My son is a video games-fanatic. What makes me uneasy watching him though is the fact that despite being a pacifist by nature and sweet as an angel, he relishes playing those freakishly violent video games on his Sony PlayStation. Most games involve chasing and bashing up of the baddies. And since most of these games originate in the land of the free, most of the games are dictated by the simplistic, With-Us or Against-Us, black and white doctrine propounded and popularised by you know who. Not surprisingly, the enemies are almost always the Muslims.
Often, while he’s hopelessly lost in his fictional world, with eyes glued to the computer screen and a sly, mischievous smile on his face, I try to remind him that all this is in the realm of imagination and “terrorists” do not always behave the way they are shown to do in the videos.
‘This is just a game, you know,’ I tell him. Things are not what they seem to be in the movies and videogames. The Arabs and Muslims are not the rogues they are made out to be in the make-believe world of Hollywood. Reality is a little more complex, I try to reason with my son. He grunts in response.
But I continue to worry about the impression all this must be making on his tender, impressionable mind. What if he grows up loathing his own people, beliefs and values?
Come to think of it, what impact those disturbingly violent, sick video games must be making on the impressionable young minds – and those of adults – in America, Europe and around the world?
The lampooning and demonisation of Arabs and Muslims in popular Western culture is as old as Hollywood, in fact even older.
The late Arab American philosopher and a passionate champion of the Palestinian cause, Edward Said, God bless his soul, wrote and spoke extensively on the issue, including in his 1978 groundbreaking classic, Orientalism. Said argued that the Western approach to the Orient or Muslim East recreates Islamic society as a “timeless, exotic entity.”
Through fine arts, literature and culture, the Orientalists presented the “Middle East” in a naïve and historicising way, divorcing it from ‘modernity’ and perpetually locking it away in a time warp. Subtly patronised, the Arab-Muslim world is projected as a fairyland only peopled by bedouins, djinns, belly dancers, ruthless and crazy sheikhs and their large harems. So even though it happens to be the birthplace of three great religions and cradle of human civilisation, the Middle East is painted as a place without history, culture and untouched by modernity. As Bushra Karaman notes, “the Arab world – 22 countries and hundreds of years of history – is reduced to a few simplistic images.”
However, the distortion of the Middle Eastern reality has undergone a watershed change since 9/11. Gone is the subtlety of the spin. In fact, in our terrorised times, it is an open but undeclared war on the world of Islam.
And this is done not just by way of Hollywood daily television twaddle like Kiefer Sutherland-starrer 24 but with a constant blitz of murderous video games.
Video games like Prince of Persia, Arabian Nights, Al-Qadim and The Magic of Scheherazade tapped into the reservoir of these familiar and hackneyed stereotypes about the Arabs and Muslims.
There’s a whole industry out there churning out video games and movies that have turned the hunting of Arabs and Muslims into a bloody, spectator sport.
Over the past few years, there has been a deluge of these so-called games that encourage and egg you, or the gamer, to go fight the “terrorists” and save the world by taking out one Arab/Muslim after another. It’s real, good fun!
The Middle East is the virtual battleground in most of these games such as War in the Gulf, Delta Force, Conflict: Desert Storm, Full Spectrum Warrior, Kuma/War and Conflict: Global Terror.
The player controls American or broad Western coalition forces, while enemy units are controlled by the computer. The enemy is depicted by a set of schematised attributes referring to Arabs or Muslims – head cover, loose clothes and dark skin etc.
The narrative links the characters to “international terrorism and/or Islamist extremism. Delta Force: Land Warrior, for instance, creates a scenario in which Arabs from several countries have banded into a terrorist organisation to destroy the US and the West (Al-Qaeda?). Full Spectrum Warrior is set in the fictional, Muslim country of ‘Tazikhstan’ that is a “haven for terrorists and extremists” (Pakistan?).
Not surprisingly, the US and coalition soldiers are a paragon of virtue and humanised and individualised with names to help the gamer identify with the ‘heroes’, the enemy is a faceless, collectivised monster, often described as ‘various terrorist groups’, the insurgents and the militants’. While the coalition soldiers are fighting to promote grand goals like “freedom, justice and democracy”, the enemy is alien and not a ‘real’ soldier, removing the legitimacy of or justification for their actions. No attempt is made to understand or explore the motives of the ‘terrorists’.
While in some cases, this “war for hearts and minds” is subtle and clever, it’s often crude and unabashedly open in inviting you to eliminate the ‘enemy’.
For instance, Muslim Massacre, that came out in 2008 to mark the September 11 anniversary, is a simple game of modern religious genocide. It’s a top-down, shoot ‘em up sport whose aim is to kill all ‘Muslim terrorists’ that appear on the screen sporting suicide vests.
Right now a new game, Medal of Honor, is right now in the news for all the wrong reasons. Its release this week has run into a huge storm of protests in the US. Not because of its violent content but for the fact that the gamers are allowed to assume the avatar of the Taliban and fight the US soldiers in the imagined killing fields of Afghanistan.
Some families of US soldiers have gone on the ‘fair and balanced’ Fox News to complain that it’s “disrespectful” to allow players to play as the ‘enemy’ and “shoot back” at US soldiers.
Karen Meredith, mother of a fallen soldier, protested: “War is not a game, period. Families who are burying their children are going to be seeing this and playing this game. I just don’t see that a video game based on a current war makes any sense at all.”
It doesn’t indeed. What about the other side though? Is it okay to play with the sentiments of the Afghan, Iraqi, Palestinian and Pakistani families? Aren’t they burying their children on a daily basis?
And we are not talking of just one game. Most American children and adults – and others around the world, have grown up watching such violent and dangerous games that not just induce hatred and bigotry but poison and scar young, impressionable minds forever.
Is it any wonder then there is so much hatred, suspicion and plain ignorance about the Arabs and Muslims in the West? Is it any wonder then that the yawning chasm between Islam and the West continues to grow by the day to dangerous proportions?
For their part, Arab and Muslim countries have paid little attention to this dangerous and constant war on their image and perception, let alone doing something to check this shocking distortion of reality or present their side of the story.
For this is not just about setting records straight or presenting the Arab and Muslim reality before the world. Our very identity and future are threatened.
In today’s world of 24/7 news television and saturation by all sorts of media coverage, wars happen more in the mind, rather than the real battlefield. Most decisions and actions of the movers and shakers of this world are informed, motivated and shaped by perception, rather than reality.
For while facts are sacred, as C P Scott would argue, perception is also, if not equally, important. And we Muslims have neglected this front for far too long to our peril. This is a war of ideas that we just can’t afford to lose.