Born to Lebanese Christian immigrant parents in Pittsburgh, Shaheen dedicated his life to fighting what looked like a lost cause - clearing the cobwebs clouding the image of Arabs and Muslims in the popular Western culture, especially in Hollywood movies, television and the media.
Shaheen, who died on July 9 at the age of 81, confronted the dangerous stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims in film and television, depicting them as “billionaires, bombers and belly dancers.” As his research revealed, of about a thousand films with Arab or Muslim characters made between 1896 and 2000, only 12 portrayed them positively.
While the portrayal of Arabs as venal, vulgar and violent is as old as Hollywood itself, it was Shaheen who first raised the issue and dedicated all his time, energy and resources to confronting it.
He meticulously documented the problem through hundreds of lectures, television appearances, opinion articles and path-breaking books such as “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.
“Television tends to perpetuate four basic myths about Arabs,” he wrote in The TV Arab: “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.”
And this was long before toxic and hopelessly biased ‘war on terror’ dramas like ‘24’ flooded the Western-global consciousness in post 9/11 years.
Ironically, an industry that goes to great lengths to ensure and even proudly declare that “no animals were harmed in the making of this film” has little respect for the sentiments of an entire ethnic and religious community.
But then there is a well-funded and well-organised activist group, the American Humane Association, which owns the trademark to the phrase “No animals…” and has long lobbied for animal rights in Hollywood. No such advocacy group has existed for Arabs and Muslims despite the enormous resources at their disposal.
Despite the herculean effort Shaheen had undertaken and the critical nature of his cause, he got little support from the people he passionately defended. He had to carry on his battle on his own against great odds, investing all he had into the cause.
Having accidentally woken to the daily whipping that the Arabs and Muslims received in popular culture by his young 5 and 6-year old children, who talked of some ‘bad Arabs on TV’ and realising how his children were growing up detached from his roots and reality, he never gave up his fight against falsehood.
He successfully persuaded Disney to change its slanderous song in its children’s fantasy Arabian Nights that opened with following lines:
Oh, I come from a land,
From a faraway place,
Where the caravan camels roam,
Where they cut off your ear
If they don‘t like your face,
It‘s Barbaric, but hey, it‘s home.
“What impressions of Arabia will small children have when hearing ‘Arabian Nights,’ a song whose main enticement is uncivilized folk advocating ear-chopping?” he wrote in the Los Angeles Times at the time. “What will kids make of hideous Arabian guards chasing Aladdin throughout the film, scabbards flying, just because the famished youth stole a loaf of bread?”
Shaheen told The Washington Post in 2007 that he was not advocating for a politically correct portrayal of Arabs, only for more balance. “The Arab serves as the ultimate outsider, the other, who doesn’t pray to the same God, and who can be made to be less human,” he said. “Do you have any idea what it must be like to be a young person watching this stuff over in the Middle East?”
As the Post acknowledged in its tribute to Shaheen, “he persistently called out Hollywood studios and network television for their one-dimensional and often nefarious images of Arabs.”
While tackling the negative stereotypes in the Western media and culture, he also dissected the historical factors and events that have been fuelling them all these years.
He argued that the creation and proliferation of the modern “Arab villain” stereotype had been helped by a “confluence of events” and historical factors such as the long-festering Arab-Israeli Occupation conflict, which in turn led to the Arab oil embargo, and the more recent Iranian Revolution and the long and bitter US hostage crisis.
Of course, the 9/11 attacks and subsequent chain of events including the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and the all-consuming war on terror only hastened this process, leading to an explosion of films, television dramas and books vilifying the Arabs and Muslims.
And it’s hard to underestimate the epic nature of his mission, considering the awesome military and economic power that the US enjoys, not to mention the influence of its powerful culture and the media on the rest of the world.
Shaheen singlehandedly took on the challenge of battling it all with everything he had, till his last breath. The enormity of his impossible cause never seemed to overwhelm him. He understood that all such negative portrayals of the so-called Orientals were all about power and mechanisms of power, as his Palestinian American intellectual friend Edward Said famously argued.
He understood that these dangerous stereotypes do not merely remain part of public consciousness; they eventually manifest themselves in government policies, justifying wars and invasions. As Faisal Al Yafai argues, the normalising of prejudice made it much easier to sell wars to the American public, with catastrophic consequences for their victims in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Remarkably, Shaheen fought all his epic battles without any rancour or bitterness, constantly and constructively engaging the powerful Hollywood dream merchants and the media. It was clearly thanks to this unusual approach that many of those whose paths he crossed and highlighted their faults remained friends with him.
Today, when Shaheen is not around, his cause of speaking truth to the media is more important than ever. We cannot thank him enough for all the battles, big and small, he fought on behalf of the dispossessed and voiceless. Mind you, he did not just speak for the Arabs and Muslims. By confronting the racist, ethnic and religious stereotypes and labels prevalent in the popular Western culture, he spoke and stood for everyone who is viewed as “the Other”.
Today, as even South Asian Hindus, Sikhs and everyone who looks like Arabs and Muslims are increasingly attacked and viewed with suspicion in the West, we realise with sadness that Shaheen’s mission is far from accomplished. RIP Jack Shaheen! We need more fighters like you.