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Dr. Jack Shaheen: Resisting the "TV Arab"

posted on: Jun 23, 2021

By: Qaïs S. Ahmadī/ Arab America Contributing Writer

Before the silver screen, the television, and social media, stories were told by storytellers in spoken word. In ancient cultures, orators speak of religion, history, wars, and epics, etc. In the Arab and Muslim world, stories are still performed. However, these stories are muted by Western orientalist images and pictures flooding the minds of millions of people in the world. For the longest time, motion pictures have ruled the hearts and minds of many. People believe what they see; seeing is believing. In resisting and combatting the propaganda against Arabs and Muslims, Dr. Jack Shaheen, a notable Christian Lebanese-American, dedicated his professional career to the cause.

“Those Who Tell the Stories Rule the World.”

Hopi American Indian Proverb

The TV Arabs (and Muslims)

Dr. Shaheen blazed the path dispelling the propaganda with his 1984 book The TV Arab. His book is one of the very first in dealing with racist Arab images in American media. He argues, “as for the Arab image, how would Jewish-Americans meet if they witnessed a host of TV Shylocks posing as nuclear terrorists?” The images portraying Arabs in the conservative media have shifted from nuclear to Islamic terrorists. For instance, in Netflix’s Messiah, the mysterious protagonist – who millions of people believe to be al-Masih – is on the run from the CIA and Mossad. Both agencies are convinced Payam Golshiri (al-Masih) is an Islamic terrorist bent on overthrowing the American government.

How can one Middle Eastern man be such a dangerous public enemy? Consider Dr. Shaheen’s answer from the TV Arab, “we should remember that stereotyping is not a modern phenomenon.” For almost four decades since his book’s publication, Arab and Muslims are stereotyped, nonetheless.

His second masterpiece, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People sheds more light on this state sponsored phenomenon. Also a documentary movie, his second book studies more than 900 Hollywood films from 1896 to 2000 featuring Arabs. On expressing why he took on this extensive study, Dr. Shaheen said, “I was driven by the need to expose and injustice: [American] cinema’s systemic, pervasive and unapologetic degradation and dehumanization of a people.”

Aladdin of the Dehumanized

Seen through Hollywood’s distorted lenses, Arabs look different and threatening.

Dr. Jack Shaheen

The degradation and dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims is not only restricted to adults. In Disney’s Aladdin, the opening song, “Arabian Nights,” hisses a description of Agrabah, “where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face, it’s barbaric, but hey it’s home.” OK, a year later the song was changed, but the damage was done, and hey it’s barbaric – millions of more Arab and Muslim children psychologically programmed to stereotype themselves.

Killer Video Games

Call of Duty Modern Warfare: Afghanistan

“[O]ne of the elements that makes stereotyping so powerful, and so hard to eliminate, is that it is self-perpetuating.”

Dr. Jack Shaheen

Additionally, in the video game, kids can steal apples while escaping dark menacing sheikhs slashing away at the hands of a fairer Aladdin. And high-tech video game series like Call of Duty (COD) make it fun for Arab and Muslim kids to kill Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians. Without a doubt, video games have been vilifying Arabs and Muslims for years.

Dr. Jack Shaheen: Countering Stereotypes

Recounting his small-town Arab-American boyhood, Dr. Shaheen examines, “when I was six, my grandfather introduced me to a salesman at the Dinowtiz’s store – a Jew. Like ‘stereotype,’ Jew was a word that had no meaning for me.” Later in his life, when his own children were six years old and saw “bad Arabs” on TV, the word stereotype had a very poignant meaning and could no longer be overlooked. Therefore, Dr. Shaheen devoted his professional career to educating people on the Arab stereotype. In his devotion to countering anti-Arab and Islamophobic propaganda, he also expressed optimism towards a better future in America. More than ever, in a post 9/11 and Muslim Ban landscape, the TV Arab was made real. Arabs and Muslims became fair game.

The Hollywood and Washington D.C. Connection

“Washington and Hollywood spring from the same DNA.”

Jack Valenti

Whether from Hollywood or D.C., stereotyping is alive and kicking. Dr. Jack Shaheen’s invaluable contributions are an asset, and he was a very generous man in leaving his entire 40-year collection to NYU. But, without him, the collection has no life. He was a proud Arab who remained committed to identifying and contesting the stereotype of Arabs and Muslims in American media. Those who knew him personally say, “Jack always spoke and wrote with grace, generosity, and hope. We’ll miss him dearly.” Alas, humanity misses Dr. Jack Shaheen and needs him to point out scenes like these – of American soldiers massacring innocent Yemeni civilians:

Massacre of Yemeni civilians by American soldiers

Qaïs S. Ahmadī is an exiled Afghan refugee activist raised in the East Bay Area, California with a decade of global experience in higher education. He is an active researcher having produced highly acclaimed peer-reviewed publications in his respective field. His expatriate experiences include the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the State of Qatar, Japan, and the People’s Republic of China. He looks forward to contributing knowledge based content to the Arab America audience.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America.

The reproduction of this article is permissible with proper credit to Arab America and the author.

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