Can you really call them games, the kind my son loves to play all the time? And despite being a pacifist by nature and sweet as an angel, he seems to relish playing those violent video games on his Sony PlayStation. Most games involve chasing and bashing up of the baddies. And since most games originate in the land of the free, they are shaped by the simplistic, With-Us or-Against-Us doctrine propounded by, you know who. Not surprisingly, almost always the ‘enemy’ is from the Middle East.
Some times while he’s lost in his fantasyland, with eyes glued to computer screen and a divine smile playing on his lips, I try to remind my boy 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. 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 himself, his own people, beliefs and values? Come to think of it, what impact those freakish video games must be making on the impressionable young minds—and those of adults — in the West and elsewhere? The lampooning and demonisation of Arabs and Muslims in popular Western culture is as old as the Hollywood, in fact even older.
The late Arab American philosopher and a passionate champion of the Palestinians, Edward Said, God bless his soul, wrote and spoke extensively on the issue, including in his 1978 classic, Orientalism. Said argued that Western approach to the Orient or Muslim East recreated Islamic society as a “timeless, exotic entity.”
Through 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 peopled by Bedouins, belly dancers, djinns, slaves, swarthy sheikhs and their large harems. So despite being the birthplace of three great religions and cradle of civilisation, the Middle East is portrayed as a place without history, culture and untouched by modernity. As Bushra Karaman notes, “22 (Arab) countries and hundreds of years of history (are) reduced to a few simplistic images.” A good example is Disney’s blockbuster fantasy, Arabian Nights, which opens with the song:
Oh, I come from a land,
From a faraway place,
Where the caravan camels roam,
Where they cut off your ear
If they don‘t like your face,
It‘s Barbaric, but hey, it‘s home.
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 the Hollywood, television twaddle like the Kiefer Sutherland-starrer ‘24’ but by a constant blitz of murderous video games.
Games like Prince of Persia, Arabian Nights, Al-Qadim and The Magic of Scheherazade tap into the reservoir of these familiar and hackneyed stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims. In fact, there’s a whole industry out there churning out games and movies that have turned the hunting of Arabs and Muslims into a spectator sport.
Over the past few years, there has been a deluge of such 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. The Middle East is the virtual battleground of 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 portrayed with a set of broad, schematised attributes like 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 together 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.” Ring a bell?
Predictably, the US and coalition soldiers are a collective paragon of virtue and humanised with names to help the gamer identify with the ‘good guys.’ And the enemy is a faceless, collectivised monster, often described as terrorist groups, insurgents and militants.
While the coalition is fighting for grand ideals like freedom, justice and democracy, the enemy is alien and not a ‘real’ soldier, removing the legitimacy of or justification for his actions. No attempt is made to explain or explore the motives of the ‘terrorists’. While in some cases, this hearts-and-minds war is subtle and clever, it’s often crude, unabashedly open, inviting you to eliminate the ‘enemy.’
Recently a new game, Medal of Honor, was in the news for all the wrong reasons. Its release ran into a 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 Taleban and fight US soldiers in the killing fields of Afghanistan.
Some families of US soldiers went on Fox News to complain it’s disrespectful to allow gamers 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. It makes no sense at all.”
Indeed, it doesn’t. 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’s so much hatred, suspicion and plain ignorance about the Arabs and Muslims in the West today? Is it any wonder the Islam-West chasm continues to grow by the day?
For their part, Arab and Muslim countries have paid little attention to this dangerous war on their image and perception, let alone do something to check this distortion of reality. For this is not just about setting record straight or presenting the Arab-Muslim side of the story. Their very identity and future may be threatened.
In the world of 24/7 news television and saturation media coverage, wars happen in the theatre of mind, rather than in real battlefield. And decisions and actions of movers and shakers of this world are informed and shaped by perception, rather than reality. For while facts are sacred, as CP Scott would argue, perception is also, if not equally, important. The Muslims have neglected this front for far too long to their peril. This is a war of ideas that they just can’t afford to lose.