The Long Fight Against TV and Movie “Bad Arabs”

by James M. Wall

Jack G. Shaheen, retired professor of communications at Southern Illinois University, died Sunday, July 9, after a short battle with cancer. He was 81.

His death brought to a sudden end, his five-decade fight against the stereotyping of “Bad Arabs” in movies and television. 

I have maintained regular contact with Jack since our first encounter in 1978. My most recent email from him arrived in March of this year, informing me that he had once again sent this blog’s link to his list.

Our first encounter came in August, 1978, when I was the editor of The Christian Century magazine in Chicago. Jack sent me a manuscript “over the transom”, media jargon for “unsolicited”.

We immediately accepted it, using Jack’s title, “The TV Arab”. 

In October, 1978, the Wall Street Journal published an expanded version of The Christian Century essay. In 1984, Jack expanded that article into a book with the same title.

Dr. Shaheen’s writing career and numerous public lectures brought him to the attention of Hollywood, where film producers sought his counsel on how to overcome their “bad Arabs” material.

Jack told me how long it had taken him to bring public attention to his “Bad Arab” essay: 

In the Fall of 1975, I completed the essay you published in August 1978. I had just returned to Southern Illinois University from Beirut where I had been teaching as a Fulbright scholar.

I tried for three years to have someone publish “The TV Arab”. Somewhere in my hidden files I have all the rejection letters I received 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 waiting and 50 rejections, “the TV Arab” appeared–for the first time–in The Christian Century in August, 1978.

The Washington Post announced his death: 

Jack G. Shaheen, an Arab American scholar, author and activist who devoted his career to challenging venomous stereotypes of Arabs in film and television — usually depicted, he once said, as ‘billionaires, bombers and belly dancers’ — died July 9 at a hospital in Charleston, S.C.

Dr. Shaheen, [the son of Lebanese Christian immigrants], spent decades teaching mass communications at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. He was at the forefront of efforts to expose and question ethnic stereotypes in popular culture.

He was best known for his books, “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.

Dr. Shaheen wrote in The TV Arab:

Television tends to perpetuate four basic myths about Arabs. 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.

Albert Mokhiber, a past president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) who frequently worked with Dr. Shaheen on specific projects, said of him that he  “brought intellectual and academic credibility to the issues that we raised.”

In one of those projects, Dr. Shaheen helped persuade Walt Disney Studios to change song lyrics in the 1992 musical film “Aladdin” that had called an Arab homeland “barbaric.”

In an opinion piece he wrote for the Los Angeles Times, he was critical of the way the media depicted Arabs as thieves, unscrupulous vendors, “dastardly villains and harem maidens.”

That message from Jack Shaheen is especially timely at a moment when Islamophobia is returning to segments of the American culture with its perspective of fear and anger directed at Arabs born in the U.S., or residing here through immigration. 

It is an ominous sign when President Trump uses the term “barbaric” to describe “others” in countries whose populations are predominantly Arab and Muslim.  

The President’s speech in Warsaw, Poland, which he delivered the day before the recent G-20 in Hamburg, Germany, revived the racist call for a Clash of Civilizations.

That Clash, from President Trump’s perspective, is currently being fought between the white, Christian “West” and those “others” in the world who are neither white nor Christian.

Children are being raised by parents who have a limited, or non-existent, grasp of the democratic values of tolerance and diversity. In such an environment, the Clash of Civilizations has shown itself to be an easy sell.

To combat this, we urgently need more passionate activists like Jack Shaheen, who, for five decades, identified racism in popular culture, and through extensive research exposed it as Islamophobia.  

Jack Shaheen left us a mighty legacy to employ in the fight against that insidious, destructive evil. 

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall writings.me, since it was launched April 27, 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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2 Responses to The Long Fight Against TV and Movie “Bad Arabs”

  1. Thanks, Jim. As I read your moving tribute to Prof./ Dr.Shaheen, I continually thought “Here is a worthy man who led a life of quality and dignity; he is surely on a level with the late great Dr. Edward Said.”

    I’m anticipating what another of my heroes, Ralph Nader, also the son of Christian Lebanese immigrants, will issue in honoring the contributions to our times of Jack Shaheen.

  2. AWAD SIFRI says:

    Jim, Thank you for the great piece you wrote about Jack Shaheen.
    Shaheen’s efforts in combating racism and bias are truly remarkable.
    Nevertheless, we still have a very long way to go.
    Reading our newspapers and watching the news on TV, one observes the careful and deliberate selection of words and phrases, descriptions, meanings, connotations and falsehoods. And it is not by coincidence that they come about. They seem to be thoroughly organized and guided and repeated, time after time, in the entire news category, just to name one category.
    And this is particularly applied in covering Israel-Palestine, as well as the Middle East, Arabs, and Muslims.
    Based on such dire conditions, there is no way that mainstream America can grow up learning facts and unbiased history, let alone thinking freely and independently,
    Thankfully, with people like Jack Shaheen, Ali Abunimah, President Jimmy Carter, Edward Said, Jewish Voice for Peace, and people like yourself, Jim, as well as, many others who seek the truth, we can bring down the rotten “System” that installs and feeds and brain-washes a significant portion of the American mind.

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