Jack Shaheen wasn't the first Arab-American keenly aware of the negative portrayal of Arabs in Hollywood: Bedouin bandits armed with scimitars attacking legion forts in the desert, lecherous sheiks kidnapping and seducing the American heroine, murderous terrorists ready to die for a cause.
But the 77-year-old scholar and media critic was the first to study the phenomenon and its impact — not just to Arabs and Muslims, but to society.
"I think what I did primarily was to expose the injustice, to expose the stereotype, and to legitimize it, like with the Reel Bad Arabs book that came out first in 2001 and then in a revised edition [from] just a few years ago. I write about and talk about over 1,100 films in one way or another that vilify Arabs and Muslims."
Shaheen also wrote and narrated the documentary The Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People based on his book, in addition to writing hundreds of articles and essays in journals and college textbooks about the century-old trend. He has been interviewed, by his estimation, by more than a thousand print, TV, and radio journalists.
Shaheen, an Arab Orthodox Christian, will share his knowledge and findings on the subject as guest speaker at the Twelfth Annual Maryse and Ramzy Mikhail Memorial Lecture. The lecture, titled "Images of Arabs and Muslims in Popular Culture: Problems and Prospects," is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Sunday at the Law Auditorium on the main campus of the University of Toledo. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, contact Samir Abu-Absi at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Blade recently interviewed Shaheen, who shared some of his talking points.
Q: How have negative images of Arabs and Muslims changed through the decades?
Shaheen: The one element that has not changed is that Arabs and Muslims remains villains of the day. The manner in which they have been projected as villains has changed. Initially what we saw were the Bedouin bandits attacking legion forts set in the desert. ... You almost never see an evil Bedouin now. We've always had the lecherous sheik out to kidnap and seduce the American heroine dating way back to the '20s, even before the '20s, in silent films. Then it went to the oil sheik out to gouge all Americans and now to the oil sheik who's funding terrorism.
The Palestinian as terrorist, that image has pretty much evaporated. And now it is the generic Muslim terrorist. The most dangerous stereotype of all, which came about after 9-11 ... and it happened on television on programs like 24, NCIS ... and maybe at least another eight or 10 TV series, for the first time in the history of television, American-Arabs and American Muslims were portrayed as clones of Al Qaeda, and that we became a threat to our country. And prior to that Arab-Americans were invisible on television. We never existed; the only American Arabs we'd ever seen on TV was Jamie Farr running around as a lovable character in M*A*S*H and Danny Thomas' Uncle Tonoose from Lebanon in Danny's old show back in '50s and '60s.
Q: How did the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks affect how popular culture portrayed Arabs, and Muslims in particular?
Shaheen: We didn't have favorable impressions of Muslims prior to 9-11. Opinion polls indicate that Americans were still not that impressed or trustworthy of Muslim Americans, but the protests against Mosques, the burning and the vandalism of mosques — our candidates for public office never went out of the way to vilify Islam and Muslims. That has been a relatively new phenomenon. It brings in money, it's popular, [and] this game of fear works for some politicians, at least in the short term.
It calls back the days of McCarthyism. The other day Joe Scarborough said on his Morning Joe Show that all Muslims, all Muslims, hated America. ... What saddens me is not just the fact that Scarborough said it, but the people around him did not say a word, the silence. And for a stereotype to persist, for racism and prejudice to kind of be with us, all it takes is silence. I fault his coworkers for not saying anything, for not saying, "Look, Joe, what are you talking about?" ... There are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world. Are you saying they all hate us?"
Q: What are your thoughts about the recent attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya? Some would contend Western popular culture is merely a reflection of such horrible incidents.
Shaheen: You've got a few hundred people, maybe less, responsible for the attack. We never saw images of literally hundreds of Libyans, maybe more, protesting that violence against our embassy and the death of our people. Most of these attacks that have taken place in this region have not been by a majority of people but by a minority of a minority of a minority, all with a political kind of motivation.
... People in the region, a very small minority, with an anti-American agenda used this video clip [vilifying the prophet Muhammad] to strike out against us. That is a reality. But the vast majority of the region love the United States of America and everything we represent. They do not, however, agree with our foreign policies, and there is a big distinction there in terms of the respect for Americans and America vis-à-vis our policies in the region.
For film, this image has been with us for more than a century. Arabs and Muslims have been vilified more than any other group and Hollywood, to its credit of late, particularly in the cinema, they've not been vilifying Muslims as they once have. The artists, the creative community I think has recognized some of the errors of the past and they've stepped forward. The problem is now is with politicians who are using it to get votes and money. In order for the stereotype to change there has to be some leadership.