Possibly the most striking thing about “The Kite Runner,” opening Friday, is that the film’s lead characters are all Muslims, but not one of them is a terrorist, convenience store owner, cab driver or woman wearing an all-enclosing burqa.
“These characters just happen to be Muslim,” says Khaled Hosseini, author of the bestselling novel on which the film is based. “The concern of the film is not the role of Islam in the world; it’s a family story. Their struggles are things that people identify with.”
Which makes “The Kite Runner” a real anomaly. Because when it comes to Muslim or Middle Eastern images in American films, “Arabic or Muslim equals the evil cultural other, the terrorist, the oil sheik,” says Jack Shaheen, an expert on Muslim and Arab images in the movies, whose book and documentary “Reel Bad Arabs” is a history of negative film portrayals of Middle Easterners.
In some ways, this stereotyping is simply business as usual for Hollywood. In the past, African-Americans, Latinos and other groups have been the victims of Tinseltown’s casual racism and one-note portrayals. But Muslims, particularly Arabs, have been the villains du jour for quite some time, in such recent films as 2000’s “Rules of Engagement” (in which a Marine colonel who orders a massacre of Muslim civilians is acquitted at trial), 1998’s “The Siege” (the threat from home-grown Muslims is deemed so great, they are thrown into concentration camps) and this year’s “The Kingdom” (bloodthirsty terrorists massacre U.S. military families in Saudi Arabia). The reasons for this type of portrayal range from the tensions caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the relative lack of Muslim-American political clout.
After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, there was a change in the way Arabs were depicted, says Jackie Salloum, a New York-based filmmaker whose “Planet of the Arabs” – available on YouTube – is a punchily edited short documentary featuring numerous Arab-as-terrorist cinema images.
“They became terrorists and hijackers, complete barbarians,” Salloum says. “It’s extremely dangerous for this sort of thing to keep going on because it has a huge effect on foreign policy.”
To be sure, several groups, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), have complained about a number of recent films, such as “The Siege,” which the organization said delivered a message that “Islam will bring violence to this country and that Muslims pose a threat to the society.”
Nevertheless, Shaheen says, “When an Arab or Muslim group protests these images, their protests are usually greeted with yawns…. Hollywood has not made any effort to recognize the stereotype, and to bring into the workplace talented and qualified Arab-American image makers.”
Shaun Toub, a self-identified Persian-American actor who has a major role in “The Kite Runner” – and is probably best known as the disgruntled convenience store owner in 2004’s “Crash” – has appeared in more than 100 films and TV shows since the 1980s. “For years, the only roles that were out there were the convenience store owner or terrorist,” he says. But, citing a recent part he took on the TV series “NCIS” playing an imam (a Muslim religious leader), Toub says, “I do see a change in the way the writers are writing the roles, the sensitivity they have, that people are just people.”