describes the 1953 coup and said the result of that is that Britain and the US, quote, “installed Reza Pahlavi as Shah.” Now, the Shah’s name was not Reza Pahlavi, that was his father’s name and actually subsequently his son’s name, but Mohammad Reza Pahlavi is the Shah, he was not installed as Shah, he was already the Shah of Iran, the king, he had been the Shah since September of ’41 after the UK and the Soviet Union invaded occupied Iran and forced the abdication of his father Reza Shah Pahlavi. And so, basically, this may seem like little shit, but this is the stuff that was praised as being so complex and nuanced, and telling the story that leads up to the popular revolution as a way to explain why this is all happening and credit the US for being part of the repression. Now at the same time, when the voiceover mentions SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, and, you know, the decades of torture and suppression of the Iranian people, it completely omits any mention of SAVAK’s ties to the CIA, which basically helped create it, train it and kept a close relationship throughout the Shah’s reign.
Adam: That would mess up the narrative of the movie.
Nima: Yeah, clearly, right? So, you know, it totally glosses over the causes of the revolution, but instead lingers on the violence that follows — cue opening shot of burning American flag.
Adam: Well, it’s a key part of a lot of liberal revisionist, foreign policy criticism where you have to check the box of American bad deeds, but you need that to be like in the past, you sort of cross a threshold like you walk into Stargate and you go from like bad CIA to woke CIA, that’s a very finite point, and I think the Argo, filmmakers, it was, I don’t know, sometime around 1975.
Nima: That then, yeah, they were all right. (Laughs.)
Adam: Yeah. And of course, there’s no mention of I don’t know, maybe any clandestine activities within the embassy, which we’re not going to get into but that’s just, they’re all just a bunch of good-natured bureaucrats who happen to be destroying the documents when they are taken over.
Nima: Exactly. So basically, the movie proceeds as one would think, every Iranian is screaming and fundamentalist and beardy and angry, except for obviously the maid in the Canadian ambassador’s house, she’s the only good Iranian because she’s helping to hide Americans and then at the end of the movie, she has to flee from her family forever to Iraq because of her role in that. So, I guess the only good Iranian is the Iranian that has to leave the country because she protected Americans. So it’s a great message, but basically, throughout the film, Americans are the real victims here, as well as the heroes. Certainly, the heroes are not an Iranian population that suffered through a quarter century of corrupt and repressive US-backed monarchy, and then through a popular revolution, you know, took their freedom and independence back. That’s not heroic. What is heroic are the CIA, are the vague mentions of the Canadian officials that actually did all the work and the victims are these Americans. So it’s kind of this typical orientalist fantasy, this fable in which the US ultimately can still win, even though their imperial designs definitely lost.
Adam: So some of the things that are made up in the movie, there was no detention at the airport, no runway chase, no last second identification based on shredded documents. It was essentially uneventful, and the six Americans literally walked through the airport onto the plane and they left. What was never needed and proved irrelevant to the Americans ability to leave the country. The film ruse actually ended up being pointless. Former Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, at whose house the American stayed while hiding from authorities in Iran, has said he thought the CIA’s idea for a fake movie, a sprawling sci-fi epic was absurd, and that it would have made far more sense to pretend to be producing a movie about the Iranian Revolution itself at the time, quote, “But that’s the CIA and that’s Hollywood.” Soon after the initial release of the film Argo in 2012, President Jimmy Carter speaking at Canada’s Queen’s University in November 2012 said he was, quote, “taken aback by [the film’s] distortion of what happened because almost everything that was heroic, or courageous or innovative was done by Canada and not the United States.” Carter then went on to say that, quote:
90 percent of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian [while] the movie gives almost full credit to the American CIA…Ben Affleck’s character in the film was only in Tehran a day and a half and the real hero in my opinion was Ken Taylor, who was the Canadian ambassador who orchestrated the entire process.
This is also known as The Great Escape way of making a movie. So The Great Escape was a film in the ‘60s about a heroic prison break from a Nazi POW camp. In real life it was something like 80 percent British, some Irish and Australians and I think there were one or two Americans, but in the film, they’re pretty much all American. It’s basically 60, 70 percent American, because nobody wants to watch a bunch of Canadians do something heroic.
Nima: Yeah, you got to watch James Coburn, well, James Coburn actually plays an Australian in the movie, but Steve McQueen, at least.
Adam: The Cooler King. Now, unlike, you know, with a lot of film criticism, where you sort of try to tease out ideology, it’s not really the sort of mysterious, inscrutable thing where you’re inferring a bunch. A lot of these filmmakers go on tours, and they’ll sort of tell you that they think the CIA is the bee’s knees and I think that actually speaks to some of the motives and the coziness of the CIA with these filmmakers.
Nima: Yeah. So, you know, in Argo, the CIA is not seen as nefarious, right? They don’t make it into that intro, they’re just kind of seen as big and bureaucratic and maybe not, as willing to take quote-unquote “risks” as a dashing CIA agent, who was known as an extraction expert, actually his bona fides are puffed up early in the film when it’s, ‘Oh, yeah, Tony Mendez, he helped get a lot of the Shah’s people out.’ ‘Oh, yeah. Good work.’ Basically, it’s like Mendez is presented as a CIA operative who won’t take no for an answer, he’s going to get these Americans out because he really just wants to do the right thing and then he kind of concocts this Hollywood plan with some contacts he has, you know, one of whom is played by John Goodman, but again, the CIA being the heroes is the point. Writer Chris Terrio said that he intended to portray this via Affleck’s character, Tony Mendez, who really sought to cut through CIA bureaucracy in order to devise a creative plan to bring the Americans home. In a Hollywood Reporter interview, the year the film came out, Terrio said this, quote:
I think a lot of my thinking about [the CIA being bureaucratic] came from thinking about David Simon in The Wire. The Baltimore police is a big clusterfuck and bureaucracy, and everybody’s covering their ass and everybody’s doing their least they can do to keep their job. And as I talked to Tony Mendez and others, I began to see that in the CIA. I think it’s true of any big organization. … Bureaucracies and organizations make it hard to do the right thing sometimes. So ultimately I hope that this movie is kind of about somebody trying to do the right thing amidst a lot of reasons not to.
Terrio really just reveals what is behind similar tropes and liberal copaganda, the same kind of thing that we see in these liberal puff pieces about the CIA or the military, that yeah, maybe the institution itself is a little bloated and slow moving and covers its ass, but really, it’s about the individuals who make the right decisions.
Adam: Yeah, the CIA’s sort of well-intentioned, but bumbling. Mendez is sort of course humanized, he’s a flawed family man. There’s a point in the movie where the CIA finds Mendez’s plan too risky and they tell him not to do it, but he defies them and does it anyway, sort of the rogue cop who rebels against the chief and of course, the production of Argo, and not surprisingly, during the press tour, Affleck was very critical of Iran and minimized the US’ role in creating the conditions that sparked the revolution. In a 2012 interview, Affleck said, quote:
What’s interesting is that people later figured out that Khomeini just used the hostages to consolidate power internally and marginalize the moderates and everyone in America was going, ‘What the fuck’s wrong with these people?’ You know, ‘What do they want from us?’ It was because it wasn’t about us. It was about Khomeini holding on to power and being able to say to his political opponents, of which he had many, ‘You’re either with us or you’re with the Americans’ — which is, of course, a tactic that works really well. That revolution was a students’ revolution. There were students and communists and secularists and merchants and Islamists, it’s just that Khomeini fucking slowly took it for himself.
So you have the like, ‘Well, Americans were sort of bad, but there’s this other more bad guy’ and suddenly, I guess Ben Affleck’s taken a keen interest in the history of communists in Iran.
Nima: Yeah, he’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s delve deep into the history of the Tudeh Party.’ Not only that, but the idea that his take on the revolution is that it wasn’t really about quote-unquote “us” — Americans — when literally it was about overthrowing a US-backed dictator, really, I mean, just again, diverts attention from the actual geopolitical consequences of being an imperial and colonialist power. ‘It wasn’t really about us. It was about Khomeini consolidating power, it really was incidental that people were in the street shouting down American imperialism, it wasn’t really about that.’ It’s just fucking ridiculous. And so when Ben Affleck on his media tour, when the movie was coming out, he went on Fox News and spoke to — who else? — Bill O’Reilly.
Ben Affleck: This is really a tribute to the folks in our clandestine services and our diplomats in the Foreign Service who are risking their lives over there. Tragically, we’ve seen examples of that very recently and folks who are, what they give up to serve us and to serve our country.
Bill O’Reilly: This is a valentine from Ben Affleck to the intelligence community. And these are the same people who waterboarded, the same people who renditioned. [What are] your liberal friends going to say to you?
Ben Affleck: I don’t worry too much about what my liberal friends are going to say, you know, to me, I made a movie that my friends who are Democrats and my friends who are Republicans can both watch.
Bill O’Reilly: All right.
Ben Affleck: That’s not a political movie.
Bill O’Reilly: You didn’t in the back of your mind, you didn’t say, ‘Look, I’m glorifying some people who maybe did bad things in the name of the country to protect us.’
Ben Affleck: Listen, I’ve been to the CIA, I met General David Petraeus. These are extraordinary, honorable people at the CIA. Make no mistake about it.
Bill O’Reilly: All right, that’s good to hear.
Adam: So Tony Mendez was a consultant on the film, former CIA, Mendez died in 2019 and Affleck tweeted out that he was a quote “true American hero.” Tony Mendez, brought on the CIA to work with the film, the film worked heavily with the CIA, which he sort of revealed a few years after it came out. So the CIA of course produced the real movie about a fake movie the CIA fake-produced. The CIA helped produce this movie as they oftentimes do, as we will explain in episode three of this three-parter.
Nima: But they do get, you know, a special thanks in the credits. US Department of Homeland Security gets a thanks, the CIA gets a thanks, you know, about a year or so after the film came out the CIA actually did a whole Twitter thread about what was real in the movie and then really what happened in real life but, you know, it was very laudatory. It was like, ‘We love the movie Argo!’ Literally the CIA — @CIA — Twitter account did this whole thing boosting up Argo, and, you know, the heroism of their own operatives and agents.
— CIA (@CIA) November 7, 2014
Adam: So yeah, not a day went by that in is press tour Ben Affleck didn’t just suck up to the CIA, he praised them at the Golden Globe Awards, where he won Best Director, he praised them from the podium, he said, quote, “clandestine service as well as the foreign service that is making sacrifices on behalf of the American people everyday [and] our troops serving overseas, I want to thank them very much.” When the film then won the Golden Globe for Best Film, Producer Grant Heslov — who earlier in his career had an acting role as an intelligence officer working with Arnold Schwarzenegger in True Lies — also took time out to praise the CIA saying, quote, “I want to thank the folks from the clandestine services who don’t always get the credit that they deserve, but they do a lot of great work.”
Nima: Yeah, Argo was subsequently nominated for seven Oscars, it won three, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay and the film was announced as the winner of the Best Picture Academy Award to end the ceremony and the night in 2013 it was announced as the winner by none other than then First Lady Michelle Obama, as she stood in front of a line of uniformed American soldiers. Now, this was the same year that Zero Dark Thirty was nominated for Best Picture. So it kind of could have gone either way, and so either way, that backdrop and that announcement from the First Lady of the United States for either a film about the CIA beating Iran, or the CIA beating bin Laden, it would have won either way. It would have been a great night for the CIA.
Adam: Yeah. And so there’s this really horrific irony two years later, right? So Jon Stewart makes a film called Rosewater about the detainment of Maziar Bahari and it’s sad and it sucks, you know, whenever journalists get, and he was a Newsweek journalist and videographer, and he was accused of being a spy. He was accused of being a CIA-backed spy. And everyone talks about how horrible this is and how it’s draconian and oppressive and silencing journalists, literally 20 months prior, we just gave Best Picture to a movie about the CIA using filmmakers to spy on Iran. Like this is the thing that boggles my mind where we can’t have it both ways. In 1996, then President Clinton, reaffirmed after the Carter administration supposedly did an internal memo saying you couldn’t use journalists as spies and by extension filmmakers as spies, in 1996, the Clinton administration reaffirms the right of the US to do that, that we can use journalists, filmmakers, artists, whatever people we would generally consider off limits, that we can use them as spies. And then we make a movie, venerating it and then less than two years later, we’re all shocked hand wringing that a bunch of paranoid rabid Iranians would assume a Newsweek, filmmaker and journalist is himself a spy. But it’s like you can’t have it both ways, either you say, ‘Wow, this sounds really dangerous that the CIA would use filmmakers as a cover that actually puts filmmakers overseas at huge risk.’ And in fact, this is something that reporters have been pointing out for decades that the CIA should have an official sanction against using journalists and filmmakers as cover because it would provide some protection, not a ton, but some protection for journalists, because then there would be at least a culture of not using them as spies. So they do it both ways. They not only have journalists and use filmmakers as spies, then when people get arrested, and charged with being a spy, we act like they’re a bunch of paranoid freaks.
Nima: They pearl-clutch and hit the fainting couch about how could anyone be so paranoid as to think that journalists would be spies, when literally we’ve just spent decades using journalists as spies and then we give awards to movies that praise the, you know, act of doing that.
Adam: We have the attention span of head lice, we just gave Best Picture to a film which Iran accused Bahari of doing and so there’s a very United States of amnesia is all I’m going to say. But moving on.
Nima: We come now to Syriana, which came out in 2005. It is a deliberately complicated but maybe unintentionally convoluted story about greed and corruption, marked by the intersection of four separate stories. Two US oil companies are on the verge of a merger and a lawyer is hired to ease said merger along. An oil broker, played by Matt Damon, becomes the financial advisor for a reformist prince of a fictional Gulf state resembling, of course, Saudi Arabia, who opposes US oil interests. A — what else? — well-intentioned CIA agent, played by George Clooney, is hung out to dry and sabotaged by his own agency after a failed mission dealing missiles in Iran and an assassination attempt gone wrong. Meanwhile, a young migrant oilfield worker from Pakistan is laid off as a result of the oil merger, after which he, for some reason, turns to Islamic fundamentalism. Syriana is based on the memoir of See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism, which was written by former CIA operative Bob Baer.
Adam: So I want to start off by saying that of the movies we’re talking about today, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty and Syriana, Syriana is the least bad, I would argue. It’s the only one that, of the three no t— at least that we know of — co-produced or done in consultation with the Central Intelligence Agency or or the DoD, largely because Bob Baer is basically seen as an assassin, something that deeply offended the CIA.
Nima: (Laughs.) ‘How dare you say we have assassins?’
Adam: And it does attempt to sort of have a bleeding heart. What’s interesting about Syriana specifically, is what’s very glaringly omitted from the film. So this is supposed to be a film about the sort of inner complexity of the Middle East, sort of a Middle East issue picture, right? But the two biggest pieces of any understanding of the Middle East, are emitted from the movie all together. Now the movie in fairness is based on a 2002 memoir by Bob Baer. It began filming roughly 18 months after the beginning of the Iraq war, and was released about two and a half years after the beginning of the Iraq War in 2005, in fall 2005, but there’s no mention of the Iraq War or Iraq, which you think they would at least reference since the war had been going on and going very poorly for about a year and a half when filming began and that’s maybe somewhat forgivable, but another thing that’s completely omitted from the movie, which when I think of conflict the Middle East what is the first thing I think of? You think of the Israeli Palestinian conflict but neither Israel or Palestine are mentioned once in the film. There’s some throwaway line about Israel but it’s irrelevant to the actual issue of Israel. Palestine is not mentioned. So we don’t mention the Iraq war, we don’t mention Palestine, we don’t mention Israel, Israel’s influence in the Middle East at all, which is really strange since so much of the movie deals with Hezbollah and Iran, who are both, with some liberal qualifiers, heavily demonized. And I think that sort of shows the limits of how we talk about the Middle East as it were, in Hollywood, which is even a film that was, I think, kind of had its heart in the right place, or was trying to sort of give a bleeding heart story, because again, the fundamental crux of the movie is that American oil interests drive American foreign policy.
Nima: Investigating how the obsession with terrorism, especially post-9/11, trying to sort of investigate that that doesn’t come from nothing, it comes from people’s actual personal circumstances and how those are affected by say, you know, global oil interests or geopolitics, like it tries to do all that, but also, I think it’s important to note that while Argo came out during the Obama administration, Syriana came out during the Bush administration and so the tendency in filmmaking, and especially a film produced by, say, George Clooney — outspoken opponent of Republican administrations, right? — is going to take a different kind of tone. It’s not going to be as laudatory maybe at US foreign policy or corporate interests in the way that during the Obama administration, Ben Affleck can just be like, ‘Oh, yeah, no, like, the CIA is awesome.’
Adam: Yeah. So the movie is heavily obsessed with both sides. It is ultimately a sort of very toothless kind of both-sides movie. In an interview with Charlie Rose, writer Stephen Gaghan, said, quote:
In human nature, there is a hubristic notion that we can change whole sections of the globe to suit our purposes. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s the Americans or the French or the British or the Chinese, or the empires of the East.
The movie is critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East, with nods to Saudi Arabia but also to Iran. The term “Syriana” comes from right-wing think tanks and refers to a ‘democratic,’ pro-Western Middle East friendly countries who were welcoming to US commercial and political interests — interpreted partially as a nod to neocons efforts towards regime change. The relationship between the movie in Iran is interesting because it consumes most of the movie, Bob Baer spoke Farsi, he dealt in Iran, he dealt with Hezbollah, which is sort of a pro-Iran militia in Lebanon. A great deal of the movie takes place in Beirut. And what’s interesting is that it reinforces a lot of assumptions that Iran is a nuke-seeking, violent theocracy.
Nima: I mean, what else? Right?
Adam: Right. And Bob Baer has backed this up in an article in The New Yorker by Seymour Hersh, after Syriana came out Bob Baer said the Iranians, quote:
…are capable of making a bomb, hiding it, and launching it at Israel. They’re apocalyptic Shiites. If you’re sitting in Tel Aviv and you believe they’ve got nukes and missiles — you’ve got to take them out. These guys are nuts, and there’s no reason to back off.
In 2018, Bob Baer wrote an article in Task & Purpose where he defended the Saudi bombing of Yemen by basically claiming that the Shiites had taken over Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus and then sort of said they took over Jerusalem somehow, although I think he said the Sunnis lost it to the Israelis. And this is something Bob Baer talks a lot about which is the dangers of nuclear Iran, and he sort of pleads with people to kind of understand the Saudi predicament. And so it’s all sort of wishy-washy and this is reflected in the output of the movie, which is, oil interests are sort of bad, you kind of do this whole Bush era gesture towards pipelines, you know, that was popular for a while, and that’s sort of true, I guess, but it doesn’t, again, it omits any kind of notion of sectarian conflict being weaponized by US empire, which is sort of one of the ways you understand the Middle East, even back in 2005, which is the ways in which Israel and the US play sectarianism off each other, fund different sectarian forces, howSaudi Arabia funds sectarianism, all that’s kind of missing and it’s just seen as this liberal handwringing issue picture where you come away with it you don’t actually know what it’s trying to say.
Nima: Right, but what you do know is that oil industry officials are swaggering and talk about how corruption is good a lot.
Adam: Yes, it’s not very subtle.
Nima: Yeah. Like subtext-as-text stuff. Take for example, this clip:
[Begin Syriana Clip]
Danny: Some trust-fund prosecutor, got off-message at Yale, thinks he’s going to run this up the flagpole, make a name for himself, maybe get elected some two-bit congressman from nowhere, with the result that China or Russia can suddenly start having, at our expense, all the advantages we enjoy here. No, I tell you. No sir…
Corruption charges. Corruption? Corruption is government intrusion into market efficiencies in the form of regulation! That’s Milton Friedman. He got a goddamn Nobel prize. We have laws against it precisely so we can get away with it. Corruption is our protection. Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are prancing around in here instead of fighting over scraps of meat out in the street. Corruption is why we win.
[End Syriana Clip]
Adam: And Gaghan has characterized the film as, quote, “anti-corruption.” He told Charlie Rose in this interview the following:
Stephen Gaghan: And the more you get to travel out in the world and you hear what America stands — used to stand for, for sure in the world, but still in terms of our culture and our science, like the respect, the respect for our democratic experiment, it’s a huge deal. And I’m really proud of it, you know. And it’s like, I just want to make sure — I mean, what I am curious about is, I want the government to reflect the people and vice versa, you know. Just like we feel that we understand what it is we are standing for out in the world. And it’s like, you have Abu Ghraib, it’s a huge deal. You know? It’s — it’s not a little deal.
Charlie Rose: Karen Hughes was on this program last night saying — she is the closest — one of the two closest people to George Bush, saying, you know, it’s a huge deal over there, because she has just spent a whole lot of tim .
Stephen Gaghan: Been traveling around, and it’s suddenly —
Charlie Rose: Traveling around the world, listening to people who were saying to her, this is a —
Stephen Gaghan: And there is a lot more stuff that’s coming out, you know, on these sort of places we set up in former Soviet satellites. And you know, Solzhenitsyn wrote about, these gulags, and I know several journalists who are working on these stories right now. It’s just —
Charlie Rose: You mean detention centers —
Charlie Rose: With zero transparency.
Stephen Gaghan: Zero, and snatch and grab, and all this kind of stuff. And, you know —
Charlie Rose: Are you saying that’s not the America —
Stephen Gaghan: It is not the America that I believe in and that I’m a part of.
Adam: And Gaghan repeatedly talks about how it’s a broken, corrupt system. The implication is that the US, I guess the CIA and US Saudi partners in the Middle East are not working as intended, but of course, they are working as intended, and ultimately sort of walk away with it and it’s not really clear who the bad guys are. It’s sort of, kind of America, but it’s not. It’s all very sort of complicated, it’s so complex and every five seconds George Clooney looks at the camera and he goes, ‘It’s complex.’
Nima: It’s the same thing that happened in the movie Traffic, which Stephen Gaghan also wrote.
Adam: Right where, by the way, we basically did the whole ‘It’s not clear if the war on drugs is good or bad routine,’ which doesn’t age very well, in retrospect.
Nima: Let’s see if this sounds similar. In Syriana, the CIA may have its dangerous tendencies, but really, its operatives — what else? — just really want to do the right thing. George Clooney plays Bob Barnes, a vague nod to Bob Baer, who is a flawed but dedicated family man with an estranged wife and kid, exactly the same as Tony Mendez. Apparently to be a real CIA operative that needs to be your life. But despite the fact that the movie’s creators claim not to paint any character as really a hero, the movie’s hero is implicit. It is the CIA agent, it is Barnes, and the more or less innocent, noble, law abiding guy who really is just used by his agency as a pawn.
Adam: So Syriana was produced by Participant Media, it was one of its first movies. It’s a production company founded by Jeff Skoll, who’s a billionaire co-founder of eBay, and Participant’s stated intentions were to get viewers involved in social and political action. We previously know Participant Media from its production of Waiting for Superman. So it’s kind of like a liberal, neoliberal sort of, kind of well-intentioned, I guess, for lack of a better word, but sort of all about not really wanting to undermine the fundamental axioms of US imperialism. It just shows, it has this weird focus on, again, the Matt Damon plot has sort of a Saudi Arabia version, but it’s kind of this ‘Oh, shucks, nothing we can do,’ but the bulk of the movie is really about when it comes to terror or theocratic violence that comes from Iran Hezbollah, I mean, which makes sense because that was Baer’s focus, and that’s the thing that’s going to get funding.
Nima: Right so they stay as the main threat and the reformist, modernizing, would-be king of Syriana, unmentioned Syriana, and certainly a stand in for Saudi Arabia, who is — spoiler alert — assassinated at the end of the film, he is the hope for the Middle East, right? So it’s like, reforming Saudi Arabia is the hope for the Middle East. Where have we heard that before? This is about a decade and a half before the real rise of Mohammed bin Salman, but there’s a lot of that there. The prince could just as easily be seen doing falconry on sand dunes, as he could, sitting in the office of Bill Gates. It’s definitely that kind of character. And he is the hope and what destroys that hope is conniving family things, corruption, oil deals, Islamic fundamentalism, which is not associated with “reformist” quote-unquote Saudi Arabia, and Hezbollah and Iran. Syriana was nominated for two Oscars, Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor which George Clooney actually did win.
Adam: Our next and final film is Zero Dark Thirty. The film revolves around the decade long manhood for Salman bin Laden by the CIA following the 9/11 attacks. Our protagonist, CIA intelligence analyst and woman, Maya, who is a composite character of indeterminate origin, played by Jessica Chastain, who devises tactics, including torturing victims that repeatedly prove effective in gathering information. When her plans to track down a liaison of bin Laden are called into question she and her cohorts execute yet another ingenious plan culminating in the successful location and assassination of bin Laden and Abottabad in May of 2011. This movie was done with the most CIA involvement, the most CIA consultation if you will. It’s press releases and media interviews of its filmmakers, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, read as sort of CIA love letters. It is unabashedlya pro-CIA commercial, very pro-torture movie.
Nima: So as usual, the CIA is nothing if not super complicated and complex, even at times flawed, but — what are they above all else? — they are effective and they do the right thing and they are ultimately incredibly successful and heroic. So, you know, the film depicts internal conflict brewing when Maya confronts her supervisor and Station Chief Joseph Bradley, played by Kyle Chandler, about his misplaced careerist priorities and his unwillingness to — what else? — get the real job done.
Adam: And repeatedly throughout the movie, they do the whole the US may have done objectionable things but it was for a good cause, the ends justify the means. In an interview with KCET, screenwriter Mark Boal called the film, quote, “adult, complicated, morally questioning film that shows all of the things America did… I haven’t seen anyone say, ‘Wow, that was a really jingoistic propaganda piece.’” Well, let me be the first to say this movie’s definitely a jingoistic propaganda piece. This is a similar line that Ben Affleck used with Argo where they do the whole, ‘This is not political, we’re not taking sides, we’re just holding a mirror to reality.’ If that’s the case, then why are you consulting only with the US military or CIA? The whole just calling balls and strikes, what they mean by that is it’s not partisan.
Nima: What they mean is that imperialism is agreed upon and a given.
Nima: It’s the assumption. It’s the starting point.
Adam: Yeah. The only context in which we understand impartiality in our country is partisanship, right? So like pro-CIA, pro-imperialist ideology is not viewed as being controversial, it’s like oxygen or the tides, it just is. Kathryn Bigelow says she was doing it like a documentary to give it a sense of verisimilitude, because that’s how you sort of sell the lie, right?
Nima: Realism. It’s gritty.
Adam: It deals with the complexity of torture. So movie as an extended torture scene that supposedly took place from 2003 where our fake character, Maya, is involved in this and she sort of looks away and it’s supposed to like, it’s all very liberal, right? It’s like, ‘Oh, torture, it’s messy, and it’s complicated.’ And all the subsequent press of this film was all about the torture debate. Now, the torture debate was solved, like, 70 years ago, right? These are violations of agreed upon norms in virtually every country on Earth.
Nima: They are war crimes.
Adam: Like decades ago. It is like the climate change debate. It shouldn’t really be a debate and the fact the movie presents it as one says all you need to know because in the movie the torture works, the torture leads to the capture of bin Laden’s courier, who later they use to find bin Laden. For the record, of course, we know that most of the story is bullshit and this is important to know with Zero Dark Thirty. That Sy Hirsch’s reporting about an ISI walk in to the CIA in 2010 and said, ‘I know where bin Laden is, where’s my reward money?’ Was later confirmed by NBC News and heavily complicates the narrative that they used a fake polio vaccine drive in Pakistan to find DNA linked to bin Laden and used that to find the courier to get to bin Laden. That almost all of that is pretty much bullshit. In the film, of course, the narrative of that was directed by people within the CIA who Mark Boal, you know, says he had the inside track on.
Nima: Not only did Boal really have an inside track, but the CIA was just heavily involved. An earlier version of the film, an early cut, had Maya participating in the torture, but the CIA was like, please don’t do that and they directed the filmmakers to make her a much more passive figure in that scene for it to be uncomfortable, but you know, it goes beyond that. So the CIA was deeply involved in both the script writing and the production of Zero Dark Thirty. A classified memo released after the film’s premiere showed that Mark Boal, the screenwriter, verbally shared the script with the CIA in order to get the agency’s feedback after which the CIA’s Public Affairs Department made edits. Some of these edits, as I just mentioned, have to do with the torture scene but also a scene that featured a dog intimidating a detainee — that was removed by the Public Affairs Office of the CIA. A scene in which a CIA officer fires an AK-47 into the air during a party in Islamabad — out. And previously leaked documents also showed that a CIA PR representative encouraged agency officials to share information with Boal writing this, quote, “As an agency, we’ve been pretty forward-leaning with Boal. He’s agreed to share scripts and details about the movie with us so we’re absolutely comfortable with what he will be showing.”
Adam: In 2015 Vice obtained internal CIA documents related to the film. One, an ethics report, revealed that Boal and Bigelow had given lavish gifts to CIA officers, free meals in exchange for access and details about the bin Laden operation, or we should say details that they wanted them to know or curated for them. According to a report by the DoD’s inspector general, Boal was invited to a June 2011 meeting, this is a month after the bin Laden raid, at CIA headquarters that was closed to the press and attended by all major players of the bin Laden operation, then Director of the CIA Leon Panetta gave Boal names of people whose role in the mission was still secret and shared other classified information with the filmmakers. Panetta went on to say that he didn’t realize Boal was there and that the information he had divulged was already public. The documents also revealed that screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow had a working relationship with the CIA that dated to at least 2010. Bigelow had met with Panetta at a Washington Correspondents Dinner where they talked about his interest in doing a project on bin Laden there. So we’ll get into more of this in episode three, the next episode, but the CIA basically in exchange for their quote-unquote “participation,” which is to say giving them kind of the inside story, or giving Boal the inside story or the inside story they they perceived it as being or they wanted you to think was the inside story, they gave this sort of access. So yeah, again, we have this ‘Oh, we’re just sort of, this is the inside story,’ but it’s like the CIA wouldn’t work with you and give you feedback and give you access to information in exchange for the details of the raid if you weren’t just making a CIA commercial and of course the movie is a CIA commercial, it is a CIA recruiting commercial, as is Argo.
The polio vaccine part of the story, and they show that in the movie, they show where they’re giving the vaccines to use the DNA. What they omit is that the vaccine drive was, or at least they don’t really dwell on, is that vaccine drive was fake, and led to a massive reduction in polio eradication efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan and now certain people are killing healthcare workers in that part of the world because of the revelation that the polio vaccine drive was fake about a year after it happened. So they don’t deal with how many people ended up dying or will die of preventable diseases because the CIA’s fake polio vaccine drive, which for it to work, you have to give it in three different steps and they only gave one because they were just trying to get DNA to try to find bin Laden. So, you know, potentially thousands of people will get diseases that were preventable, because the CIA thought they were clever by creating a fake vaccine drive, which they later apologized for, but by that point, the damage was done. Okay, so all that’s left out of the movie, because the CIA is not going to let them put that in the movie. So we get this incomplete picture of heroic agents who sort of reluctantly engage in torture, but don’t worry, they feel a little sad about it.
Nima: To discuss this further, we’re going to be joined by Dr. Maytha Alhassen, historian, writer, poet, journalist, artist and contributor to Al Jazeera’s The Stream and The Young Turks. Her writing has been featured, among other places, in The Baffler and the Boston Review. She’s a staff writer and consultant for the second season of the Hulu show Ramy. As a Senior Fellow at the Pop Culture Collaborative, she authored the report “Haqq and Hollywood: 100 Years of Muslim Tropes and How to Transform Them.” She’ll join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined by Dr. Maytha Alhassen, historian, writer, poet, journalist and artist. Maytha, it is great to have you on the show today. Welcome to Citations Needed.
Maytha Alhassen: Thank you so much for having me. I love just digging in and breaking down all the things that are really reprehensible in Hollywood. So thank you.
Nima: Hey, that’s what we do. That’s what we do.
Adam: You’re on the right show. So when your report, which we heavily cited at the at the introduction in the prior episode, “Haqq and Hollywood: 100 Years of Muslim Tropes and How to Transform Them,” you break down many of the tropes of anti-Muslim racism, Islamophobia in film and television The one I want to kick off with, which I think really sort of codified after 9/11 was this idea of the kind of good Muslim. The good Muslim is sort of typically a secondary or tertiary character that was sort of thrown in to indemnify the creators against charges of Islamophobia and as you write they are, quote, “Often secular, assimilationist defenders of US imperialism or submissive Muslim women in need of being saved by the West from their evil, oppressive Muslim religion.” Basically, the only good Muslims Hollywood are either victims, spooks or snitches. Can we talk about the kind of surface level attempt to provide a good portrayal and how in some ways this can sometimes be even more sinister than the typical bad guy approach?
Maytha Alhassen: Yeah, this is a really salient point because it’s often misrecognized when people are watching shows, like Homeland, 24, any slew of television or film portrayals of Muslims, especially ones that are highly regarded in the awards ecosystem. So what happened after 9/11 was there was a brief period of explicit demonizing of Muslims and then there was a moment of, ‘Oh, wait, you know, they’re not all bad, but a lot of them are and how can we influence Muslims to be aligned with our propaganda agenda?’ Right? What’s really interesting is that you see Hollywood lining up to the state propaganda around Muslims to a tee. George Bush says, strangely, now he’s getting thumbs up for this, which I hope that people go back and start to critique.
Nima: Oh, yes. The rehabilitation of George W. Bush has been incredible, like, ‘Oh, remember how after 9/11 he was so clear about how all Muslims weren’t bad and then just decided to bomb all of them?’
Maytha Alhassen: Yeah.
Adam: You can bomb them as long as you say an obligatory nice thing about it.
Maytha Alhassen: Yeah, you can say they’re bloodthirsty, evil, terrorists and then Islam is a religion of peace and give them the doublespeak, and you know, what ended up happening was that they took that framework, it was a really sharp binary of good Muslim, bad Muslim, but there was something specious underneath and that was that you could only be a good Muslim if you could transcend the things that made you bad and the things that made you bad were your affinity to Islam, or even more so Muslims are regarded as being automatons. So it’s this idea that Islam is this evil, dirty thing that originates from our lands and infects us and unless we do the thorough work of expunging it from our beings, and then replacing it with hardcore American patriotism, we’re bad, and we’re especially bad if we’re critical of this empire, if we’re critical of the placement of a bad Muslim framework. And the way that you see this play out is that a couple of years later, after 9/11, there’s this idea of the twist. So not all Muslims are bad, in fact, there’s a good Muslim that works for the CIA. There’s a good Muslim that works for the FBI. And you see people who are magnificent actors like Don Cheadle, for sure, in the film Traitor who played the role of the born-and-bred Muslim, who does the work of the state, is an agent of the state to be able to catch the brown foreign Muslim others. And yeah, it’s pretty much part of the playbook. And then the other thing that’s thrown in is what about women? How do they fit within this paradigm and the good Muslim woman is the one that will allow herself to be saved by this white supremacist empire. And you see this in films like Sex in the City, you see it in so many ways iterations in this period and it’s a hard place to live when you only have two choices. Well, three for women now.
Nima: Well, right. Yeah, I mean, in Argo, as we were talking about earlier on the episode, the maid in the Canadian ambassador’s house is finally deemed good when she doesn’t reveal to the Revolutionary Guard Corps member, one of the, you know, evil male Muslims in the movie, doesn’t reveal that the Americans are hiding out there. So she is then deemed good and for her trouble she has to flee the country at the end of the movie and never see your family again. So that’s the thanks that she gets by being one of the quote-unquote “good Muslims.”
Maytha Alhassen: Yeah, that’s the payoff. The payoff is that we can be produced as stickers for rallies and protests as long as we have an American flag headscarf on our head.
Nima: So in your work, you write about this triangulation which is effectively the feedback loop between, quote, “Hollywood, political drivers and public opinion,” and, you know, I think that that’s a really important piece of all of this, it’s always somewhat difficult to tell where the loop starts, right? Who is influencing who more, but in a way, it doesn’t matter because that’s how this cycle continues. It’s just non stop negative depictions of a group of people and that will obviously have political implications, but I think what’s curious is how some of these racist tropes shift over time. How do you see these stereotypes of Muslims shifting in the ‘70s and the ‘80s and how that kind of tracked with the geopolitical needs of the United States and its empire as long as its allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, and so then kind of how do those shifts over time to meet those needs and then maybe into like, the early ‘90s, where you have Aladdin coming out, it’s like, ‘Oh, we’re going to teach our children to despise these people’ and then what has shifted since then and maybe what has even stayed the same?
Maytha Alhassen: Yeah. When you grow up a child of immigrants from a Muslim-majority country, you are very used to hearing your parents give the over-the-news feedback of what really is happening. So at an early age, I started to notice that there was a subtext to the TV and film Hollywood was producing. And so when you even talk about Argo and the hostage crisis that’s happening in 1979, all the way up until Reagan’s administration, there’s an obsession for decades about the storyline of Iran that the US cinema machine cannot get rid of, in their minds. So Iran is, for them, perpetually this enemy that the US positions itself against and similarly, the other ways that you see this happening is, after the second war between Israel and Arab countries in the region in 1967, you see an emergence of hijacking films, terror subplots, or even main plots and stories that emerge most profoundly in the 1980s and you have some of your run-of-the-mill thrillers, the True Lies, the Executive Decisions that create and reproduce a enduring character in the history of the bad Muslim depiction, which is a menacing Muslim terrorist who is also strangely a bumbling fool. So what that does is it positions American empire to have a credible threat, and then also that it’s mighty enough because of its Western civilizational training, it’s upbringing to be able to defeat this foe, right?
So it’s still some of the stuff that we see on television. That’s the crazy part of the story. You go from the 1970s, inspired by or being motivated by what’s going on in the Middle East and then all the way through, as you mentioned, Aladdin, 1990s is the first Gulf War, but surely the US was still in there and of course, Aladdin comes out in 1992. So there’s a little bit of timing issues with it but anybody that grew up in the US and I don’t want to age myself, but I was 10 years old when the film came out, that saw Aladdin, where “They cut off your ear if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” That start of a film for Arab, brown, Muslim children was horrifying, but it was part of the same logic that whatever war we’re fighting in this region, whatever interests we have with invading these countries or the other interests we have with building relationships, as you said, with Israel and Saudi Arabia, we have to position these folks as available. We have to position these folks as not living up to the standards of civilization. And so you see that throughout the history of this representation, for sure there’s an uptick in the 1970s, but there’s a reason why I called this report “100 Years,” because you can even detect it from the start of cinema and it has its waves, it has its ebbs and flows, it has its particularities in every era.
Nima: Well, yeah, I mean, I think you know, you can start with Rudy Valentino and The Sheikh and go all the way through Raiders of the Lost Ark and then up till now, and I think that there’s this constant drumbeat, but I think that something you mentioned there is so fascinating to me, this idea that there’s a terrifying threat that’s also completely stupid.
Maytha Alhassen: Yes.
Nima: And so there’s a superiority complex that gets posted on top of this, you know, existential threat, whether it’s terrorism, whether it’s, you know, phantom nuclear weapons, it is such a harrowing, evil, yet backed up by such inane, bumblingness that obviously, you can’t find any sort of affinity with these characters, right? Because what they’re doing is so irrational, and they’re so stupid that you’re never allowed to really investigate any sort of motivations beyond, they are simply evil bad guys who must be destroyed.
Maytha Alhassen: Yeah and there’s this, the report talks about the Sheikh trope and the subtrope of that is the wealthy childlike, bumbling fool. Of course, there’s a sexualization, another subtrope that overly sexualizes the Sheikh called the lecher and his harem, but what I think is fundamentally important to understand about the wealthy, childlike, bumbling fool is also during this period, you see a deep investment and interest in Middle East oil. So there’s this belief again, being the purveyors of Western civilization, that we should be entitled to the oil on that land because these bumbling fools are nomadic roamers who don’t know what to do with the oil. They don’t know how to convert it to make the best capital use of it like we do. So we have to be able to position who they are and what their culture is like to rationalize extracting that from them, right? We’re bringing democracy that’s a part of it. That’s the code. The idea that they can’t self rule, they’re dictators, they’re tyrants, but we benefit from them being that and so it’s even as simplistic as the Sultan in Aladdin. He’s playing with toys in his palace as his daughter comes to him.
Adam: Yeah, it’s interesting, you mention Aladdin because one illustrative example of our kind of mindless hatred of Muslim majority countries in the United States and it’s, you know, it’s a little bit of a troll poll, but in 2015, Public Policy Polling found that 30 percent of Republicans support bombing Agrabad.
Maytha Alhassen: Yeah, yeah.
Adam: And 19 percent of Democrats supported bombing Agrabad, which is very high and of course, that is not just Hollywood and TV, it’s also news and a lot of the anti-immigrant sentiment coming from that and ISIS hysteria that we saw around that time in 2015 and all that, but it’s certainly Hollywood and TV, almost certainly contributes to that, but I think that’s a sort of good gauge of what we’re dealing with here, in terms of blind hatred. So speaking of which, I think one of the parallels you note is that between Hollywood’s depiction of Muslims and the depiction of indigenous people, I recently re-watched The Searchers, the 1956, John Ford film and kind of deserves its own episode. I really think it’s the ultimate distillation of whiteness and the protection of whiteness, which was traditionally what the western genre was about, until it sort of began to be subverted in the ‘70s and I think the parallels are interesting and I want to ask you about them. Specifically, this concept of sort of the Muslim is almost a global swarthy villain and the primary architecture of these films is to protect whiteness, which we sort of define as security safety and the constant anxiety that this security and white safety net is being is under siege in a sort of constant ticking time bomb 24 and I want you to talk about those parallels and how they can kind of inform each other in terms of genre.
Maytha Alhassen: Yeah, and especially the early years. So Edward Said introduced or popularized this concept of orientalism, which in my most reductive way that I can explain it is how Europe represents the Orient, which is what Britain used to call the Middle East and North Africa, how it used to represent it in a way to position the West as superior. And, strangely enough, this was a framework that was used to demonize and vilify the region and also to present it as effeminate, as queer, as sexually promiscuous and fluid. I say ironic because clearly in this moment, Muslims are being understood as sexually conservative, prudish, homophobic and that connects back to another point that’s made in this report, but this is a centuries long framework, and how I saw it operating in the same sort of way that this idea of cowboys and Indians, the noble savage was portrayed, as you said, on cinema heavily, but part of the narratives that the West tells itself to make sense of its settler colonial project, is to say that there is an excess of fascination and contempt, right? So the idea of the noble savage is somebody we kind of want to be. That’s why you see so much cultural appropriation of Native imagery. That’s why you see football teams, baseball teams that have mascots that finally now we’re having public conversations about disposing of. That’s why you see them as these rallying calls for super white supremacist establishments, right? Similarly, there is this obsession with this idea of the mystical moor, of somebody coming from that region that comes with deep metaphysical secrets, but also the desert has long been romanticized as this place that a seeker goes and especially a Westerner, a la Lawrence of Arabia, to find themselves, to commune with the spiritual forces and energy and then to be transformed. So they like that part of the culture. What they don’t like is our affiliation to it, is the actual people, right? And so what it has to operate on is this idea of the Arabs as the Indians who need to be conquered, and again, a strange parallel is that you can go to California and see all these forces operating at the same time in the early 20th century. There’s an area that some folks might know as Coachella Valley that has a city called Mecca, California. It used to be called Walters. And they started to have date festivals there. And the high school there, Coachella High School, has as its mascot an Arab, like that swarthy, super stereotypical image that only until recently have they converted and changed. But this was also a place where there are military bases, where they filmed tons of Hollywood films in the 1940s and ‘50s, that same sort of logic has emerged from that space, but related to Hollywood the idea of portraying a Muslim on screen that is supposed to be relatable usually got cast as a white person. So that’s the way that this has gone global, is the idea that that other, the alterity of it all is only palatable if it’s cannibalized by whiteness.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, I think this idea of Arabs or Muslims, the kind of foreign other as the perennial Indian to be vanquished, just sort of extends the borders of the frontier for America, right? So that then every CIA agent is a cowboy and every F-16 pilot gets to be a pioneer as opposed to a war criminal and so that kind of broadening out, globalizing the western mystique so that everything is wild west and we have to go tame it, really speaks to, you know, how Hollywood and public opinion and obviously our politics really work together. We actually wound up divided our main discussion about this type of stereotyping, this kind of racism in Hollywood between the overtly kind of hacky action adventure movies, many of which I absolutely love, I will say —
Maytha Alhassen: Wait, wait, wait, which ones do you love?
Nima: Oh, I mean, True Lies is pretty fucking great and Raiders of the Lost Ark is amazing.
Maytha Alhassen: Where he randomly shoots an Egyptian dude or some sort of random Arab and takes a gun to —
Nima: Right because he has a big, scary sword and that’s when everyone cheers.
Maytha Alhassen: Yes.
Nima: (Laughs.) So, so there are those over there, right? And then there’s like the higher brow version, which is, as we’ve been saying Argo or a Syriana and certainly a Zero Dark Thirty. So I’d love for us to just take a second and talk about this latter category, the kind of Oscar-bait, prestige thriller, as we’ve been calling it, and how they sort of use what I think The New York Times, New Yorker readers would generally think of as complex and nuanced approaches to our relationship with the Middle East, and at the same time really just serve to prop up all the basic premises of a global war on Muslim people with, you know, maybe a little hand wringing. Can we just talk about how that kind of film, the prestige thriller, has sort of taken over the more overt True Lies, Delta Force or even worse, if that exists, kind of action schlock?
Maytha Alhassen: Yeah, so True Lies, the genre that I call “terror genre” that happens before 9/11. So what’s critical about the good Muslim, bad Muslim binary framework is that it introduces something that Evelyn Alsutany calls the simplified complex. And basically, it’s trying to hook you in with this idea of ‘Oh, there are layers, there are nuances, There’s character development, we are going to keep you on your toes around how the story is going to pan out.’ It’s not predictable, that there’s an all consuming hatred from the brown Muslim other character and then also strangely, how some of this stuff plays out, is an enlistment of black American Muslims to be part of the agents of the state crusade. But let’s dig into those films because I think it’s important to deconstruct them. One is American Sniper was one of the most painful things I’ve ever seen on screen. That film, first of all, like almost every film that is done especially about Iraq, and the Iraq War, is exclusively through the lens of a US military operative. We’ve never seen a film told from the story of an Iraqi and that’s important to underscore, because do we ever think about that? And then also part of the narrative that we have about the Iraq War, if for the camp that is critical of it, is they bring up how many US military personnel were killed, and rarely do they know or have a number or care about how many Iraqis were killed. So, throughout this film, there’s merciless killings of Iraqis but what is the most insidious thing that happens in this film for me, is a scene where there’s a trope I call the “killer kids,” where there’s a kid who is, Chris Kyle, who is the lead character, is trying to assess the threat level of this child. He’s pointing a gun at, has the crosshairs on and so we are on the edge of our seat — is this kid diabolical enough to use this weapon against the US military?
But part of this good Muslim-bad Muslim framework is that there’s always an opportunity for Muslim folks who are trained by their parents to hate America, right? They hate us for our freedom, for them to go to the extreme of, as you mentioned, unrelatable characters, so the kid is ultimately, because for some reason, a child is a threat to American military that’s heavily furnished with the latest, greatest weapons, is killed. And then his mother, and this is the crazy part of the story, his mother doesn’t go and mourn him, she picks up a grenade and is about to shoot or throw it at who she assumes killed her child and then they kill her and we’re supposed to breathe a sigh of relief. And so I didn’t see any reviews talking about how horrendous that was to portray the child in that way and actually, this is some of the language that people who are Islamophobic use to talk about children from the region, that they teach their children to hate us, that we actually don’t have to spare the women because they’re part of the problem, they’re giving birth to these children.
Adam: Yeah, it’s fundamentally genocidal.
Maytha Alhassen: Absolutely, yeah, if you can, okay, I’m a pacifist, so, put that on the table, I don’t really believe war is about liberating people, as they say fucking for virginity. If your whole notion is that armed combatants are up for the war that you are engaged in, and women and children are not to be touched, this flips that whole schema on its head. It is extending the war to everybody that might come in the way of imperialism and Zero Dark Thirty opens up with a gruesome torture scene, especially during the time when in our nation it was being revealed that we were torturing and continue to torture people at Gitmo and that was happening in Abu Ghraib in Iraq and then tied to that there was no credible evidence that emerged from the torture around tips to uncovering the terrorist cell or getting more material to decapitate the “terrorist network” quote-unquote. But then this whole film’s premise is that torture works, that they could get bin Laden because they got credible evidence at the beginning by torturing somebody.
Adam: Right. The trope that Arabs don’t care about their children. It’s a well worn Zionist cliche, because it’s a sort of Golda Meir, you know?
Nima: Yeah, exactly. We can forgive them for killing our children, we cannot forgive them from forcing us to kill their children, we will only have peace with them when they — they being like Palestinians or Arabs writ large — when they love their children more than they hate us, which is literally the killer kid trope.
Adam: Which makes sense from a cognitive dissonance standpoint, right? Because you can’t really operate an empire that’s killing hundreds of thousands of Muslims, you know, over a 10, 20 year, 30 year span, majority of whom are probably women and children, you can’t really operate that without some sort of thin moral pretext. So you say, ‘Oh, well, they’re all just sort of bred that way.’ And then well, there you go, you’ve now sort of done your job.
Maytha Alhassen: They’re so sinister they hide bombs in hospitals. So it’s not our fault that we targeted hospitals and killed incubated children.
Nima: Exactly. I mean, then that I think gets to Adam’s, you know, what he had noted about it just being fundamentally genocidal, right? So then everyone is a, every Muslim kid, all the way to adulthood and beyond are open targets because their humanity is not full if it exists at all, and they’re really just terrorists and training from the womb.
Maytha Alhassen: Well, that’s why there’s such a fascination, especially in this country, even to Britain and parts of Europe, of catching the vulnerable to radicalization, quote-unquote, I put “radicalization” in quotes, vulnerable to “radicalization,” male teens, because it’s part of the presumption that they are such automatons because they’ve been injected by this hateful religion, they’ll be naturally inclined to be violent towards the West.
Adam: Yeah, and the one thing that, you know, really they overlook, is that obviously there are real sort of what we would call terror incidents, but the, you know, 91 percent is the number of researchers have found of these FBI terror plots, you know, are contrived by the FBI and I think that matters because —
Maytha Alhassen: They’re entrapment.
Adam: Yeah, they’re entrapment and this matters to me because, look, if you had a realistic show of counterterrorism, it wouldn’t look like 24, it would look like three, you know, assholes in a van looking at someone probably with mental problems, someone probably under the age of 25, and then paying three different informants to set up an elaborate fake bomb plot. So it’s like, even the depiction of counter terror —
Nima: It seems somewhat less heroic.
Nima: However it does fit in exactly —
Adam: It would look more like The Office than 24.
Nima: (Laughs.) Well, well, right and like, the reality of these FBI, fake sting operations speaks directly to what we were discussing earlier May about “sinister yet stupid” trope, right? Like we can always foil the plots — thank god — with our white Western intelligence and violence, but right up until the moment of detonation, we’re just on the brink, right? Like we’re just on the brink of all being completely wiped off the face of the Earth, but thank God, these people are so stupid, that we can defeat them.
Maytha Alhassen: And thank God that we have centuries of Anglo-Saxon training around being intellectually more elevated, loving freedom more that we are able to foil the plot. And that’s a reflection of just how savvy we are, how much more culturally superior we are and this is actually the horrifying point, Umberto Eco, who grew up under Mussolini in Fascist Italy wrote this really great piece called Ur Fascism, which means eternal fascism and he broke down the classic points of what it means to live under fascism and one of them is an obsession with a plot that an evil foe is after you but related to that is an investment in the hero narrative. So those things are fundamental to the point that he makes around fascism, which should give us a lot of pause.
Nima: Yeah, which is basically every Hollywood plotline is just a fascist plot line. It’s pretty one to one. However, all is not lost, right? So earlier in our discussion on these episodes about Hollywood, Adam and I talked about the Hulu show Ramy, which you Incidentally, work on. So obviously, it’s just one show among thousands and films and TV shows but we definitely would be remiss if we didn’t mention that some people in the industry are attempting to push back on the common tropes, please do tell us about your experience with the show, how it’s been received, and kind of what other shows folks can kind of look out for, what we should be paying attention to, you know, your report doesn’t just note the bad, it also talks to a transformation that can and hopefully will happen.
Maytha Alhassen: This was an important part of how I wanted to construct this report, which was a lot of academic deconstruction, but to also say, this is a guideline, a blueprint for a different world that can be created. And so there also was something, a benchmark that happened that shifted Hollywood’s thirst for how they wanted to tell our stories, but also a parallel track of people who were fed up with waiting for the system to listen to them, to see them, to reach out to them and they created their own content. So what ended up happening was, strangely enough, as Trump emerges with his first couple of talking points, Mexicans are rapists, black people are criminals, third thing we need a Muslim registry, people started to get a little horrified, but not enough to unseat him and to minimize his media coverage, but then after he was elected, that was a moment of reckoning. I mentioned this panel that happened maybe a week or a couple of days after his election, that was a collection of showrunners who did storylines about the Middle East and/or Muslims. And the folks, many shows we might know — Homeland, Quantico — those folks were very honest, forthright about admitting that their show might have played a hand into shifting public opinion that made it possible for Trump to get elected.
Adam: Ya think?
Maytha Alhassen: Yeah, I know exactly. But yeah, that goes back to that triangulation and they were just so disconnected from how the material conditions changed because of the work that they produce. But, you know, Muslim kids living here were very clear about what Hollywood did to influence the behavior of people towards the us and to countries globally. So what happened was a show like Ramy gets greenlit after Trump is elected, because this kind of was an ‘Oh fuck’ moment, right? And people were willing to hear and to insert Muslim characters into their show. So Legends of Tomorrow, The Bold Type, Orange is the New Black, so many other shows that might have not thought about us unless the terrorism plotline that emerged, decided to say, ‘Oh, well, we can put another character’ and it’s not always clean, you know, 9–1–1: Lone Star —
Adam: Oh, yeah.
Maytha Alhassen: Most recently —
Adam: That was a shitshow.
Maytha Alhassen: (Laughs.) I mean, so there’s, yeah, so there’s a distinction between putting us on shows to tokenize us, to check the box, so to speak, and then ones like Ramy and other shows that have emerged on web series. But Ramy, as we talked about, is a show that emerges from intimate knowledge, from a creator, from writers, from directors that are close to the subject matter at hand, versus — I hate to say this, but I did work on this film — live action Aladdin had a white director, two white screenwriters, white composers, and so that’s why you didn’t see much of a change from the original animated. But when you see that people that come from the community are writing the stories and thinking deeply about what it means to share our characters on screen, then you get Ramy. So for Ramy, I’ve known Ramy for over a decade at the point that he was starting to write this pilot and he pulled me in at the beginning and said, ‘Hey, I want you to be a part of this world’ and I said, ‘Hey, I’m an academic. Here’s a book list. Let’s read, let’s hold a weekly seminar,’ and he brought me in as creative advisor the first season and then afterwards I saw what it meant to have the red marker and check off some stuff and put some gold stars there, but I really wanted to be involved in story development, and thinking about arcs and thinking about a journey that a character would take, and how things from my life could be negotiated on screen. So I came in as a staff writer for the second season, and it’s been phenomenal.
Adam: Yes, it’s been showered with praise and awards, so congrats on that. Yeah, because I think it’s like it’s such a low bar, right? It’s like, people praise having basic humanity and representing complex, developed characters, but that’s sort of where we’re at. And it’s weird that it took the sort of hyper — I don’t want to say niche-ification because I don’t want to glorify the sort of Golden Age of TV too much — but it is true that there is just way more options than there was before and that kind of and you see this also with, as we noted in our episode about gosh I forget which episode was, we had Color of Change and we talked about, we did an episode about anti-black and anti-Latino racism specifically and like it’s just having hundreds of shows gives people more of an ability to take risks, and they’re so sort of, sense that, hey, there’s a significant enough Muslim or Muslim-adjacent, if you will, population that wants to see themselves on TV, and it’s like, it just took all this sort of conspiracy of coincidences that sort of even allow the most basic, in the year 2018, like it took that long, I don’t know, it’s just, it’s just depressing that that’s the bar.
Maytha Alhassen: It’s wild, and there’s so much to go. I know that we’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of love from reviewers to community members but this season we also got the love from Mahershala Ali, who joined us, but you know, even us, we were thinking about how the first season there weren’t black Muslims represented, they might have been talked about, the anti blackness in the Muslim community or Arab Muslim community specifically, but then we wanted to be reflective of what that community looks like, as you said, because the bar is so low, and also not fall into the trap that Muslims are brown foreign others, that there is a complex, diverse spectrum of people within this country and around the world and the show allows us to show as you said, that niche-ification to show those nuances and give people something, you know, some of the feedback that I’ve heard from folks is that they never seen anything like this before if they came from the Muslim community or not the Muslim community because there were intricacies of things that blew their minds, that were outside of the bounds of how prime-time news represents us.
Maytha Alhassen: Or doesn’t. It’s this history of invisibility or hyper visibility and now we can transcend that framework but there’s still a long way to go clearly. There shouldn’t be just one show. There’s a great web series that got funded by Pop Culture Collaborative initially called East of La Brea, that has a black Muslim and a Bangladeshi lead. They’re friends in Los Angeles and what their life is like, there should be more. There needs to be tons and we love them and we love ones that come out and also want to delve into the — diversity is such a buzzword — but really just delve into the intricacies of this community that rarely get played.
Nima: Well. Yeah, you know, and I think that the more we see this, the better it is and as your report puts into stark focus, there is more than a century of propaganda to try and start to unwind and so for every East of La Brea or Ramy, there are 5,000 Delta Forces.
Maytha Alhassen: Yeah.
Nima: Which, you know, as we’ve talked about on the show —
Adam: There are literally 5,000 Delta Forces.
Nima: (Laughs.) Yeah.
Maytha Alhassen: (Laughs.)
Adam: That is not hyperbole.
Nima: Right, you know, but it really has to do with the ubiquity of one kind of presentation, and then hacking away at it with as many new representations as we can and so with that, I think that’s a great place to leave it. Dr. Maytha Alhassen, historian, writer, poet, journalist, artist, contributor to Al Jazeera’s The Stream and The Young Turks. Her writing has been featured, among other places, in The Baffler and the Boston Review and most recently, of course, the second season of the show Ramy. As a Senior Fellow at the Pop Culture Collaborative, she authored the report “Haqq and Hollywood: 100 Years of Muslim Tropes and How to Transform Them.” May, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Maytha Alhassen: Thank you so much for having me.
Adam: Yeah, I think it’s good, you know, one of the things we don’t want to do on the show is sow cynicism and I do think that cultural pressure to not be mindlessly racist can be beneficial and can actually affect content. I know it’s not a long term solution, because all the fundamental power structures are there. I don’t want to be too squishy or liberal about this, but I do think that letting people know that putting a mindless Arab bad guy in every action movie should come with some social sanction or social stigma because, again, 90 percent or whatever the number is now, depictions being negative does have an aggregate effect on how the public views Muslims, and so far that we, again, 30 percent of Republicans, Obama-fake country, I mean, this is real sort of horrific stuff. And of course, there are real countries that are really being bombed and one of the reasons why that goes on question and unchecked is because there’s a broad cultural sentiment and a non trivial amount of the population that Muslims are inherently violent, inherently irrational and sort of dogmatic. That, of course, is a feedback loop, not the cause, but it’s, it can’t be partly the cause.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, our pop culture is really, I mean, incredibly influential on how we view the world even down to Disney, or maybe especially Disney, right? That our worldviews are formed by the things that we see and hear and not just news, not just like nonfiction books, right? More often it’s the other way and so what happens behind the camera, what happens in writers rooms, which shows are being greenlit and which aren’t, that really does matter. As you said, it’s not the entire thing, it doesn’t destroy power structures, but it actually can start to move things so that it’s not solely portrayals of, you know, suicide bombers, and, you know, women in either full hijab or dressed as belly dancers, right? And so once those things start to get broken down, they start to make way for new portrayals, and then hopefully, those become more dominant than what we’ve seen in the past hundred years. But obviously, as we know, there’s a lot of work to do.
Adam: Yeah. And so on the next episode, we’re going to, now that we’ve sort of talked about the cultural aspect of it, we do want to talk about some of the material antecedents or for the primary movers one of those sort of things that helps financially underwrite this anti-Muslim racism, which is the influence in financial and logistical support of the CIA and the Pentagon.
Nima: Yeah, don’t forget if you’re seeing military equipment used in films, whether they’re Marvel action movies or Schwarzenegger or Stallone or whatever, oftentimes those are provided by the military. Or if you’re watching a movie about a CIA agent, a lot of the time the CIA has vetted the script. So we will go through some of that stuff on next week’s episode, our final in our three part series on Hollywood and anti-Muslim, anti-Arab stereotypes, but that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you, everyone, for listening. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. And as always, a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, July 15, 2020.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.