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Sheikhs and Stereotypes in American Media

Subtitle: 
Fair Observer reports on public forum with Jack Shaheen

By Ashley Lohman 

Dr. Jack Shaheen has been shattering Arab stereotypes in American popular culture since 1975.

"When I watch a movie and the bad guy's not an Arab, I'm relieved," Dr. Jack Shaheen admitted to his audience at Los Angeles' Levantine Cultural Center during a talk in late December. He grinned, and the audience chuckled a bit, but sadly, his sentiment was sincere.

Dr. Jack Shaheen speaking at the Levantine Cultural CenterDr. Jack Shaheen speaking at the Levantine Cultural Center

For more than 40 years, Dr. Shaheen has studied the image of Arabs in American media. In 2001, he completed a review of more than a thousand films dating from 1896 to 2000 that had Arab or Muslim characters and found that over 90% portrayed the characters in a negative light. Based on his study, Dr. Shaheen authored Reel Bad Arabs and narrated a documentary by the same name.

Dr. Shaheen's most recent book, A is for Arab, uses images from his collection of thousands of movies, television shows, and printed materials to document portrayals of Arabs and Muslims in American popular culture. A traveling exhibit based on the book is on display at the Alif Institute in Atlanta until February 2. (Copies of A is for Arab is available at the Levantine bookshop.)

In his research, Dr. Shaheen has found the same stereotypes repeated since the early days of Hollywood-the belly dancer, the terrorist, the dangerous but incompetent Arab, the lecherous sheikh, the submissive woman.

Think for example of the scene in Back to the Future in which Libyan terrorists try to attack the protagonist but ineptly fail to get their gun or their van working. Or, remember the original lyrics for the opening song in Disney's Aladdin: "I come from a land...where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face. It's barbaric, but hey, it's home."

Individually, these examples may not appear so sinister. Someone has to be the "bad guy" in the movie, or the comic relief. Why not use an Arab character?

Unfortunately, Arabs have historically and overwhelmingly been cast in such roles, and rarely have they been pictured as the "good guys" or even neutral characters. Dr. Shaheen remarked during his talk at the Levantine Center that the problem is in the balance of positive and negative portrayals. In response to a question about the acceptability of using Arabs as villains, he commented, "When you start portraying Arabs as you portray others, no better, no worse, then fine."

the catalog of the exhibit "A is for Arab": (on view at the Levantine Cultural Center, December 2013)the catalog of the exhibit "A is for Arab": (on view at the Levantine Cultural Center, December 2013)

According to Dr. Shaheen, the constant repetition of negative images of Arabs, even in fictional movies or television shows, has a tendency to desensitize the public and entrench harmful stereotypes. This trend is especially concerning considering the prevalence of media and entertainment in our digital age. "A child today will spend at least nine years of his or her life absorbed with media images," Dr. Shaheen explained.

In fact, it was Dr. Shaheen's children who first opened his eyes to the negative images of Arabs in media. They came home one day with a weekly reader from school that depicted Palestinians as terrorists, and they asked worriedly if their mother's Palestinian roots meant that they themselves were Palestinian. Together, Dr. Shaheen, who has Lebanese roots, and his children came up with a solution: his son called himself "Lebastinian American" and his daughter, "Palenese American." It was a lighthearted approach to a serious issue.

Dr. Shaheen's experience with his children spurred him to begin researching the Arab image in popular culture. However, he initially received little support for his work and faced significant resistance. Many of his research proposals were rejected by his university, with some members of the review panel calling his work "Arab propaganda." After writing his first article on the subject, Dr. Shaheen received 40 or 50 rejection letters over the course of three years before finally getting the piece published.

Fortunately, Dr. Shaheen has witnessed a growing awareness about the misrepresentation of Arabs in American media. A larger body of scholarly work has begun to address the issue of negative Arab stereotypes, and more university courses have incorporated it into their curriculums. Additionally, up-and-coming Arab-American actors and independent filmmakers are entering the entertainment business and challenging the stereotypes.

In recent years, Dr. Shaheen has seen these changes reflected in the film industry. One of his latest favorite movies is The Visitor, in which the protagonist must face issues of identity and immigration when his life intersects with that of an Arab illegally living in the United States. Other films whose evenhanded or positive portrayals of Arabs Dr. Shaheen appreciates include Amreeka, Cairo Time, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Syriana, and Three Kings.

Dr. Shaheen emphasized that it is the responsibility of Arab and Muslim Americans to bolster this trend by taking an active role in challenging stereotypes. In his talk at the Levantine Center, he explained that "presence is paramount" in changing the Arab image. "The scholars alone can't do it," he said. Others must make their voices heard in the political system and in the media.

Himself a consultant on a number of films, among them Syriana and Three Kings, Dr. Shaheen urges Arab-Americans to get involved and help improve the accuracy of film and television projects, or even pitch their own projects to the studios. "Most people in the industry, they're not out to vilify anyone for a buck," he explained. They simply need someone to assist and to challenge them.

Ultimately, Dr. Shaheen hopes for one movie that will act as a breakthrough for Arabs in the American entertainment industry. "I think what you need is a major blockbuster film that will really rattle the cages," he explained. In the meantime, he plans to sit back and watch the younger generation carry his battle forward.

At the Levantine Center, Dr. Shaheen ended his talk as he closes every speaking engagement, with a poem by Arab-American activist Alex Odeh: "Lies are like still ashes. When the wind of truth blows, they are dispersed like dust and disappear." He encouraged his audience to spread their stories about and perspectives on Arabs and Muslims and to promote a more accurate public image.

 


Ashley Lohman is a writer in Los Angeles. This article first appeared online in the 
Fair Observer and is published here by arrangement with the author.