By Aijaz Zaka Syed
July 28, 2017
In the passing of Jack Shaheen, the distinguished Arab-American author, academic and lifelong crusader for truth, the Arab world has lost a true champion and voice of reason. Born to Lebanese Christian immigrant parents in Pittsburgh, Shaheen dedicated his life to fighting what looked like a lost cause – clearing the cobwebs clouding the image of Arabs and Muslims in popular Western culture, especially in Hollywood movies, television and the media.
Shaheen, who died of cancer on July 9 at the age of 81, valiantly challenged the dangerously distorted stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in film and television, which often depicted them as “billionaires, bombers and belly dancers”.
While the portrayal of Arabs as venal, vulgar and violent is as old as Hollywood itself, with even silent features like ‘Valentino’ boasting such characters, it was Shaheen who first raised the issue and dedicated all his time, energy and resources to confronting it. According to his research, of about a thousand films with Arab or Muslim characters made between 1896 and 2000, only 12 portrayed them positively.
He meticulously documented the problem through hundreds of lectures, television appearances, opinion articles and path-breaking books such as ‘Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People’ (2001), which later became a documentary film; ‘Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture’ (1997); ‘Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11’ (2008); and ‘The TV Arab’ (1984), an eight-year study that examined hundreds of shows.
“Television tends to perpetuate four basic myths about Arabs,” he wrote in ‘The TV Arab’, the book that initially raised his profile. “They are all fabulously wealthy; they are barbaric and uncultured; they are sex maniacs with a penchant for white slavery; and they revel in acts of terrorism. These notions are as false as the assertions that blacks are lazy, Hispanics are dirty, Jews are greedy and Italians are criminals.”
And this was long before such toxic and hopelessly biased ‘war on terror’ dramas such as ‘24’ flooded the Western and global consciousness in post 9/11 years, justifying and normalising hate, demonisation and witch hunt against Muslims.
Ironically, an industry that goes to great lengths to ensure and even proudly declare at the end of each feature that “no animals were harmed in the making of this film” since 1940 has little or no respect for the sentiments of an entire ethnic and religious community.
But then there is a well-funded and well-organised activist group, the American Humane Association, which owns the trademark to the phrase “No animals…” and has long lobbied for animal rights in Hollywood. No such advocacy group has existed for Arabs and Muslims despite the enormous resources at their disposal.
Despite the herculean effort he had undertaken and the critical nature of his cause, Shaheen got little support from the people he passionately defended. He had to carry on his mission on his own against great odds, investing his own hard-earned resources and his life itself into the cause.
Having accidentally woken to the daily whipping that the Arabs and Muslims received in popular culture by his young five and six-year old children, who talked of some ‘bad Arabs on TV’ and realising how his own children were growing up detached from his roots and reality, he never gave up his fight against falsehood.
He successfully persuaded Disney to change its shockingly racist and slanderous song in its children’s fantasy blockbuster, ‘Arabian Nights’ that opened with following lines:
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.
“What impressions of Arabia will small children have when hearing ‘Arabian Nights’ a song whose main enticement is uncivilised folk advocating ear-chopping?” he wrote in the Los Angeles Times at the time. “What will kids make of hideous Arabian guards chasing Aladdin throughout the film, scabbards flying, just because the famished youth stole a loaf of bread?”
Shaheen told The Washington Post in 2007 that he was not advocating for a politically correct portrayal of Arab-Americans and Arabs, only for more balance.
The Arab serves as the ultimate outsider, the other, who doesn’t pray to the same God, and who can be made to be less human,” he said. “Do you have any idea what it must be like to be a young person watching this stuff over in the Middle East?”
As the Washington Post acknowledged in its tribute to Shaheen, “he persistently called out Hollywood studios and network television for their one-dimensional and often nefarious images of Arabs.”
While tackling the challenge of negative stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims in the Western media and culture, he also repeatedly sought to dissect the historical factors and events that have been fuelling it all these years.
He explained that the creation and proliferation of the modern “Arab villain” stereotype had been helped by a “confluence of events” and developments such as the long-festering Arab-Israeli conflict, which in turn led to the Arab oil embargo, the Iranian Revolution and the long and bitter US hostage crisis.
Of course, the 9/11 attacks and subsequent chain of events including the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and the all-consuming war on terror only hastened this process, leading to an explosion of films, television dramas and books demonising the Arabs and Muslims.
Shaheen singlehandedly took on the challenge of battling it all with everything he had, till his last breath. The enormity of his impossible cause never seemed to overwhelm him.
As his friend and inspiration, the Palestinian American intellectual Edward Said, famously argued, he understood that such negative portrayals of Arabs and Muslims were all about power and mechanisms of power.
And it is hard to underestimate the critical importance of his mission, considering the awesome military and economic power that the US enjoys, not to mention the influence of its powerful culture and the media on the rest of the world.
He understood that these dangerous images and negative stereotypes do not merely remain part of public consciousness; they eventually manifest themselves in government policies, justifying wars and invasions. As Faisal Al Yafai argues, the normalising of prejudice made it much easier to sell wars to the American public, with catastrophic consequences for Middle-Eastern countries.
Remarkably, Shaheen fought all his epic battles without any rancour or bitterness, positively and constructively engaging the powerful Hollywood dream merchants and the media. It was clearly thanks to this unusual approach that many of those whose paths he crossed and highlighted their faults remained friends with him.
Today, when Shaheen is not around, his cause of speaking truth to the media is more important than ever. We cannot thank him enough for all the battles, big and small, he fought on our behalf. And mind you, he did not merely speak for the Arabs and Muslims. By confronting the racist, ethnic and religious stereotypes and labels prevalent in popular Western culture and other cultures for that matter, he spoke and stood for everyone who is viewed as ‘the Other’.
Today, as even South Asian Hindus, Sikhs and everyone who looks like Arabs and Muslims are increasingly attacked and viewed with suspicion in the West, we realise that Jack Shaheen’s mission is far from accomplished. RIP Jack Shaheen! We need more fighters like you.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award-winning journalist.