Reducing Middle East to a videogame

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Can you really call them games, the kind the young play these days? Growing up my son relished playing those violent videogames on his Sony PlayStation. Since most of these games originate in the land of the free, they are shaped by the simplistic, With-Us or-Against-Us doctrine and almost always the ‘enemy’ is from the Middle East.

Sometimes while he’s lost in his fantasyland, with eyes glued to screen and a divine smile playing on his lips, I would remind my son that all this is in the realm of imagination and “terrorists” do not always behave as they do in these videos.

“This is just a game, you know,” I would tell him. Things are not always as they are portrayed in movies and videogames. The Muslims are not the rogues that they are made out to be in the make-believe world of Hollywood. Reality is a little more complex, I would reason. He grunted in response.

But I continued to worry about the impression all this made on his tender, impressionable mind. What if he grew up loathing himself and his own people and values? Come to think of it, what impact all this must be making on impressionable young minds — and those of adults — around the world? The vilification of Arabs and Muslims in popular Western culture goes way back and beyond Hollywood.

Late Palestinian American philosopher and author Edward Said dealt extensively with the issue, including in his 1978 classic, Orientalism. Said argued that Western approach to the Orient or Muslim East recreated Islamic society as a “timeless, exotic entity.”

Through arts, literature and culture, the Orientalists presented the Middle East in a naïve and historicizing way, divorcing it from modernity and perpetually locking it away in a time warp. Subtly patronized, the Arab-Muslim world is projected as a fairyland peopled by Bedouins, belly dancers, djinns, slaves, swarthy sheikhs and their large harems.

So despite being the birthplace of three great religions and civilization itself, the Middle East is portrayed as a place without history, culture and untouched by modernity. The complex reality of a complex region with its melting pot of ancient cultures is reduced to the banality of a computer game.

As Bushra Karaman notes, “22 (Arab) countries and hundreds of years of history (are) reduced to a few simplistic images.” A classic example is Disney’s fantasy, Arabian Nights, which originally opened with the song:

Oh, I come from a land,

From a faraway place,

Where the caravan camels roam,

Where they cut off your ear

If they don‘t like your face,

It‘s Barbaric, but hey, it‘s home.

Jack Shaheen who died last month dedicated his life to fighting these negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in popular Western culture, especially in Hollywood movies and television. It was Shaheen, the author of such groundbreaking books as Reel Bad Arabs, who eventually persuaded Disney to change the offensive song.

The routine distortion of the Arab-Muslim reality has undergone a watershed change since 9/11. Gone is the subtlety of the spin. In fact, in our terrorized times, it is an open but undeclared war, and not just by Hollywood films and television.

Videogames like Prince of Persia, Arabian Nights, Al-Qadim, The Magic of Scheherazade and popular television shows like ‘24’ tap into the reservoir of these familiar and hackneyed stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims. In fact, there is a whole industry out there churning out games and movies that have turned the hunting of Arabs and Muslims into a spectator sport.

Over the past few years, there has been a deluge of such games that encourage and egg you, or the gamer, to go fight the “terrorists” and save the world by taking out one Arab/Muslim after another. The Middle East is the virtual battleground of games such as War in the Gulf, Delta Force, Conflict: Desert Storm, Full Spectrum Warrior, Kuma/War and Conflict: Global Terror.

The player controls American or Western coalition forces, while enemy units are controlled by the computer. The ‘enemy’ is portrayed with a set of broad, schematized attributes like head cover, loose clothes and dark skin etc. The narrative links the characters to international terrorism and/or Islamist extremism.

Delta Force: Land Warrior, for instance, creates a scenario in which Arabs from several countries have banded together into a terrorist organization to destroy the US and the West (Al-Qaeda? Daesh?). Full Spectrum Warrior is set in a fictional country called Tazikhstan that is a “haven for terrorists and extremists.”

Predictably, Western soldiers are a collective paragon of virtue and humanized with names to help the gamer identify with the ‘good guys.’ And the enemy is a faceless, collectivized monster, often described as terrorists and insurgents. While the coalition is fighting for grand ideals like freedom, justice and democracy, the enemy is alien and not a ‘real’ soldier, removing the legitimacy of or justification for his actions. With the exception of some, this hearts-and-minds war is often crude and unabashed, inviting you to eliminate the ‘enemy.’

Some time back a game, Medal of Honor, was in the news for all the wrong reasons. Its release sparked a storm of protests in the US, not because of its violent content but for the fact that it allowed the gamers to assume the avatar of Taliban and fight US soldiers in the killing fields of Afghanistan.

Some families of US soldiers complained that it is disrespectful to allow gamers to play as the ‘enemy’ and “shoot back” at US soldiers. Karen Meredith, mother of a fallen soldier, said: “War is not a game. Families who are burying their children are going to be seeing this and playing this game. It makes no sense at all.”

Indeed, it doesn’t. What about the other side though? Is it okay to play with the sentiments of Afghan, Iraqi and Palestinian families? Aren’t they burying their children on a daily basis? Most American children — and others around the world — grow up watching such violent and dangerous games that not just induce hatred and bigotry but scar young, impressionable minds forever. More important, they end up normalizing and legitimizing hate and intolerance towards a particular faith and its followers.

Unfortunately, the Arabs and Muslims have paid little attention to this dangerous war on their image, let alone do something to check this dangerous distortion of reality. For this is not just about setting record straight or presenting the Arab-Muslim side of the story. Their very identity and future is at stake.

In the world of 24/7 news television and saturation media coverage, wars these days happen in the theater of mind, rather than on the physical battlefield. And decisions and actions of movers and shakers of this world are increasingly informed and shaped by these perceptions, rather than reality.

The Arab and Islamic world has neglected this front for far too long, just as it has neglected so many other fronts, at an incalculable price to its image and strategic interests. This is a war of ideas that it just cannot afford to ignore.

Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award winning journalist. Email: Aijaz.syed@hotmail.com


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