For years, Hollywood moviemakers have dramatized ethnicity and religious beliefs to deliver poignant messages about the times we live in. Whether through Steven Spielberg's Holocaust memorial "Schindler's List," the dramatization of slavery in "Roots," or the portrayal of a Roman Catholic priest's human failings in "The Thorn Birds," sensibly depicting the realities of politicoreligious behavior is critically important in educating Americans insulated from the rest of the world by two oceans and benign neighbors to the north and south.
So it was that Hollywood's latest offering "The Siege" - a movie that depicts, some say stereotypes, Arab-Americans and Muslims as terror-mongering fanatics - raised sufficient concerns for us as American Muslims to have a look for ourselves.
While the movie left powerful impressions on us about the branding of Arabs and Muslims as terrorists, the most powerful impression was that of a US government out of control and out of touch with the reality of its own complicity in creating the very conditions that have bred the modern-day terrorist.
We as Americans often forget that Osama bin Laden, the world's most notorious terrorist, is a product of the Afghan war against the Soviets - a war funded by, and run, under the direction of the CIA; a war in which America displayed its worst qualities of betrayal while championing its greatest cause, democracy. "The Siege" reminds us of these failures.
Showing Arab-Americans being herded like cattle and repeatedly cutting away to American Muslims in salaat (Islamic prayer) just before plotting against their next terrorist target was unnecessary to make the movie's central point - that we as Americans, no matter our ilk, should be deeply concerned about a single man (in this case, Bruce Willis portraying a maniacal Army general) claiming rights above the law or the Constitution no matter how grave the threat to our collective national security.
The movie sets up terrorist Trojan horse publicity victories like a sleazy daytime talk show. The FBI agent, played by Denzel Washington, powerfully describes this when he accuses Willis of being a big, white, American thug playing to a media circus. This is equally central to understanding why terrorism exists. Terrorists are essentially people whose egos have been trampled upon. Resorting to acts of violence that insure media attention is seen as the only remaining option for redressing their concerns.
Nevertheless, "The Siege" insures that certain truths remain self-evident. Faceless and nameless people, many of Palestinian or other Middle Eastern origins, have strapped bombs to themselves or driven bomb-laden vans on suicide missions killing thousands of innocents - all in the name of Islam. While this is an inaccurate picture of the religion, it highlights a reality of the modern day: the use of Islam to pursue personal political agendas.
Equally faceless and nameless people hidden deep beneath the surface of America's intelligence and foreign-policy apparatus have, for years, promulgated policy directives to encourage the rise of Islamic radicalism as a cold-war policy tool. Islamic radicals in each of the major front-line Soviet republics wreaked havoc on Communist hard-liners in Moscow in the final stages of the cold war.
Then when communism collapsed, the US used those very radicals as a prop to justify maintaining cold-war levels of military preparedness in protecting Americans against "new" threats to national security.
"The Siege" highlights a deep moral dilemma for all Americans, including the very Arab-Americans now demonstrating on Main Street USA - how best to address the legitimate threat posed by terrorists. Coping with terrorism, which is an affliction of the mind, cannot be effected by force.
Rather, Arab-Americans must educate more and more US policymakers about the realities of injustices, past and present, that underlie the hatred of America from afar rather than demonstrating in the streets about movie footage which represents the same travails experienced by many different ethnic communities that have come to these shores before them. They must hold American political leaders to the principle that democracy lets all voices be heard if articulated appropriately.
American Muslims of all ethnic backgrounds should encourage US policymakers to embrace Islam's emerging will to hold its most insidious followers accountable for their actions. Recent reports that Afghanistan's Taliban militia are prepared to put Mr. Laden on trial under Sharia law is a meaningful sign of self-correction and should be taken seriously.
Finally, Americans need to ask serious questions about the activities of US intelligence and foreign policy institutions when it comes to counterterrorism policy.
Is the US not breeding the very demons it so desperately seeks to destroy by bullying Islam's weaklings with our Tomahawk missiles?
Why does the US choose to repeatedly use Muslim countries - such as Afghanistan and Sudan - as proxies in wars they know little about, and then leave them to clean up in the aftermath?
For us, "The Siege," even with its obvious shortcomings, brought forth these much more important issues for the American people to ponder.
* Mansoor Ijaz, an American of Pakistani descent, negotiated Sudan's counterterrorism offer to the Clinton administration in early 1997. Haifa El Hajj, his wife, is a Palestinian Arab of Lebanese descent.