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November 15, 2019

Hollywood, Bollywood and Islamophobia

Opinion

November 15, 2019

Thanks to my solitary existence, I end up spending hours watching television. I keep telling myself to do something useful and worthwhile like read a book or go for a walk. But, as many of you would agree, it’s not easy resisting the charms of the idiot box that has become an essential part of our lives.

I am mostly hooked to Indian and international news networks and Pakistani soaps. ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ are some of the other addictive weaknesses. They transport you to a fascinating world that is fantastic yet curiously believable. In between, sometimes I tune in to Murdoch’s Star World and its staples like ‘24’ and ‘Homeland’ starring Kiefer Sutherland and Claire Danes as their chief warriors, saving America – and the world.

True to what has become a permanent feature and trend of Hollywood productions over the past many years, both these primetime dramas are inspired by America’s ceaseless war on terror. Week after week, the battle-hardened crusaders of the twin thrillers put their lives on the line to go after baddies who are invariably Arabs and Muslims and are hell-bent on wreaking havoc on poor America and the rest of the free world.

The plots are almost always predictable and storylines often flimsy, playing as they invariably do on the hackneyed, done-to-death stereotypes about crazy, bigoted Arabs and Muslim fanatics whose single mission in life is to wreak vengeance on the West and blow themselves up with the rest of the world. However, the slick execution and masterful storytelling by the best of Hollywood brains ensures that the audience remains perpetually on the edge of the seat, panting for more, week after week.

Even Priyanka Chopra, the Bollywood heartthrob and dusky former Miss World from India, has jumped on the bandwagon with ‘Quantico’ in which she plays the lead of Alex Parrish, one of the few bright FBI agents training at the Quantico Base in Virginia. No prizes for guessing that the predominant theme of ‘Quantico’ also remains the same – fighting so-called Islamist terror.

The question is: why are the US and its dream merchants so hopelessly obsessed with the bogey of “Islamic terrorism?” You could argue that they are merely mirroring the reality of a world that is inhabited by the crazies of Daesh and their cousins and their antics around the world, most recently in cities like Paris and Brussels.

Of course, it’s not possible to argue with the fact that extremist violence has emerged as a clear and present danger to the civilized world. But this is not the only existential threat facing humanity. There are many, more problems out there that are far too serious in nature and totally outweigh the threat posed by extremists.

The threat of nuclear holocaust, for instance, hangs like the Damocles’ sword over the world what with the US, its Nato allies and Russia and China sitting over mountains of nukes. Each one of them is capable of destroying our world many times over. And we aren’t even talking about late arrivals like Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea whose capacity to inflict grief isn’t any less potent.

No one is underestimating the threat posed by terrorist groups like Daesh and Al-Qaeda, whose acts are actually against Islam and doing more harm to Muslims than anybody else. But the total number of lives that extremists have claimed, beginning from 9/11 to the recent Brussels bombing, does not go beyond a few thousands. The twin US nuclear strikes, on the other hand, managed to kill hundreds and thousands of innocent unsuspecting people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Even after all the elaborate farce of nuclear disarmament agreements and non-proliferation treaties, the deadly arsenal that is at the disposal of the world powers represents a threat which is unimaginable and on a scale that is incomparable with the one posed by terrorism. There’s simply no comparison.

Yet you have no spooks chasing the baddies threatening to wipe out the world with nukes, or plotting against each other’s military installations and WMDs as had been the case throughout the cold war. Clearly, as Samuel Huntington effectively argued, with the demise of the Soviet Union and Communism, the only threat that matters to the West is that of Islam.

Another existential threat that remains largely ignored by the creative minds of Hollywood dream machine is that of global warming and how humanity is marching, eyes wide shut, to its extinction, thanks to the reckless abuse of natural resources by the industrialized world.The alarmingly fast-rising global temperatures and sea levels, melting polar ice and the chaotic global weather patterns all point to the fact that our time is nearly up. Yet none of these threats seem to matter to those tasked with the responsibility of saving the world. More importantly, for all the havoc unleashed by the extremists, it is nothing compared to what Western wars and ‘interventions’ have visited on the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world.

The Iraq invasion alone claimed more than a million lives, leaving behind a country that is still reeling from the shock and awe of ‘liberation’ and ‘human freedom’ gifted by Bush and company. Secondly, notwithstanding America’s grand, enduring obsession with ‘Islamist terror’, there has been no major terror attack on US soil since 9/11. Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda has been nearly wiped out. Indeed, if it’s any consolation, it is Muslim countries like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and even Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which have been bleeding at the hands of extremists on a daily basis.

Yet in the world of alternate reality spawned by the thrillers like 24, Homeland, Quantico and their European and Indian versions, it is always Muslims who are the aggressors and villains. There is no attempt to balance their narrative and ‘storytelling’ by trying to explore and explain the motives and causes of radicalization of their uni-dimensional Muslim characters. Always fierce and fearsome with ridiculously long beards, they are more like caricatures, forever spewing venom and mouthing hateful inanities.

Following the glorious tradition of Hollywood, India’s Bollywood has also been churning out the similar apocalyptic fare for some years now. In Indian cinema’s case though, the imagined threat is more immediate and from across the border. Of course, all good art is inspired by life. And it’s perhaps only natural that reel life is beginning to reflect real life. However, what if this so-called reality is dangerously twisted and distorted, perpetually demonizing a particular faith and community?

If Islamophobia has emerged as a serious problem in the West and elsewhere, a great deal of credit for that goes to dramas like ‘24’ and ‘Homeland’ and the ‘war on terror’ Hollywood style.

The history of caricaturing Arabs and Muslims is almost as old as Hollywood itself and this is no time to go into it. Right now though it’s as if there is a feeding frenzy, with just about everyone jumping in to fight the specter of ‘Islamist terror’.

The question is, how do we check this wholesale demonisation and willful vilification of an entire community in the name of fighting terror? The victims themselves have done little so far to confront the trend despite its visible, catastrophic consequences. There are 56 Muslim countries and there is no dearth of financial or human resources in the Muslim world either. Why then has this critical front been so hopelessly neglected for so long? Today, battles of perceptions and hearts and minds are as critical as those fought on the battlefield. No individuals or groups can afford to remain mute spectators as they are portrayed as bloodthirsty fiends, week after week.

The writer is an independent writer and former editor.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @AijazZaka

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