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Islamic Council Protests Timing of 'The Siege'

Movies: Political relations group protests Twentieth Century Fox's upcoming drama about terrorist bombings in U.S.

August 25, 1998|JUDITH I. BRENNAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the wake of the recent bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa tied to a Muslim extremist group, and the U.S.' subsequent bombings in the Sudan and Afghanistan, the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations is protesting Twentieth Century Fox's coming Edward Zwick film, "The Siege," as a dangerous and stereotypical depiction of Muslim Americans.

The council, which has scheduled a press conference at noon Wednesday across from the studio, claims the film portrays U.S. Muslims as a terrorist threat. A spokesman said the group is particularly concerned in the wake of the Aug. 7 embassy bombings being tied to Osama Bin Laden, who heads a disparate group of Islamic forces.

The basic plot line of "The Siege," scheduled for a Nov. 6 release, centers on a Muslim bombing campaign that provokes the American military to declare martial law. The military then rounds up American Arabs and Muslims of a certain age in Brooklyn and detains them, echoing the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

The film, starring Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis, Annette Bening and Tony Shalhoub, is set in New York, which was the site of a terrorist bombing in 1993 at the World Trade Center. Muslim militants believed linked to Bin Laden were found to be responsible.

What sparked CAIR's concern, the group said, were many calls and faxes from American Arabs and Muslims who are upset by the current theatrical trailer for the film.

CAIR's biggest complaint, said its spokesman, Ibraham Hooper, is about a scene showing Muslims praying in a New York mosque juxtaposed with bombings and acts of violence.

"The way those scenes play back to back shows you have violence in [the Mideast] coming to America, and it's coming through mosques," Hooper said. "We are worried about a backlash."

Hooper said there could not be "a worse possible time for this movie, particularly with nerves raw all around the world. [Fox and the filmmakers'] line is that this is actually an anti-stereotyping film. . . . We do not believe they are being disingenuous. We don't think they realize the level of prejudice that exists."

Fox supports Zwick's concern that CAIR and others may be misreading the intent of his film. In fact, the studio says, the purpose of the film is to show how America can be quick to rush to judgment on other nationalities and religious sects.

"The point of this movie is to take a hard look at this country, our country, its prejudices, its stereotyping and oppression," Zwick said. "I didn't make the world, and the events of the last couple of weeks are as sad and frightening as they can be. But not talking about these things is the worst thing we can do--to deny the function of art to be provocative is just as oppressive and wrong."

Hooper said CAIR has had dialogue with the filmmakers since the first of the year. After it obtained a copy of the script (formerly titled "Martial Law" and "Against All Enemies"), the council began taking issue with different plot points, character depictions and lines of dialogue. All issues had to do with how Muslim Americans and Arab Americans are portrayed.

CAIR listed 20 "gratuitously offensive" portions of the script, including references to Arabs as "dark skinned" and "swarthy"; lines such as "Being a Palestinian is also a . . . profession. A lucrative one," and "We are the whores of the Middle East." The script also had an Arab taxi driver refusing to pick up a black passenger, and had a key Muslim character swearing profusely.

"They put in a good Muslim character and then they have him drinking and swearing and that is not what any good, practicing Muslim would do," Hooper said. "First, they tried to say that was just a portrayal of a modern Muslim. But they told me they would change that."

CAIR also noted eight points where the characters are portrayed as "lecherous, threatening, misogynistic, fanatic, exotic, foreign infiltrators who lust after 'Baywatch' and 'American' liberties."

The council also charged the filmmakers with being excessively influenced by pro-Israeli consultants.

In April, "The Siege" producer Lynda Obst wrote a letter to the council saying that some of the offending dialogue had been removed, but said that the larger scope of the film would remain unchanged. She noted that some of the scenes already had been shot and locked "for over a year." She called CAIR's accusations of an Israeli view "preposterous," adding that neither she nor Zwick had any political agenda, and that the Israeli point of view, in some cases, "would [be] characterized as a generally held American point of view, right or wrong.

"We are deeply saddened that the very essence of our story, in which the conflict in the Middle Eastern war reaches our shores, has ideological baggage for you," she wrote to the council. But, she said, "We cannot undo years of American thinking about the Middle East in one movie. But we can and will resist stereotypes wherever possible. In service to our mutually stated desires to mitigate any negative characterizations, we will endeavor to make as mamy nonsystemic changes as are practical given the process and our stage in it."

Fox has been criticized in the past by CAIR for other films, including "True Lies," which portrayed Arabs as terrorists.

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