The trailer for the upcoming political thriller Beirut, starring Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, is a tour de force of tired and dehumanizing Arab stereotypes. The film tells the story of a U.S. diplomat (Hamm) trying to negotiate the release of a colleague from the clutches of violent extremists during Lebanon’s fifteen-year civil war. The trailer cycles through nearly the entire pantheon of orientalist Hollywood clichés, closing with perhaps one of the most harmful and widespread. After countless shots of crazed Arab violence, Hamm drops the film’s tagline: “Two thousand years of revenge, vendetta, murder… welcome to Beirut.”
This ahistorical portrayal of Lebanon’s past as one of eternal religious warfare lasting millennia is a common trope used to decontextualize modern conflict throughout the Middle East and give audiences the impression that these people (Arabs, Muslims, etc.) are inherently backwards, fanatical, and violent. This essentialist narrative of ancient religious hatred and perpetual violence fuels racism and Islamophobia and justifies misguided Western policies toward the Middle East and North Africa that ignore the root causes of conflict and often reinforce sectarian divides.
Beirut, the film, is set in 1982, as Lebanon was entering the seventh year of its civil war, the causes of which were anything but ancient. Much like other parts of the world, Lebanon has been the site of various periods of cooperation and conflict between diverse religious communities. Intercommunal relations in the country have constantly been in flux, driven by transformations in demographics, power structures, and economics and exacerbated by external interference by regional and global powers hoping to exploit sectarian differences for their own benefit.
Far from being the latest phase of an ancient cycle of sectarian revenge, the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) was the result of thoroughly modern factors, including rapid urbanization and social change, major demographic shifts that were not reflected in the country’s confessional political system, and destabilizing foreign interference by Israel and the PLO (among others) that tied Lebanon’s fortune to the dynamics of contemporary regional conflicts.
Despite the various causes, Beirut’s tagline treats the civil war as something endemic to Lebanon. This mindset is one regularly used by media and politicians to denigrate people and decontextualize events across the Middle East. According to this narrative, anti-Americanism in Iran is a result of primordial hostility to the West rather than of U.S. support for the Shah’s brutal regime and the CIA-backed coup in 1953 that removed Iran’s democratically elected prime minister and reinstated the Shah. Likewise, the appeal of Sunni Islamist movements in Syria is seen as the product of an ancient religious feud rather than as a result of the Assad regime’s sectarian stratification of society and marginalization of the Sunni majority.
This essentialist narrative is most frequently applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Pundits and politicians have constantly characterized this thoroughly modern conflict as a biblical struggle fueled by ancient religious hatreds. According to this false narrative, Palestinian opposition to Israel is simply a result of a natural and timeless hatred of Jews. In reality, however, the conflict is primarily a result of the modern state of Israel’s continuous efforts to occupy and ethnically cleanse historic Palestine of its native population.
These myths of primordial hatred are nothing new. For centuries, orientalist scholars have attributed modern phenomena in the Middle East to ancient rivalries, as meticulously documented by Edward Said in his groundbreaking study Orientalism.
Today, these harmful narratives are alive and well, in Hollywood studios, newsrooms, and the halls of power. In his final State of the Union address, former U.S. President Barack Obama tapped into this trope, declaring that, “the Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” As Max Fisher wrote at the time for Vox, “The Middle East’s conflicts almost all date to within the past century, and many have their roots within Obama’s own lifetime.” Fisher argued that Obama’s line was “reductive and cynical because it paints a picture of the Middle East as perpetually at war because people there are just different.” Needless to say, the current U.S. administration has no qualms about perpetuating this orientalist myth.
By whitewashing the modern causes of conflict in the Middle East, films like Beirut create an environment in which it is reasonable for The Wall Street Journal to publish an article arguing that there is a “disease of the Arab mind”; where nearly 60 percent of Americans hold unfavorable views of the Muslim faith; and where Donald Trump can propose a ban on all Muslim immigration and go on to win the presidency of the United States.