“American Hustle,” the hit comedy/caper film loosely based on ABSCAM, is currently showing in theaters nationwide. For those who haven’t heard of the movie or who don’t remember the late 1970’s, ABSCAM was a sting operation organized by the FBI featuring operatives dressed up like Arab sheikhs. The FBI videotaped the fake “sheikhs” offering envelopes of cash to Senators and Congressmen seeking their assistance with a range of illegal activities. The Congressional culprits were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to prison terms for bribery and conspiracy.
The film has generated some discussion about its faithfulness to the events and characters portrayed, and whether or not the tactics used by FBI constituted entrapment. But there was another dimension of ABSCAM which “American Hustle” doesn’t consider and media reviews have ignored and that is the impact ABSCAM had on Arab Americans.
For many in my community the entire episode was just another instance of hurtful negative stereotyping. We had grown up on a steady diet of racist portrayals of Arabs as either bloodthirsty terrorists or lecherous, greedy, oil-rich sheikhs. For decades Hollywood had fueled the stereotypes, television had reinforced these images and political cartoonists had made them standard fare.
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As studies done at the time established, virtually the only depictions of Arabs in film and television were negative, sometimes grossly so. In the absence of any positive portrayals, the negative images stuck. To be Arab was not merely to be different, it was to be bad, vicious, less than human. Back then, columnist Nicholas von Hoffman wrote “no religious, national, or cultural group…has been so massively and consistently vilified.”
The impact on American society was clear. Shortly after ABSCAM, the Middle East Institute released the results of a survey of public opinion showing majorities of Americans describing Arabs as “barbaric and cruel”, “treacherous”, “warlike”, and “rich”.
I will never forget my children coming home the Halloween after ABSCAM telling me that they didn’t want anyone at their suburban Washington school to know that they were of Arab descent. The reason they gave me was because at that year’s annual Halloween costume parade a number of their classmates had dressed up as “Arabs” complete with big noses, guns, knives, oil cans, and bags of money.
The negative stereotypes of Arabs had become so ingrained in the culture that they were seen as acceptable for use even by the highest law enforcement agency in the country. I remember confronting an FBI official with these questions about ABSCAM – “Why use an Arab caricature to ensnare a politician? Why involve Arabs in a Congressional bribery scheme, when no Arab had ever done anything like that? Would you have ever used another ethnic group?” His response said it all. “We were looking to create a scenario that would be seen as believable and this one made sense to us!”
Clearly being “Arab” had become a liability. And the impact wasn’t just cultural. As we were to discover, there were political consequences for Arab Americans, as well. By constructing an event that had never occurred – Arabs using money to “buy” Congress – the FBI had put the political participation of Arab Americans at risk. In the years that followed, several major political campaigns rejected contributions from Arab American donors for fear of being accused of “taking money from Arabs”.
Not all Arab Americans were resigned to accept ABSCAM as their fate. A bold and courageous former senator, James Abourezk (D-SD), was so outraged that he took his protest directly to the FBI and then issued a call to Arab Americans to reclaim the right to defend and define their heritage. He asked me to join him in co-founding the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). Abourezk invested his considerable political capital in inspiring the community to fight back, in helping us organize, and in giving us a voice. Together we built a vehicle that fought defamation and discrimination, monitored media and textbooks, and challenged politicians, advertisers, and networks that relied on negative stereotypes of Arabs.
Those were heady days as we discovered the power of an organized community. We faced enormous challenges, but we persevered and along the way we won several battles. Serious problems most certainly remain, but we are immeasurably better off today than we were in 1979.
For Arab Americans, this was the story of ABSCAM. It was an “American Hustle” to be sure, but one that was profoundly hurtful to an entire culture. More importantly, it was the event that propelled us to action. It’s a shame that Hollywood didn’t see fit to get that part of the story right. But then to do so they would have had to acknowledge the role they played in helping to popularize the negative stereotype the FBI used, in the first place.