"Rules of Engagement" Reaches New Depths of Anti-Arab Bigotry
Any Way They Want
Thomas Gorguissian

    Once again Arab-Muslims are being demonized by Hollywood. This time the film is Rules of Engagement, a box-office hit starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L Jackson…. Just 17 days after general release, it had already grossed $43 million.
    The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) has called for protests against the film, which it describes as "probably the most vicious anti-Arab racist film ever made by a major Hollywood Studio". Protests were staged in Washington DC, Chicago, Colorado and other places. Paramount Pictures, which produced Rules of Engagement, predictably defended its farrago of racist nonsense as "a fictional account of the consequences of extremism in all its forms." The film, it naively insists, "is not an indictment of any government, culture, or people."
    And the plot of this film which indicts no one? The American embassy in Yemen is surrounded by a large crowd of demonstrators. Marine Colonel Terry Childers (Samuel L Jackson) is sent to evacuate the ambassador and his family. Childers launches his mission, the ambassador’s safety is secured, but three of his men are shot. The Colonel orders his men to fire at the crowd.
    Eighty-three Yemenis, including women and children, are massacred by Marines – a realistic-looking scene that has evoked cheers from some American audience. A diplomatic crisis erupts and Colonel Childers faces a court-martial for violating the Rules of Engagement by killing unarmed civilians. During the court-martial proceedings, Colonel Childers, with the support of his defense lawyer, his former Vietnam comrade Hays Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones), contends the protesters, even the women and children, were armed. Also, there was "a declaration of Islamic Jihad against the United States" and a call to kill Americans, be they civilian or military. Colonel Childers’ act was, therefore, not only justifiable, but patriotic too. The military hero correctly assessed a situation that politicians and diplomats were trying to brush under the carpet.
    "This film is the worst ever," points out Jack Shaheen, author of The TV Arab, an upcoming book about the image of Arab-Muslims propagated by Hollywood. He told Al-Ahram Weekly that the film is not only immoral but dangerous too. The message it conveys, he argues, is simple: "It is appropriate and morally correct to kill Arabs, even children." In the US film industry, he believes, "it is perfectly acceptable to vilify, to demonize, whatever or whoever is Arab and Muslim."
    William Rugh, former American ambassador to Yemen, said in an interview that Rules of Engagement is another "Hollywood film and it is not fair."
    "It is a biased film that reinforces prejudice against Arabs," he added, and the way in which the women and children are portrayed "is not realistic, not believable, and a distortion." Rugh, who is now the president of AMIDEAST, an organization that promotes greater understanding of the Middle East among Americans, sees the film’s "misrepresentation" of Yemen as a product of ignorance. And the majority of Arabs would agree with his assertion that far greater efforts are needed to rectify such distorted perceptions.
    To say that Rules of Engagement is just a fictional presentation "is unacceptable", argues ADC Communications Director Hussein Ibish. He insists Hollywood studios have a "social responsibility."
    "They have certain standards, guidelines and limitations which are applied when other ethnic and racial groups are the subject of their fictional presentation." There is a need for "better understanding and sensitivity," Ibish pointed out in a recent interview. ADC, he revealed, sent a second letter to Paramount last week requesting a meeting to discuss issues related to the film. Ibish believes such meetings have had positive results in the case of other studios, resulting in films such as Three Kings and The 13th Warrior in which negative stereotyping of Arabs is minimal.
    Directed by William Friedkin, and based on an idea by James Webb III, a Reagan Administration member, Rules of Engagement received several notices criticizing the film’s explicit racism. It deliberately presents the events as having occurred in America’s recent history, which is why, Yemeni Ambassador to the US Abdel-Wahab Al-Hajjri points out, so many viewers ask, "When did this happen?"
    "All of a sudden Yemenis, even women and children, have become terrorists, and they want to kill Americans. This is outrageous," he complained.
    Pentagon participation in the film led the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to urge Secretary of Defense William Cohen to rectify his department’s policy to prevent the Pentagon from being associated with any future anti-Muslim stereotyping on screen. But last week, at the Pentagon’s regular briefing session, spokesman Kenneth Bacon explained that his department’s primary consideration is to make sure that "movies provide a fair and, hopefully accurate, portrayal of the military." He also said that studios "have a right to make the movies any way they want to make them. We pay attention to how they portray the military, when we decide whether to support the movie or not."
    With Rules of Engagement anti-Arab bigotry unfortunately continues. Some Arab activists believe that the issue has to be taken to court, while others, like Jack Shaheen, see it as part of a political agenda. During the peace process, after all, tolerance, understanding and sensitivity towards the concerns of others have been consistently demanded of the Arabs. Such sensitivity, though, has yet to be reciprocated.
This article originally appeared in Al-Ahram Weekl.

Yemen, Cast in US Film,
Give Angry Review

WASHINGTON - A key scene in… [the] box office hit, "Rules of Engagement," shows an angry mob outside the US Embassy in Yemen. US Marines scamper on the roof. One falls dead.
In the instant before a Marine colonel, played by Samuel L. Jackson, orders his men to fire into the crowd, he looks at the mob and sees Yemenite women and boys and girls firing rifles at them.
As the scene unfolded in a Washington movie theater yesterday, Yemen’s ambassador to the United States, Abdulwahab Al-Hajjri, cringed.
"A little girl shooting at Marines! Can you believe it?" Al-Hajjri said. "This movie reaches millions of people. It’s a total ruin for us. It ruins our image. Why Yemen? Even if we launch a public campaign, how do you fight Hollywood?’’
Paramount Picture’s portrayal of Arabs isn’t drawing the ire of just Yemenis. Hussein Ibish, spokesman for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said that "Rules of Engagement" was "probably the most racist film ever made against Arabs by Hollywood."
"It can only be compared to films like the ‘Birth of a Nation’ and ‘The Eternal Jew’ in so far as the principle purpose seems to be the demonization and vilification of an entire people," Ibish said.
In a statement yesterday, Paramount Pictures said: "‘Rules of Engagement’ is a dramatization and a fictional account of the consequences of extremism in all its forms. The film is not an indictment of any government, culture or people. Rather, it explores the human tragedy and consequences that can result when people of any society are put in extreme situations."
Paramount did not respond to a question from the Globe on why it decided to identify a country, and why it chose Yemen.
The movie, which was released April 7… is about upholding Marine honor in the line of fire. The story involves an evacuation of the US ambassador to Yemen in Sana’a under sniper fire, the Marines’ return of fire that kills 83 Yemenites, and court-martial proceedings of the colonel for ordering the shooting into the crowd. Tommy Lee Jones also stars in the film.
Hollywood’s negative portrayals of Arabs have long been a point of contention among Arab-Americans, many of whom believe it fuels the malicious image of Arabs as terrorists. The Arab Anti-Discrimination group has sharply criticized several other recent movies, including "The Siege" and "True Lies."
Ibish said "Rules of Engagement" will spark demonstrations in coming weeks in several cities. ‘‘They even stooped to portraying Arab children - even paralyzed little girls - as hateful, vicious anti-American fanatics,’’ he said.
But for Ambassador Al-Hajjri, the problem also includes his country’s image. For many Americans, the fictitious film will be their first exposure to Yemen - even though the film was shot at the other end of the Arab world, in Morocco.
The reality of Yemen, population 16 million, desperately poor, sitting on the southeastern tip of the Arabian peninsula, is that it may be a traveler’s last window into the all-but-disappeared Arab world of "The Thousand and One Nights." Sana’a boasts some of world’s most beautiful architecture, with many of its houses built in the 1600s.
Yemen also is not on the State Department’s list of countries sponsoring terrorism, and there have been no anti-American protests there recently…
In his 21/2 years in Washington, Al-Hajjri, 40, who received a master’s degree in law from American University, has tried to build Yemen’s reputation with the US public and administration.
But the movie, he fears, could be a huge setback in public perception.
The ambassador saw the movie for a second time so that he could read the fine print at the end of the film.
    With each scene, he kept muttering, "This is completely unrealistic."
    Finally, mercifully for him, the movie ended, and he stayed in his seat as the rest of the moviegoers filed out.
    "No one’s here to see the last line - that it’s all fiction," he said, looking around at the empty movie house.
This article was written by John Donnelly and appeared in the April 14, 2000, issue of the Boston Globe.


ADC also pointed out the following from a recent issue of the Chicago Tribune: "Wait until Islamic advocacy groups get a load of this. They’ve been protesting the Tommy Lee Jones-Sam Jackson movie ‘Rules of Engagement,’ taking issue with its portrayal of Muslim and Islamic peoples and images. Well, the man who directed the film, Chicago’s William Friedkin, is in talks to direct for Seven Arts the film version of ‘O Jerusalem!’, the 1972 book about the 1948 war between Arabs and Jews." All the more reason to make our view of "Rules of Engagement" clear to the widest possible audience, says ADC. For more information, including where to send letters of protest, visit ADC’s website <http://www.adc.org>. u

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