ON AUG. 8, as U.S. troops began arriving in Saudi Arabia, the Los Angeles office of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee found a threatening message on its answering machine. Among other things, it linked Arabs to excrement and Arab women to prostitution. This is the same ADC chapter where, five years ago, poet and activist Alex Odeh was killed when a bomb exploded in his office.

A few days later, a doctor of Arab descent in San Francisco was interviewed by a newspaper on the situation in Iraq and Kuwait. He quickly received a letter threatening his life and the lives of his children.

Last Thursday, an Arab-American newspaper editor in Detroit was told by a caller that if Americans in Kuwait were harmed, "I will kill you." On the same day, an Arab-American businessman in Toledo was beaten up by a group of bigots who, between punches, referred to events in the Mideast.

It didn't matter that these people, whose victimization is reported in ADC's violence log, are Americans. Instead, they have become stereotypical "Ay-rabs." Such hate crimes, including bombings, beatings, murder threats, window smashings and racist graffiti, rise steeply when the Mideast is in turmoil. In the wake of the Achille Lauro hijacking, Americans of Arab heritage became Palestinian terrorists; after the bombing of Libya, they became Libyan "fanatics." For the prejudiced, all Arabs, including Americans with Arab roots, have now become so many "camel jockeys," "ragheads" and "sandsuckers."

Such violence, whether in deed or language, obviously arises from stereotyping. Insidious portraits of Arabs are in fact embedded in the American psyche. For decades image-makers, particularly motion picture and television writers, have perpetuated these negative Arab images.

Plato recognized the power of fiction when he asserted, "Those who tell the stories also rule society." In more recent times, communications scholar George Gerbner has noted that "If you can control the storytelling of a nation, you don't have to worry about who makes the laws."

More than 400 feature films and scores of television programs have shaped Arab portraits. Their audiences have been bombarded with rigid, repetitive and repulsive depictions that demonize and delegitimize the Arab.

I recently asked 293 secondary school teachers from five states -- Massachusetts, North Carolina, Arkansas, West Virginia and Wisconsin -- to write down the names of any humane or heroic screen Arab they had seen. Five cited past portraits of Ali Baba and Sinbad; one mentioned Omar Sharif and "those Arabs" in "Lion of the Desert" and "The Wind and the Lion." The remaining 287 teachers wrote: "none."

Screen scenarios, which act as visual textbooks, selectively frame two Arab male types: the grotesque terrorist and the rich, corrupt, dimwitted, sneaky, hook-nosed, fat, oily and oversexed sheik.

An early version of the sheik image established itself when Rudolph Valentino starred as Ahmed in "The Sheik" (1921). A precedent was set: Arabs live in the desert, ride camels, fight among themselves and buy women at slave markets. "When an Arab sees a woman he wants, he takes her," boasts Ahmed. The films of the 1940s offered yet another portrait: the sheik-as-buffoon. As a teenager, I recall seeing Bob Hope and Bing Crosby poking fun at Sheik Kasem in "Road to Morocco" (1942). They pass out exploding cigarettes and give the Arabs "hot feet."

In "Malice in the Palace" (1949), the Three Stooges make fools out of dimwitted natives in the "Cafe Casbahbah, meeting place of the Black Sheep, Bah-Bah-Bah." Out to recover a precious diamond, our heroes go to the city of Jerkola and later to Shmowland, where they make the emir stand on his head in a lily pond.

The contemporary sheik is more complex and threatening. Inept in the bedroom and on the battlefield, he is projected as ruthless, determined to:

Buy media conglomerates. In "Network" (1977), Peter Finch as a news anchorman equates Saudis with "medieval fanatics." He warns: The "Saudi Arabian Investment Corporation" will "own what you read and what you see." The "Arabs are simply buying us," Finch says.

Destroy the world's economy. In "Rollover" (1981), the Saudis appear as a sinister force. As one Saudi tells the Americans: Your economy is ruined. It's "the end of the world as you know it." (In fact, the British, Canadians and Japanese, not Arabs, are "buying up" America.)

While promoting "Rollover," the star, Jane Fonda, said that Arabs "are unstable, they are fundamentalists, tyrants, anti-woman, anti-free press. We have allowed Arabs to have control over our economy."

Use nuclear weapons against us. In "Wrong is Right" (1982), Sheik Awad gives terrorists two nuclear bombs to drop on New York and Tel Aviv. A U.S. general tells the president how to resolve the crisis: "Just push the button. No more Arabs. No more oil crisis."

Influence foreign policies. In "Protocol" (1984), Goldie Hawn is whisked off by a sheik to the mythical kingdom of Ohtar (El Ohtar is 'rathole' spelled backwards). Ohtar's potentate will not permit America to build a military base in his "spit of sand" unless Hawn joins his harem. Eventually, Hawn escapes and advises congressmen: We better think twice before "inviting foreign {Arab} big shots to the White House." Negotiating with Arabs is dangerous, she says, and our country's security is at stake.

Kidnap Western women. Consider "Bolero" (1984) and "Jewel of the Nile" (1985). In "Jewel," another palace-in-the-sand setting features heroine Kathleen Turner as the hostage of an Arab ruler seeking "to unite the tribes of the Nile." "Bolero," with Bo Derek, features a young sheik.

Sheik: "If you have your virginity, I want it."

Derek: "I don't have it any more."

Sheik: "No matter. I take you now like my father took my mother."

Prevent America's politicians from developing alternative energy supplies. In "Power" (1988), sheiks use oil money to bankroll an Ohio politician for the Senate. Because the price of Arab "oil keeps falling," the candidate is told to stop America's solar energy projects.

Recently, the top-rated TV soap opera "Santa Barbara" focused on two desert sheiks at war with each other. What did "Santa Barbara"'s viewers learn about these Arabs? Arabs live in tents or prison cells. Their wardrobes consist of flowing robes, baggy pants or belly-dance outfits. Sheiks have inept advisers, hold Americans hostage, kill fellow Arabs, idolize "mystical" stones, have harems, persecute women and lust only after Western blondes.

There is a dangerous and cumulative effect when ugly screen images of Arabs remain unchallenged. To me, the sheik image parallels the image of the Jew in Nazi-inspired German films. In "Jud Suss" (1940), for example, the Jew was made the scapegoat for Germany's problems. Today, the Arab lurks behind the misfortunes, evils and imbalances in our own economic and cultural life.

As for the Palestinian image, there are numerous similarities between the subhuman Indian of yesterday's westerns and the dehumanized Palestinian in today's dramas. In the 1980s, 10 of the 11 theatrical films that focused on the Palestinian portrayed him as falling on unwary and unarmed peoples (the 1983 "Hanna K." was the exception). Like the Indian, he is Enemy No. 1, a fanatical, unsightly savage who abducts, abuses and butchers men, women and children.

The Palestinian lacks a human face. Depicted as an international killer, his terror is directed at civilized Europeans, Israelis, Americans, other Arabs and fellow Palestinians. Audiences almost never see Palestinians as victims.

Television specials such as "Hostage Flight" (1985), "Terrorist On Trial" (1988) and "Voyage of Terror: The Achille Lauro Affair" (1990) duplicate the film image. Consider how television's image-makers depict two tragic deaths. Alex Odeh, the Los Angeles poet, and Leon Klinghoffer were both killed by terrorists in October 1985. Viewers saw two TV movies based on Klinghoffer's death. Odeh was virtually forgotten.

Meg Greenfield, editorial page editor of The Washington Post, wrote, "Now you hear and see a tendency to invest all Arabs with the attributes of the vicious terrorist. If we succumb to this {stereotype} we will be doing in the very people we should be trying to protect."

The Arab woman fares no better than Arab men. Beginning with the 1897 film "Fatima's Dance," asexual, chubby-cheeked belly dancers have dominated such screen portrayals. Pictured as harem maidens and chattel, Arab women are seen coiling their garments or carrying jugs on their heads as they trek across the desert behind the camels. The sins are of omission and commission. In fact, most Arabs have never mounted a camel. Nor have they seen an oil well, or lived in a tent.

Why the persistent negative image? One reason is ignorance. Some image-makers do not know Islam. Not all Arabs are Moslems, and not all Moslems are Arabs. Most Moslems live not in Arab countries but in Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Worse, Hollywood has felt free to denigrate Islam. In "Adventure in Iraq" (1943), Moslems are "devil-worshippers," bowing before images of serpents.

Economics is another reason. Shows that dehumanize Arabs attract viewers and make money. Status-quo prejudice is not easily diluted, especially when it is profitable. The 2.5 million Arab-Americans lack sufficient clout as a pressure group or at the box office.

Silence too plays its role. Few critics, scholars or politicians speak out against the stereotype. Why? They fear public condemnation of "ugly Arab" portraits could be construed as being pro-Arab and anti-Israel. The Middle East conflict and the emotions it raises play a particularly telling role in the creation of negative Arab stereotypes.

Arab-Americans are virtually unrepresented in the film and television industry; only a handful work as performers, executives or creators. They are unable to project a much-needed humane Arab identity.

Two Arab-American actors, Nicholas Kadi and F. Murray Abraham, are active in the industry. When asked what the "F" in F. Murray Abraham stands for and why it is just an initial, the actor said: "F stands for Farid. When I first began in this business I realized I couldn't use Farid because that would typecast me as a sour Arab out to kill everyone. As F. Murray Abraham, I had talent. As Farid Murray Abraham, I was doomed to minor roles."

Kadi, an actor with Iraqi roots, makes his living playing terrorists in such films as the current release "Navy Seals." Kadi laments that he does "little talking and a lot of threatening -- threatening looks, threatening gestures." On screen, he and others who play Arab villains say "America," then spit. "There are other kinds of Arabs in the world," says Kadi. "I'd like to think that some day there will be an Arab role out there for me that would be an honest portrayal." The civil rights movement of the 1960s not only helped bring about more realistic depictions of various groups, it curbed negative images of the lazy black, the wealthy Jew, the greasy Hispanic and the corrupt Italian. These images are mercifully rare on today's screens. Conscientious imagemakers and citizens worked together to eliminate the racial mockery that had been a shameful part of the American cultural scene.

"The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie -- deliberate, contrived and dishonest," said President Kennedy, "but the myth, persistent, persuasive and realistic." Ugly portraits on video cassettes and cable and television systems enable the stereotype of the past to fester along with today's injurious and abusive portraits.

Just as bigots have used the Gulf crisis to express prejudice, so could image-makers use it to reinforce prejudice. Of course, they could opt instead to correct their old prejudicial portraits. But as TV critic Howard Rosenberg has observed, when it comes to relinquishing established stereotypes, the image-maker is like "Peanuts"'s Linus clutching his security blanket. He knows it's wrong. But he doesn't want to give it up.

Jack Shaheen is professor of mass communications at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and author of "The TV Arab," published by Popular Press.