The media see Arabs as billionaires, bombers or belly dancers.

When I think of the word "Arab," I see 180 million people in the greater Arab world. Most share heritage, religion and history. In 21 Arab countries we see city dwellers and suburbanites, farmers and villagers. Their dress is traditional or Western. The variety of their garb and life style defies stereotyping.

When many of us hear "Arab" we think "anti-American," "anti-Christian," "cunning," "unfriendly" and "warlike." Yet most of us know little of the Arab people, customs or accomplishments. The myths of the media encourage distrust and misunderstanding. Once a negative image becomes ingrained, it endures. The result: a self-perpetuating, dehumanizing stereotype, caricatures rather than human beings.

Several distortions exist:

* Arabs are extremely wealthy. In fact, the average Arab has a per capita income of approximately $1,000 per year.

* Arabs are barbaric and uncultured. The Arabs gave the world a religion -- Islam -- a language and an alphabet. Arab scholars contributed significantly to medicine, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and the arts.

* They are sex maniacs and white slavers. As a Fulbright scholar who traveled extensively in the Middle East, I found most Arab husbands to be monogamous. Slavery is prohibited.

* They are terrorists. A small minority of Arabs, Israelis, Europeans, Americans and others resort to terror.

* They are buying up America. The U.S. Treasury reports that Arab investments in America, compared with those of other groups, are minimal. The leading investors are the Dutch, British, Canadians, Germans, Swiss, French and Japanese. Investments made by Arabs are tagged "Arab money" in a way German marks and French francs are not.

* OPEC equals Arabs. Only seven of the 13 members are Arabs.

* Iranians are Arabs. Iranians are Persians.

When depicting Arabs, TV and screen writers, novelists, cartoonists and other media professionals incorporate these myths with the "Instant Arab Kit." The kit includes belly dancers' outfits, headdresses, veils, dark sunglasses, flowing gowns and robes, oil wells, evil mysticism, limousines and camels. We see Arabs as billionaires, bombers or belly dancers -- villains of choice. It is fashionable to be anti-Semitic -- provided the Semites are Arabs.

Stereotypical Arabs prowl TV screens. Children see heavies such as The Desert Rat, Ali Boo-Boo, Abdul-O, the Un-Cool-O and Abdullah the Butcher on "Popeye," "Woody Woodpecker" and other shows.

In "Cagney and Lacey," the policewomen deceive an arrogant, oil-rich Arab, whose Rolls-Royce bears a license plate "OILBUX." The rich Arab runs over a poor Jew, but he refuses to pay the victim's hospital bills. In "CHiPs," a reckless sheik tries to bribe the officers -- "a way of life" in his country. In "Alice," Ben, the oil baron, asks Flo to become Wife No. 4.

Common film portrayal of Arabs -- the deprived woman, the stupid sheik and the inept lover -- surfaces again in several 1984 films, such as "Best Defense," "Bolero," "Cannonball Run II" and "Protocol."

In "Best Defense," Kuwaiti children throw stones at Eddie Murphy's tank. Roars Murphy: "Okay, you desert rats, now you die." "Bolero" features a kidnapping sheik as an inept lover. In "Cannonball Run II," an ape kissing King Falafel. The king smiles, saying: "If only your mother could kiss like that!" "Protocol's" hordes of Arabs ogle Goldie Hawn -- she has, after all, blonde hair. Arabs are so deprived, the stale formula goes, they'll do anything for a sexy blonde.

Comic strips attract our attention. An arrogant would-be seducer of Western women, Sheik Oily-O-leum, appears in "Brenda Starr." "Spiderman" features Dr. Mondo, a nuclear terrorist. My favorite cartoon character, Dennis the Menace, complains on Thanksgiving Day: "Dewey's family's havin' meat loaf. His dad says some Arab is eating their turkey."

I have yet to read a novel featuring heroic Arabs. Sometimes the antagonist is half-Arab, as in "Key to Rebecca." In novels such as "The Haj" and "The Sphinx," Arabs appear as religious fanatics. Other novelists contend they are inept assassins intent on destroying Israel and the West with nuclear weapons. Yet Israel is the only nation in the Middle East with nuclear arms.

We are less inclined to view TV, motion pictures and other forms of entertainment as propaganda because entertainment is supposedly harmless. Yet entertainment performs as propaganda precisely because audiences absorb messages unknowingly.

Stereotypes, endlessly repeated, seem natural, and are thus often perceived as truth. The distorted images should be abandoned along with other stereotypes -- the black domestic, the greedy Jews, the savage Indian, the dirty Hispanic and the Italian mobster.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s curbed the Stepin-Fetchit-type portrayal of blacks on television. The movement also helped bring to the screen more realistic portrayals of other groups. But Arabs haven't received the same second look from the media. They deserve the kind of acceptance other ethnics receive.

Today's Arab stereotype parallels that of the Jews in pre-Nazi Germany, when newspapers and films made them dark and threatening. The characterization of Jews as anarchists or devious financiers was intolerable. Yet this caricature has been received and transferred to another group of Semites, the Arabs. Now it wears a robe and a headdress, instead of a yarmulke and a Star of David.

Perhaps the best way to eradicate the mythical Arab is to insist that media professionals accept responsibility. When any group is degraded, we all suffer. The time has come to retire the stereotype. Such redress would reveal a people just as radiantly human as others, gracing and enriching our lives on this marvelously varied Earth.