Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood's "Munich" and "Syriana"

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Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood's "Munich" and "Syriana"

Finally, Hollywood is offering humane, equitable images of Arabs and Muslims. Stephen Gaghan's political drama "Syriana," and Steven Spielberg's "Munich" discard stale stereotypes. Instead, they forcefully and eloquently argue that unabated power and unconstrained violence serve to expedite terrorism and prevent peace.

Gaghan's lucid geopolitical thriller, "Syriana," on which this writer did some minor consulting, stars George Clooney. The film probes contemporary questions, ruffling our senses and causing us to ponder seriously the consequences of what happens when corrupt, influential U.S. government and corporate executives mix together greed, oil and terrorism in order to maintain their monopoly on Arab oil. Power and money matter most.

Writer-director Gaghan projects "Syriana's" Arabs, Pakistanis and Americans as multidimensional characters, complete with complex motives. In the clash of modernity and radicalism, Gaghan eschews stereotypes. For example, he presents unemployed Pakistani Muslim oil refinery workers not as hateful suicide bombers but as innocent victims, seduced by an Islamic fundamentalist.

"Syriana" does not vilify the Muslim world, its people, religion or culture. Instead, the film warns us to be wary of power moguls, men who consider the deaths of innocent people acceptable. In Gaghan's harsh, corrupt world, everyone is expendable: Educated Arabs seeking democracy, unemployed Pakistani immigrants desperate to find a meaningful purpose to their lives, covert CIA operatives pursuing justice, even Arab and American children.

As for "Munich," I initially balked before seeing it because Hollywood has a history of demonizing all things Palestinian, and Spielberg, one of the world's most influential filmmakers, has not always been balanced in his portrayal of Arabs.

In movies that Spielberg has been associated with, Egyptians are shown as Nazisympathizers ("Raiders of the Lost Ark"), Arab terrorists try to machine-gun Michael J. Fox ("Back to the Future"), Dr. Moriarty's Egyptian cult kidnaps young girls and torches them alive ("Young Sherlock Holmes"), and fanatical Egyptian Christians are out to kill Indy ("Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"). …