As Twentieth Century Fox's action-thriller "The Siege" opens across the country today, American Muslims have planned demonstrations against a film they claim is deliberately prejudicial and provocative.
Among its troubling aspects, the movie, in which New York City is placed under martial law during a hunt for Muslim terrorists, shows Arab-Americans being herded into a detention camp.
"It demonizes Arab-Americans deeply and completely," charges Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington. "And it's done with a seriousness of intent that we haven't seen before."
Mr. Ibish says the film presents American Muslims as a single, homogeneous, threatening mass, within which are maniacal terrorists whose aim is to kill as many people as possible - for vague reasons. He adds, "I will be pleasantly surprised if there are no hate crimes [against Muslims] in the wake of this film."
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Washington has asked for peaceful picketing of the film for similar reasons, says spokesman Ibrahim Hooper. He points to scenes in "The Siege" that connect the everyday rituals of Muslim life with terrorism. "We see recitation from the Koran [the Muslim holy text], the normal daily supplication being done by terrorists, and the normal pre-prayer washing ... done by terrorists" and immediately followed by violence, he says. This juxtaposition unfairly indicts every Muslim in this country, he adds.
The film's director, Edward Zwick, has commented publicly that he believes the film sends an antiviolence message by depicting the predicament of American Muslims whose sincere religious beliefs are met with prejudice and repression as officials respond to terrorism. Beyond that, says the director, the film is only depicting, not creating, a reality.
American Muslims have been concerned about the release of "The Siege" for months. As a result of early pressure from various Islamic groups, changes in both the script and promotional trailers were made. Twentieth Century Fox has issued a statement saying it has gone the extra mile to accommodate the groups' concerns. The statement makes clear that although the film is meant as entertainment it was also made with the intention of creating a dialogue about racism and prejudice. The statement concludes by saying "the film is anti-prejudice and shows the tragic consequences of racism."
CAIR's Mr. Hooper says the filmmakers have a special moral responsibility when dealing with sensitive issues such as terrorism and religious convictions.
"The Siege" abdicates that responsibility, he says, by giving "Islam this foreign, exotic image that isn't based in reality." The daily reality for the 6 million American Muslims is going to school and work, paying taxes, and making a contribution to society, Hooper says: "It's not blowing up things."