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Hollywood Vs. Islam

How can Hollywood help improve the image of the United States among the world’s Muslims?

November 21, 2001

How can Hollywood help improve the image of the United States among the world's Muslims?

Hollywood has always been a confusing place as far as politics is concerned. Everybody knows that Hollywood is Democratic and left-leaning, right? But when one of its own made it to the top of the country’s political ladder, he led a conservative revival in American politics. That one was Ronald Reagan, of course.

Movie stars and studio moguls were prominent among Bill Clinton’s supporters, and the Clinton White House typically had as many paparazzi hanging around as news photographers. Yet, aside from Richard Gere — and his support for an independent Tibet — the nationally and internationally best-known political spokesman hailing from Hollywood is Charlton Heston of the National Rifle Association.

Of course, Hollywood is more interested in image-making, not substance or policy. Early in his White House days, President Clinton was billed as the second coming of John F. Kennedy — complete with youth, charm, fresh ideas and philandering.

There was even a photograph of a teenage Bill shaking hands with JFK. And, since the Kennedys were famous for their friendship with Hollywood stars, so it was that the stars of the 1990s flocked to the Clinton White House.

Fast forward to a different world. On September 11, 2001, the United States was attacked by a foreign enemy for only the second time in its history, and it suddenly found itself in a new war of national defense. Official rhetoric has been reminiscent of World War II, complete with references to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech. President Bush has warned Americans about the long and difficult task ahead — and has asked them to bear sacrifices.

The parallel with World War II inevitably revived memories of Hollywood’s role in that conflict. Frank Capra made movies to prop up morale, numerous entertainers performed before U.S. troops, and band leader Glenn Miller even perished in a plane crash while entertaining in Europe.

Given those historic precedents, how can today’s celebrities resist the temptation to step into the shoes of those yesteryear legends?

Of course, it would be amusing if Paul Anka or Paula Abdul, famous singers of Arab descent — who made it big in the United States — went to Pakistan or Uzbekistan to perform before American GIs-just as Marlene Dietrich did after defecting from Hitler’s Germany. She became the favorite entertainer of America’s fighting men.

One area where Hollywood was extremely helpful during World War II was selling to the American public the anti-Hitler alliance with Stalinist Russia.

Americans waited 16 years, until 1933, to recognize the Soviet government. Repression, purges and show trials in the Soviet Union were regularly reported by the U.S. media. Then, suddenly, Stalin became a pivotal member of the worldwide coalition against Nazism.

Hollywood helped turn skeptical U.S. public opinion by churning out movies such as the 1943 drama “Mission to Moscow,” which portrayed murderous Kremlin leaders in as good a light as they themselves could have wished.

Perhaps the American public has become more sophisticated since then — or merely more cynical. Somehow it would seem a waste of time to make a propaganda movie presenting such characters as the Saudi royal family, Pakistani military leaders or ex-communist potentates ruling Uzbekistan as today’s heroes.

There is of course work to be done to improve America’s image among the world’s Muslims — in the Middle East, Pakistan and elsewhere. After all, crowds chanting “Death to America” have regularly resonated from television screens since the taking of U.S. hostages in Iran in 1979.

Some of the most disturbing footage following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States were scenes of street celebrations from Jakarta to Jericho. Surely Hollywood could help there?

The truth is that Hollywood is more a part of the problem than of the solution. Average people everywhere in the Third World, not only in Muslim countries, know next to nothing about America from first-hand experience. Few have visited the United States or know much about its politics, culture or economic system. What they do know comes from the modern window to the world — the television set.

But television everywhere in the world — even now in Afghanistan again — is saturated with American movie programming. According to the World Bank, over 20% of the world’s population owns a television set which means that the potential audience of people actually having access to Hollywood influence is as high as 80%.

As Hollywood executives are always happy to point out, the world loves to watch their productions — from TV series such as “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” “Oprah,” “Survivor” and “Baywatch” to mainstream movies.

In the 1960s and 1970s, at least some American movies were critical of the American way of life and explored such controversial subjects as poverty, social degradation, racism and domination of Big Business in society.

Not any more. Today’s Hollywood fare tends to eschew social commentary. And when it does, it pits good against evil, the side that is fair, tolerant, generous and compassionate vs. the side that is none of the above. Needless to say, the good guys are invariably American, the bad guys, anybody else. One does not even have to ask who usually wins.

If even after having been fed a steady stream of this kind of Hollywood production those Muslims still don’t absolutely adore the United States, surely they must be beyond redemption.