After 31 Years Jack Shaheen Still Helps Us See “Reel Bad Arabs”
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 Ghassan 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.
Filed under: -Movies and politics, Middle East, Middle East Politics, Movies | 4 Comments