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The Cultural Context of Trump's Muslim Ban

By Fareed Marjaee


Liberal Hollywood opposes the Trump brand as crass and embarrassing of the American image. Nevertheless, perhaps Hollywood had a latent role in creating a cultural context which President Trump could rely on as a background for his utterance on Muslims and the "other."

The Globalist (liberal hawks, and the neocons) discourse rests on global "hegemony" and "exceptionalism". In that sense, the "interventionist war" is viewed as a prerogative, and reserved as an entitlement right.  But, ironically, legitimation for hegemony and the interventionist war rests on "enlightenment" values.  It is in this context that the Globalists and Hollywood clash with the Trump package.  They believe Trump's xenophobic populism has a vulgarity that embarrasses and undermines the Globalist standing in the world, and hence, impacts foreign policy. 

Understandably, most people don't internalize their ethos and belief system from academic lectures, but from popular media programs that are accessible to all. It is suggested that the dominant paradigm is shaped by the mass media.  The recent "reality shows" espouse a competitive, frontier, social Darwinist paradigm. The entertainment industry (i.e. films, TV programs) provides a "story". And because people identify with the "story", an emotional context for political actors and situations is created.  Through the emotionally charged experience of a narrative (fear, kindness, hurt, sacrifice), ideology seeps into the subconscious of the viewer.

Often the emotional bond behind the belief system overrides any counterposing rational evidence.  For example, in the past 40 years no Iranian individual has engaged in terrorist activities in Europe or the US, but they are included in the recent immigration ban.  Perhaps Sally Field's film "Not Without My Daughter" has done more to shape opinion/emotion about Iran than the writings of Edward Said and Noam Chomsky did.

Trump's close advisor Steve Bannon had earlier said that Europe has been invaded by Muslim refugees and immigrants; subsequently, he believes that America should avoid the fate of Europe. It is mentioned that Bannon likes the way Michael Moore approaches the narrative of his documentaries. In other words, he realizes how important films and TV programs are in influencing social discourse.  Previously a naval officer and later with Goldman Sachs, Bannon started producing films. His "Torchbearer" is the quintessential dooms day scenario, in line with his ideology.  

When we critically observe several TV series and films produced in the past 10 years, we realize they have some features in common- an implicit Islamophobia, and the justification for the "ticking bomb" theory.  The "ticking bomb" scenario is a situation where we know there is a bomb in an undisclosed location.  And the detainee at hand might know the location of the bomb; hence, the use of torture is considered justifiable in order to diffuse the bomb and save lives. These programs and films make torture seem normal and acceptable.

In the TV series called 24, the Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo plays the role of Dina Araz, a Muslim terrorist. In real life Aghdashloo considers herself as part of the Iranian democratic opposition; yet, in Hollywood she takes on a role reinforcing the stereotype of the Muslim terrorist.  Interestingly enough, the right winger late Justice Scalia had once mentioned Jack Bauer, the counter-terrorist lead character in the TV series 24, who was not very concerned about the morality of his methods. The character Jack Bauer is played by actor Kiefer Sutherland.  In a way, Sutherland as a person has become the agency for reactionary and violent ethos. The Irony is that Sutherland's maternal grandfather in Canada (Tommy Douglas) was one of the founders of the NDP (New Democratic Party) that espoused social justice and solidarity.  Tommy Douglas, a left leaning Baptist minister is widely credited for bringing universal health care to Canada.

In season 3 (2013) of Homeland, an Iranian intelligence officer has supposedly financed the bombing of Langley in the US.  A double agent Brody is sent to Iran to assassinate the head of the Revolutionary Guard.  Carrie Mathisan is again an (attractive female) undercover CIA operations officer, directing this operation in the field.

In NCIS, the Chilean actress Cote de Pablo plays the role of a female Israeli agent (Ziva David) who is on the side of the good guys and has come to us to save America from the Muslim terrorists. In this program Ziva's father is also the head of the Israeli intelligence.  In one episode, Ziva is captured and tortured by terrorists, but she is rescued by another agent.  In terms of paradigm, often the work of film is to establish an emotional connection and humanize a group, but also to de-familiarize and exoticize another.

In the film, Zero Dark Thirty . . . the actress Jessica Chastian plays Maya, an attractive fictional CIA intelligence analyst who is assigned to the US embassy in Pakistan. She occasionally goes to Black Sites to observe the interrogation and torture of a detainee.  It is claimed that some of the characters are based on real life.  The film Zero Dark Thirty did very well and won awards in Hollywood.

James Baldwin, a cultural critique and a leading voice in the Civil Rights movement, once said, "At a young age it comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you."

As a side note, a recent New York Times article reports that the CIA clandestine officer Gina Haspel who oversaw the torture of two terrorism suspects, and later took part in destroying the video recordings of the sessions has been promoted to deputy director of the CIA under the Trump Administration.

On the surface, the attractive female agent/ interrogator role fits well with the "aujourd" feminist ethos- of all professional positions being open to women. Yet, in the unhealthy Hollywood- entertainment-culture, the combination of "power" and "woman" is sexy.  The subliminal subtext insinuates the suggestive dominatrix and S & M situation (for the benefit of the viewer) where the woman can dominate and act upon the subject. In real life, the AbuGhurab incidents reached the zenith of this scenario- our female soldier raping the enemy. On that subject, Joseph Massad wrote, "[T]he type of power that feminizes its object in order to violate her . . . 'imperial military culture super masculinizes not only its own male soldiers, but also its female soldiers who can partake in the feminization of Iraqi men'."  In her book "The Terror Dream", the feminist and culture critique, Susan Faludi deliberates on national security, the media's creation of the "female Rambo", the ass-kicking tough girl raped by "savage Arabs".

It was with this charged image of Muslims that some right wing radio hosts and websites were accusing Barak Obama of being a Muslim during his presidency; that was supposedly enough to delegitimize his persona.

In addition to that, the more recent TV Reality Shows such as, for example, Trump's Apprentice, project the Social Darwinist themes of- the winner takes all; the weak is the loser; win at any cost - help establish a subliminal belief system that would accommodate predatory and dominating policy.

This is not what Jurgen Habermas had in mind, when he discussed the concept of "Communicative Wisdom" as the agency for progress of civil society.  As responsible citizens or human beings, we should not become passive clients of predatory and prejudiced TV programs. We should resist the entertainment that devalues some and is divisive.

Politically speaking, the Globalists are interested in the predominance of NATO, Exceptionalism and Hegemony (cultural and military). Globalists see interventionist wars (or threat of violence) as necessary.  Yet, domestically they connect to a more cosmopolitan ethos. In their alliance with the Globalists, some Hollywood productions clearly adhere to a liberal image and identity, but through ideological projection would go so far as culturally justify occasional interventionist wars.  But, Trump's nationalism and xenophobia seems to embarrass the liberal image of the Globalists in the cultural matrix of the global order. So, they clash.

* NCIS (Navy Crime Investigation Service)

About the author: Fareed Marjaee is a writer and commentator. He can be reached at

... Payvand News - 03/02/17 ... --

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