After 31 Years Jack Shaheen Still Helps Us See “Reel Bad Arabs”

Shaheen By James M. Wall

My first encounter with Jack G. Shaheen came in the summer of 1978. He was a professor of communications at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville.

I was the editor of the Christian Century magazine in Chicago, Illinois. Jack sent me a manuscript entitled “The TV Arab”, which I immediately accepted for publication.

In October, 1978, the Wall Street Journal published an expanded version of the essay. In 1984, Shaheen expanded the article into a book with the same title.

In 2001, Jack Shaheen produced his break-through work: Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies A People (Olive Branch Press, 2001), described by film scholar Henry Girous as a “pacesetting and courageous book”, focusing on “Hollywood’s production of long-standing racist stereotypes aimed at Arabs and Middle East culture.”

This publishing history is important as background for Jack Shaheen’s latest book, Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11 (Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press. 2008) because it became immediately apparent after the attacks of 911, that Hollywood would exploit the emotions evoked by the horrors of that day.

Shaheen is a careful scholar who writes out of a personal experience. His parents are from Lebanon. He was educated in the United States where, as he wrote in The TV Arab, his childhood television viewing included many programs featuring his favorite cartoon characters that relied on negative Arab stereotypes as comic foils.

Stung at an early age by the gross unfairness of these negative images, Shaheen began a lifetime of academic research into television and movies. Translating that research into mainstream culture became Jack Shaheen’s passion in life.

It has been a long and difficult struggle. I am pleased to report that, as an editor, I was able to play a small role in that struggle. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but Shaheen wrote the essay that I published in the Christian Century three years before he sent it to me.

When he later told me this story, I asked him to give me more information on his earliest publishing struggles.  This was  his response:

I had finished writing the essay you published in the Fall of 1975, after returning to Southern Illinois from Beirut where I had been teaching as a Fulbright scholar. I tried for three years to have someone publish this work. Somewhere in my hidden files I have all the rejection letters from 50-plus magazines/newspapers.

The most memorable rejection came from the editor [of a prominent publication]. She refused to publish it, using an excuse that it was too well-written. She told me other ‘minority’ writers would want her to publish similar essays, but their essays would not be as ‘good’ as mine. Honest!

After three years of rejections “‘the TV Arab’ essay appeared–for the first time ever–in the Christian Century in August, 1978.

Shaheen’s experience says far more about what can only be described as a “wall of ignorance” built in western culture to isolate the West from the East. The editors who turned down Shaheen’s article may have had one thing in common: They were themselves shaped by the builders of the “wall of ignorance” in Western culture who spent centuries shaping the self-understanding of a particular culture.

Living behind a “wall of ignorance” is easier than risking a look through the wall. Jack Shaheen, growing up as an Arab-American child, had a totally different self-understanding than his non-Arab-American classmates.  He took that self-understanding, combined it with his own personal intense interest in the power of movies and television to shape and sustain reality, and started researching and writing.

Thirty years after the publication of his first article on the damage negative stereotyping of racial groups inflict on member of those groups, Shaheen has now produced his newest book,Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11.

In this book, prompted by the impact of 911 on American culture, Shaheen has followed the format of his earlier works. He first places current and recent films in historical context. Then he examines, film-by-film, those works that shape the American understanding of Arabs and Arab culture.

He does this by the analysis of a film scholar. He sees beneath the surface of the film, exposing blatant and subtle negative images of Arabs.  At times these images may be central to the plot of a film; in other films, the images are gratuitously inserted for comic relief with no connection to the plot.

Writing in the aftermath of 911, Shaheen looked for films that might be sensitive to the impact of 911, the opening to the West of the complex nature of Arab and Muslim cultures worldwide. In his new book, he does not dwell entirely on the negative. He looks for, and finds, films that reflect positive images and tell positive stories.

These positive films, a much smaller number, to be sure, suggest that Hollywood, or more likely, courageous directors and producers working outside of mainstream Hollywood, place honesty and artistic integrity above the exploitation of conventional prejudices.

In so doing, they break holes through the “wall of ignorance” behind which the West hides to avoid seeing the complex and ambiguous experience of non-Western cultures.

Shaheen’s first major book brought “Reel Bad Arabs” into our public dialogue.  From the beginning “reel” was a clever word play. He states at the outset of his “Guilty” book that he was motivated to write a sequel to “Reel Bad Arabs” after 911 for a very specific purpose:

I decided to follow Robert Frost’s wisdom—“more light, more light”–by offering fresh thoughts about reel Arabs, insights intended to stimulate thought and encourage discussion leading to a corrective.

Shaheen points out that Hollywood (a short hand term for the film industry) has employed simplistic movie language from the earliest silent films to the latest special-effects driven commercial films to lump together “Muslims and Arabs as one homogenous blob”  despite the reality that “only one-fifth of the world’s 1.3 plus billion Muslims are Arabs”.

Though faith plays an important role in the Arab world, just as it does here in the United States, it’s also true that much of the Arab world is quite secular.” Among Arabs worldwide, 20 million Arab Christians live in the Arab world.  The vast majority of Arab Americans [including the author] are Christians.

These are not facts that Hollywood wants us to worry about.  The film industry makes films for profit.. It is much easier to hide behind the “wall of ignorance” so long as there is an audience willing to live with that ignorance.

In his research, Shaheen has identified more than 1150 films that defile Arabs. Since 911 he has identified more than 100 post-911 films that continue this practice, as well has more than 100 additional films he has seen from the pre-911 era.

Among the worst since 911 is a grotesque animated film which was made as a satire on President Bush’s war against Iraq, Team America: World Police.

The cartoon images are ugly as they try to be funny.  As Shaheen points out, satire not understood as satire becomes an easy way to reinforce prejudice.

Babel (2006), in contrast, is a film released since 911 that appreciates the complexities of the Muslim world. In the detailed examination of the films in “Guilty”, Babel is given a Shaheen “recommended” tag.  He describes it as a “compassionate, heart-wrenching film [that] reveals universal human emotions, as well as cultural and racial identities”

Black Hawk Down (2002) was made with the cooperation of the U.S. Department of Defense, a not-uncommon practice when military equipment is needed. This film tells the story of the 1993 U.S. invasion of Somalia, and the heroic rescue of American servicemen trapped in Mogadishu. It is a war film but it treats the Somalia (Muslim) people as though, Shaheen writes, they were gang members in Los Angeles defying the Police Department.

This film makes Shaheen’s “worst” list because of its simplistic good-versus-evil plot that degrades Somalis.  Just before its release, Shaheen learned, 800 top officials and brass from the Defense Department were given a sneak preview of the film.  Then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was reported to have described it as “powerful”.  The film was, of course, war propaganda released at a time when the U.S. government was starting its all-out campaign to attack Iraq.

One of the recommended films in Shaheen’s book is The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), an action-filled sci-fi film set in the future. This film draws on positive “humane Arabs, a devout Arabic-speaking Muslim cleric and his family to assist Riddick”  It was popular, especially, among action movie fans, and the positive Arab images are there to break through the “wall of ignorance” of American culture.

Flightplan(2005) is “recommended” by Shaheen because of its positive treatment of Arab Americans. Jodie Foster starred in the film which exposed prejudice and debunked it at the same time. This action film begins when Foster’s six-year-old daughter disappears while she and her mother are airborne in a jumbo jet.

Suspicion immediately falls on three Arab-American passengers because of their ethnicity. Their guilt is assumed; at the end of the film, they are revealed as innocent.  In a gentle closing scene, Foster offers one of the men an apologetic smile.

Director Ridley Scott’s film, Kingdom of Heaven (2005), is “recommended”, for very good reasons. It is an historic portrait of an important moment in Muslim-Christian history when the Christian Crusades army failed to defend Jerusalem from the Muslim leader Saladin, played in the film by Syrian-born saladin3Ghassan Massoud.

The film was not well-reviewed in the U.S., primarily because it dealt with an historic period unknown to American critics. Besides, American audiences were not in a mood for positive images of Muslims, even those who lived centuries ago.

Robert Fisk, the London Independent correspondent, wrote a long positive review after viewing the film in Beruit, Lebanon. Fisk wrote that it was a revelation to sit with an audience composed largely of young men in Lebanon–most of them in their 20s.

In the film, Fisk writes that Saladin and his Muslim soldiers, as well as the Christian leader Balian and his Christian soldiers, are honorable men; they show generosity as well as ruthlessness to their enemies.”

Fisk described a significant scene in the film in which Saladin enters the city of Jerusalem after the Christian king has surrendered. Saladin “sees a crucifix lying on the floor of a church, knocked off the altar during the three-day siege.  He carefully picks up the cross and places it reverently back on the altar.”

It was at this point during the Beruit screening, Fisk wrote, that “the audience rose, clapped and shouted their appreciation. They loved that gesture of honor.  They wanted Islam to be merciful as well as strong.”

With The Kingdom of Heaven (2005)Director Ridley Scott delivered a work of political art to world audiences. We should accept it with gratitude.  With his careful research and sensitive examination of how Hollywood shapes world perceptions, Jack Shaheen has given us a valuable tool with which to confront the evils of racism on screen. He too, deserves our gratitude.

An expanded version of this posting will appear in the next issue of  Media Development. a quarterly magazine published by the World Association of Christian Communications, based in Toronto, Canada.

About James Wall

James M. Wall is currently a Contributing Editor of The Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, Illinois. From 1972 through 1999, he was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine. Jim launched this new personal blog April 24, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years.
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4 Responses to After 31 Years Jack Shaheen Still Helps Us See “Reel Bad Arabs”

  1. Jim DeHarpporte says:

    Thank you for your insightful article. It is so easy for us to pick up racial prejudices through the media and not be aware of them within ourselves. It’s great to know of some films that present a more honest and real picture which can help correct some of those negative images that we all have unconsciously absorbed over the years.

  2. Sally Mitchell says:

    Thanks for the article about the Elders/Jimmy Carter.Also the article about “Bad Arabs”. You bring to the public many issues and people that I would never know about.

  3. Cotton Fite says:

    Thanks once again, Jim. I regret to say that a lot passes beneath my radar, which probably suggests that I have absorbed some of the anti-Arab bias he writes about. People like Shaheen serve to sensitize and power up my radar screen for the kind of subtle – and not so subtle – messages that shape our culture and do such damage to us and our relations with the rest of the world.

    Thanks to you and Jack Shaheen I have added several recommended films to our Netflix list.

  4. Mr SV says:

    Wow, I’m sure glad I turned on the TV that particular night all those months ago and was able to see about 3/4 of “Reel Bad Arabs”. This was so interesting and informative. It not only confirmed what I was thinking all along but it also made me think more about the insidious and devious attempts that exist to get into people’s subconcious and plant the seeds of xenophobia. It even made me think about my own self and what is there in my subconcious.

    Watching SBS TV in Australia a week or two ago and then a few days ago on Monday 21.09.09 I was surprised to hear something that I thought I wouldn’t hear on such a televsion station. You see SBS Televesion is a station that caters to a wide multi cultural audience.

    What I heard and saw was a commercial for the tv show “Top Gear”. It was advertising the DVD for the show and from memory where it could be purchased in Australia. The segment used was a scene from ‘Top Gear” where the crew or stars were in a desert in Africa. One turns to his friend and says “You look like a gay cowboy” and he turns to the other and says “You look like a gay terrorist”. So what we are seeing is James saying that the one who is wearing the cowboy hat is looking like a gay cowboy and the one who has the desert headwear that Arabs and desert people wear is looking like a terrorist.

    Many people would just shrug it off or think that these people who see and point out the negativies in certain programs and films are just complaining about nothing or making trouble. Some even take this as a type of attack on them and will then defend this type of negative sterotyping. Possibly the most tragic example of this in Australia was the indifference and even spitfulness towards Aboriginal lecturer Stephen Hagan who’s tireless efforts finally resulted in the removal of the ES Nigger Brown stand at the Towoomba. his would result in a battle that would last for ten years.

    Hagan had to go through the Australian legal system to the United Nation’s International Court of Justice to achieve the final result. When he approached local council, politicans and even the premier he was basically told to go away. The stand was named after a local rugby player called Edward Stanley Brown, a white man who’s nickname was ‘Nigger’. For his efforts Hagan had recieved racial abuse, death threat and was close to being bankrupt.

    Attempting to discuss this issue over the years with various people both during and after Hagan’s battle I’ve come to the conclusion that there are people who definitly are most afraid of confronting the ignorance that exists in their neighbourhood and especially within themselves. I suppose that having to unlearn things which we have learnt without even knowing that we’ve learnt in the first place is a bit too much for some people to handle. Racism is deliberatly deposited into the subconciousness by people who want it there in the first place.

    Stephen Hagan not only woke up some of Australia by exposing a sports oval with a vile name, he also made some people realise that their neighbours have something in their minds that they don’t want to let go of. It should have been easy going for Hagan to take down a sign of a sports stand that would have been burnt down to the ground in other countries but it wasn’t in a multi cultural country like Australia. Why ? Why did so many people get so defensive about this ? Why did they consider Hagan to be having a go at them when all he was trying to do was get rid of something that many of us were shocked to learn still existed ?

    People like Stephen Hagan and Jack Shaheen expose something that really needs to be exposed. Shaheen with his “Reel Bad Arabs” documentary exposes the practice of making people ignorant. Hagan with his book and 27 minute documentary “Nigger Lovers” exposes the other end of it where people who have been made ignorant will fight to defend their ignorance.

    It’s sad that SBS which does such a great job with entertaining and informing such a wide range of ethnicities and cultures slips up like this with an advertisment which reeks of the ignorance that Jack Shaheen points out in his fantastic and informative documentary. If the first thing that comes to the mind of a man when he sees someone who is wearing something that Arabic or Middle Eastern is “terrorist” then he is a sad case. I never really had much time for the show “Top Gear” because it’s participants never appealed to me and now I know why. SBS in future should look more closely at what it chooses to advertise and if they advertise a product then they should use another part of the show that doesn’t encourage racism or xenophobia.

    This isn’t the first time that I have seen the automatic reaction to someone looking Arabic and the word “Terrorist” coming out of a person’s mouth. Some years ago I was watching a costume outfit being tried on for a play. There were about eleven adults there watching others trying on costumes. One man was wearing an outfit that looked like one of the three wise men. Someone yelled out “He’s a terrorist” and all the grown men and women except for myself and a couple of others laughed, cackled and snickered. So this is where we’re still at it seems.

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