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.
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.