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Remembering Jack Shaheen, Who Resisted and Cataloged Stereotyping of Arabs

posted on: Jul 16, 2017

Jack Shaheen, Who Resisted and Cataloged Stereotyping of Arabs, Dies at 81

Jack G. Shaheen, pictured in 2016, lobbied to shatter demeaning stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in popular culture. Credit: American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

Jack G. Shaheen, who diplomatically but tenaciously lobbied to shatter demeaning stereotypes of Arabs in popular culture as “billionaires, bombers, belly dancers and boisterous bargainers,” died on Sunday in Charleston, S.C. He was 81.

The cause was cancer, his son, Michael, said.

A Christian son of Lebanese immigrants, Dr. Shaheen said he embarked on his lobbying campaign against xenophobia in Hollywood films and on television in 1974 after his 6-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter interrupted their Saturday morning cartoon viewing to complain, “Daddy, Daddy, they’ve got bad Arabs on.”

He enlisted his children in what became a lifelong commitment to documenting and mitigating negative depictions of Arabs and Muslims. His analysis found that of about a thousand films with Arab or Muslim characters made between 1896 and 2000, only 12 portrayed them positively.

He wrote three books, most notably “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People” (2001); established a scholarship for Arab-Americans studying journalism and communication; and donated his cache of what he viewed as derogatory audio and video recordings, cartoons, posters and toys to New York University, where he was a visiting scholar at the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies.

Dr. Shaheen “provided the incriminating evidence directly from the biased media, unedited,” the consumer advocate Ralph Nader, the son of Lebanese immigrants, said in a statement.

As Dr. Shaheen saw it, Americans began demonizing Arabs and Muslims after the so-called Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors in 1967, and the perception of Arabs worsened with the 1973 oil embargo by Middle East petroleum producers, and even more so after the Cold War ended.

“We have replaced the red threat with the green threat, namely Islam,” he said in 1995.

Among the negative portrayals he cited were the cartoons his children watched, including one in which a wrestler named Akbar was described by a narrator as a villain who “likes to hear the cracking of bones, and when he makes those faces, he is ugly, ugly!”

Dr. Shaheen also criticized the original lyrics to a song in the Disney film “Aladdin” (1992):

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.

The lyrics were changed when the film was released on video.

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Dr. Shaheen said in a 2015 interview with Tavis Smiley on PBS, “it’s gotten much worse because now American Arabs as well as American Muslims are being projected as villains.”

“My life,” he said in that interview, “has been dedicated to trying to humanize Arabs and Muslims and to give visibility to American Arabs and American Muslims — to have us being projected no better, no worse, than anyone else.”

By vocation a journalism professor at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, Dr. Shaheen conducted his campaign without rancor. He generally avoided demonizing the movie and television executives he hoped to win over.

“Jack Shaheen approaches his critical work with little personal or intellectual bitterness, moral arrogance or intellectual superiority,” Ali Mirsepassi, director of New York University’s Iranian Studies Initiative, wrote in 2012 in the book “A Is for Arab: Stereotypes in U.S. Popular Culture.”

“His father had a neighborhood grocery in Clairton, one of the steel towns that Carnegie built outside of Pittsburgh, that served the local mix of European immigrants and migrating African-Americans who worked the mills,” said Jack Tchen, founding director of New York University’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute. “He grew up with this mix where the boys played football in the local graveyard and treated each other with a basic rugged, begrudging respect.”

Dr. Shaheen’s passion for films began when he was 12 and lied about his age to get a job as a movie theater usher.

He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in theater from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) and received a master’s from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in mass communications from the University of Missouri in Columbia.

In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife, the former Bernice Rafeedie, a Palestinian-American; a daughter, Michele Tasoff; and four granddaughters.

Dr. Shaheen maintained that prejudice was an acquired trait, manufactured and disseminated by movies and television. He liked to quote an Arab proverb: “By repetition even the donkey learns.”

Dr. Shaheen’s first book was “The TV Arab,” published in 1984. “Reel Bad Arabs” was the basis for a documentary film released in 2006. His last book was “Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11” (2008). In 2012, New York University drew on his archive to produce “A Is for Arab,” a traveling exhibition.

His was originally a relatively lonely voice against negative stereotypes. In 1999 he was asked to consult on “Three Kings,” a film about the first Persian Gulf war that starred George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube. He also advised Mr. Clooney and others involved in “Syriana,” a 2005 film about Middle East petroleum politics.

He expressed hope that an emerging new generation of independent Arab filmmakers, including Cherien Dabis, Sam Esmail, Annemarie Jacir and Rolla Selbak, would help erode stereotypes and misconceptions. (He often noted, for example, that a majority of Arab-Americans are Christian, and that only a minority of the world’s Muslims are Arabs.)

“The problem is, you take the lunatic fringe and make the lunatic fringe represent the majority,” Dr. Shaheen said in 1998. “When is the last time you saw a movie depicting an Arab or an American of Arab heritage as a regular guy?”