They chant prayers before detonating atomic missiles. They slap women around, using them as human shields. They kidnap children. They even videotape their terrorist threats for the American media (too bad they can't remember to recharge the batteries first).

They're the bumbling bad guys in "True Lies," director James Cameron's latest big-budget action flick. And they're Arabs.

Released last Friday, "True Lies" is being attacked by Arab Americans for its depiction of Middle Easterners as bloodthirsty religious zealots. The film "probably will stand the test of time as one of the most racist movies Hollywood has ever produced," said Jack Shaheen, an emeritus professor at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, who has studied Arabs in film for 20 years.

Cameron's movie pits hulky Arnold Schwarzenegger against the Crimson Jihad, a circle of radical Islamic terrorists led by the evil Aziz (Pakistani-born actor Art Malik). It's Arnie's job to stop the jihad from bombing the United States in retaliation for a war loss.

"We find that it's incredible in 1994 that we're still dealing with racist stereotypes in movies coming out of Hollywood," said Albert Mokhiber, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. The committee was one of four groups to hold a protest at the Uptown Theatre when the film opened here. Two other groups, the National Council on Islamic Affairs and the American-Arab Relations Committee, have called for a boycott of the movie and are seeking to ban its release in 54 Arab and Muslim countries, said M.T. Mehdi, president of both groups.

So far it's impossible to tell just how many people have joined the campaign against the film, which topped the box office charts last weekend with $25.9 million.

Mehdi said he has received 10,000 letters and thousands of phone calls from outraged viewers of multiple faiths and ethnicities across the country. He said his New York-based groups' protest blitz against distributor 20th Century Fox, which includes sending faxes, making phone calls and circulating information by word of mouth, persuaded half a million people not to see "True Lies" this week.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, however, reported a smaller response, mainly from Arab Americans and civil rights groups. The committee plans to rally further support by distributing leaflets and polling movie audiences outside theaters, said spokeswoman Anne Marie Baylouny.

Twentieth Century Fox released a statement on the issue this week: "The film is a work of fiction and does not represent the actions or beliefs of a particular culture or religion." A studio spokesman declined to discuss the film further.

Of course, minority stereotyping -- be it racial, ethnic or gender-based -- is nothing new to Hollywood. Audiences are routinely bombarded with one-dimensional meanies -- like the Japanese in "Rising Sun," the Libyans in "Back to the Future," the South Africans in "Lethal Weapon II" and the Soviets in nearly everything -- to name just a few recent examples. Now, in the post-Persian Gulf War, World Trade Center bombing era, Arabs and Muslims seem to be wearing the industry's black hats.

The "status quo prejudice" in "True Lies" has gone largely unchallenged by its cast, critics and audience, lamented Shaheen. Most critics have not noticed the film's stereotypes, though "Entertainment Tonight" acknowledged the controversy on Monday in a brief report.

Although Arab Americans say they are the last socially acceptable villains, other ethnic groups continue to feel targeted by Hollywood prejudice. Elizabeth O'Connell, a spokeswoman for the National Italian-American Foundation, said that negative depictions of Italians -- usually as mafiosi -- far outweigh positive ones in film and television. But she contended that Italians have made more strides than Arabs in combating discrimination. "I think {Arabs} are just beginning to make themselves heard," she said.

There is one "good" Arab in "True Lies": Arnie's intelligence sidekick Faisil, played by Grant Heslov.

Arab Americans, however, aren't impressed. "He's the buffoon, the nerd," says Mokhiber of Faisil. "He's not a role model for our kids."

The studio attached a disclaimer to the end of the movie, after the credits, saying that the film is a work of fiction. Arab American broadcaster and entertainer Casey Kasem called the move "an insult to anyone's intelligence."

Kasem and other Arab Americans have taken their complaints about the film to the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. "We're trying to make people more sensitive to the fact that when you vilify one group, you vilify all groups," he said.

"All we wanted," said Kasem, "was balance."