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Arab Americans Denounce Paramount’s Racist Film “Rules of Engagement”

Washington D.C., April 11 — The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the nation’s largest grassroots Arab-American organization, in an open letter to Paramount Pictures Chair Shelly Lansing denounced the new Paramount film “Rules of Engagement.” Released on Friday, “Rules of Engagement” was the number one grossing film over the weekend earning $15 million. ADC writes that “‘Rules of Engagement can only be considered in the same light as other films whose raison d’etre is to deliberately and systematically vilify an entire people, such as ‘Birth of a Nation’ and ‘The Eternal Jew.'”
The letter from ADC’s Communications Director Hussein Ibish to Paramount says that while the film contains countless negative portrayals of Arabs, “sympathetic or positive images of Arabs are easy to list: there are none.” Offensive material includes:
Repeated portrayals of Arab children as hateful, vicious and murderous. These children are shown several times shooting guns at the film’s US Marine protagonists and shouting curses.
The portrayal of Yemeni society as an anti-American mob just waiting to erupt at any second. The images of Arabs in the film are solely stereotypical – veiled women, men in headscarfs and all shouting fanatical, angry slogans and firing automatic weapons at a peaceful US embassy.
Everyone in Yemen is complicit in the anti-American violence. Witnesses lie. The police lie. Doctors lie. Everyone in Yemen lies. Meanwhile, the streets are literally strewn with cassette tapes calling, again without any apparent reason, for “all good Muslims” to kill any and all Americans they can find. Yemen, we are assured, is a “breeding ground” for terrorists.
ADC first contacted Paramount with concerns about “Rules of Engagement” in January, but received no cooperation. ADC wrote that “In spite of this almost total lack of cooperation from Paramount, we continued to hope against hope that ‘Rules of Engagement’ would not be defamatory against Arabs, and showing the utmost restraint, withheld judgment until viewing the movie in a commercial cinema after its general release.” The letter continues: “In retrospect, it is easy to understand why Paramount stonewalled all our attempts at dialogue and refused even the elementary courtesy of a pre-release screening … [since] these are the images that define the Arab as the quintessential ‘other,’ and depict all Arabs, men, women and children, as the inherent, irrational and implacable terrorist enemy of the United States. They make the everyday lives of Arab-Americans and Arabs in the United States that much more difficult and dangerous.”-30-(Note to editors: ADC is the largest Arab-American grassroots organization in the country. It is a non-sectarian, non-partisan service organization dedicated to protecting the civil rights of Americans of Arab descent and combating anti-Arab racism, discrimination and stereotyping.)
FULL TEXT OF ADC COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR HUSSEIN IBISH’S LETTER TO PARAMOUNT PICTURES:
April 11, 2000
Ms. Sherry Lansing
Chair
Paramount Motion Pictures Group
By Fax: 323-862-8456
Dear Ms. Lansing:
On January 27, 2000, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the nation’s largest Arab-American membership organization, approached Paramount Pictures with serious concerns about “Rules of Engagement,” which were raised by images included in trailers for the film which were then available. We reiterated these concerns during numerous telephone conversations with Paramount Executive Vice-President Blaise Noto. Our concerns were never directly addressed, and our repeated requests to view the film were ignored. In spite of this almost total lack of cooperation from Paramount, we continued to hope against hope that “Rules of Engagement” would not be defamatory against Arabs, and showing the utmost restraint, withheld judgment until viewing the movie in a commercial cinema after its general release.
I have just returned from that viewing. Nothing in my 36 years as an Arab-American, and my years as a graduate student studying literature and popular culture at the University of Massachusetts, and my one and a half years as Communications Director of ADC, during which I thought I had seen it all, prepared me for the explosion of hatred that burst through the screen during “Rules of Engagement.” The incessant torrent of negative, hateful and harmful images of Arabs, Arab culture and the Arab world in “Rules of Engagement” is unequaled by anything I have previously encountered. I tell you frankly that, as an Arab-American, and a fairly thick-skinned one at that, the experience of watching “Rules of Engagement” was like being physically beaten.
“Rules of Engagement” contains so many negative portrayals of Arabs that it would be quite impossible to list and analyze all of them. On the other hand, sympathetic or positive images of Arabs are easy to list: there are none. Among the objectionable images are:
– Perhaps, the most offensive of all, the repeated portrayals of Arab children as hateful, vicious and murderous. These children are shown several times shooting guns at the film’s US Marine protagonists, pretending to shoot guns at them, and shouting hateful curses at them as well. This deliberate defaming of children is truly inexcusable.
– The portrayal of Yemeni society as an anti-American mob just waiting to erupt at any second. The mere presence of an unidentified American (played by Tommy Lee Jones) in the streets of what is supposed to be Sana’a is enough to set off a fanatical anti-American mob. We are told that anti-American protests are held outside the US embassy every week. The mob which besieges the US embassy is driven by an undefined hatred of the United States – one can only imagine what they are angry about. Nonetheless, they attack the American embassy with a murderous rage, apparently intent on killing everyone inside. The images of Arabs in the film are only and solely stereotypical – veiled women, men in headscarfs and all shouting fanatical, angry slogans and firing automatic weapons at a peaceful US embassy. Needless to say, such a thing has never happened in Yemen. It is a grotesque defamation and complete distortion of Yemeni society.
– Everyone in Yemen seems to be complicit in the anti-American violence. The film make it clear that the mob and the snipers are working hand-in-glove. The government provides no security, and then, in a blatant cover-up, moves in and clears away all the weapons that the demonstrators were using against the American embassy. Witnesses lie. The police lie. Doctors lie. Everyone in Yemen lies. Meanwhile, the streets are literally strewn with cassette tapes calling, again without any apparent reason, for “all good Muslims” to kill any and all Americans they can find. Yemen, we are assured, is a “breeding ground” for terrorists.
These images are repeated time and again throughout the movie. For most Americans who see it, “Rules of Engagement” will contain the most “information” about Yemen that they will ever receive in an hour and a half, and possibly in an entire lifetime. Why Paramount chose Yemen for this outrageous exercise in national character assassination and slander, we may never know. But the fact remains that you have done so.
In all honesty, I never thought that a film produced in the present day United States could be this unabashedly racist. Mr. Noto’s letter of March 30, the only formal communication ADC has received from Paramount during our long months of fruitless effort to engage in a constructive dialogue, claims “‘Rules of Engagement’ is not anti-Arabic, anti-Moroccan or anti-Yemenite but rather anti-extremist.” “This film is not a negative portrayal of any government or people,” Mr. Noto writes. In fact, “Rules of Engagement” does not really belong in the same category with most films that include negative or racist portrayals of Arabs. The film does not focus on a terrorist group or band of fanatics, but casts its aspersions far wider by explicitly and directly defaming a whole culture and society. “Rules of Engagement can only be considered in the same light as other films whose raison d’etre is to deliberately and systematically vilify an entire people. The spirit of raw hatred that animated films such as “Birth of a Nation” and “The Eternal Jew” once again dances across the screen in “Rules of Engagement.”
In retrospect, it is easy to understand why Paramount stonewalled all our attempts at dialogue and refused even the elementary courtesy of a pre-release screening. It is because this movie is absolutely indefensible in its portrayal of Arabs and Arab culture. These are the images that define the Arab as the quintessential “other” in contemporary American culture, that depict all Arabs, men, women and children, as the inherent, irrational and implacable terrorist enemy of the United States. As “Rules of Engagement” so charmingly puts it, these are “motherfuckers” who should be “wasted.” These are indeed the images that lead to the high incidence of hate crimes against Arab Americans, that produce airport profiling, that have led to the use of secret evidence in American courts, that make the everyday lives of Arabs in the United States that much more difficult and dangerous.
No apology can undo the damage done by “Rules of Engagement.” Sadly Paramount’s name will be forever associated with this truly appalling film.
Yours,
Hussein Ibish
Communications Director, ADC
cc:
Sumner M. Redstone, Chair and CEO, Viacom Inc.;
Adam Schroeder, Executive Producer, Paramount Pictures;
William Friedkin, Director;
Blaise Noto, Executive Vice-President, Worldwide Publicity, Marketing Division, Paramount Pictures;