Prolific writer and activist Jack G. Shaheen, 81, passed away July 10. Shaheen dedicated his life to challenging demonizing representations of Arabs and Muslims in popular culture, and is considered a pioneer of such endeavors. Countless people across the globe inspired by the tenacity and sincerity with which he approached his work were saddened to hear the news of his passing.
I first watched Shaheen’s seminal documentary, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (based on his book of the same title), as an undergrad. The opening section discusses the Hollywood trope that Shaheen terms “Arabland” — a “mythical playground” and desert landscape ruled by lecherous pashas who abuse their harems and abduct helpless White women. “Arabland” is a silver-screen adaptation of the place of danger and romance that Edward Said elucidates from the writings of Orientalist thinkers during the heyday of European colonial expansion in the Middle East and North Africa.
As Shaheen demonstrates, “Arabland” not only shows up in black-and-white films from the early days of Hollywood, but in productions that whole families are meant to enjoy. One of the most compelling parts of the documentary for me, and perhaps others from my generation, is its discussion of Disney’s hit animated film Aladdin. My constant viewings of this movie as a child wore out the VHS tape. Thus, I was shocked to learn how the film was packed full of racist caricatures and had an opening song in which “Arabland” is described with such lines as “where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face; it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home!” Disney later changed this due to efforts by Shaheen and other activists. Shaheen illuminates the ways in which violent stereotypes are disguised as common knowledge by becoming so pervasive in popular culture that they aren’t immediately discernible among a host of other unquestioned images and dialogue. Not even children’s films are spared.
Reel Bad Arabs goes on to illustrate how Arabs and Muslims are represented as bloodthirsty, anti-Semitic and anti-American killers. However, these characters persistently fail to achieve their sinister goals as a result of their buffoonery in the face of ultra-masculine American strength, intelligence and heroism. Shaheen brilliantly demarcates the deeply entrenched relationship between Hollywood and the U.S. national security state. Here, racist depictions on television screens render violence against Arabs and Muslims unworthy of sympathy and the invasions and occupations of Arab and Muslim-majority countries an imperative.
I was just beginning to deconstruct the world around me with a more critical lens at the time I first engaged Shaheen’s work. He was among a core group of scholars who taught me that anti-Arab and anti-Muslim propaganda was not merely a response to the 9/11 attacks, but had in fact been present in U.S. popular media decades before. Even more, such representations were often constructed to garner support for U.S. foreign policy. Understanding how racist policies often precede racist ideas, and the ways in which politics and art coalesce in such a manner, was an important tool I acquired from Shaheen’s research.
I had the utmost pleasure of meeting Shaheen and hearing him speak during my first year of graduate studies. After a viewing of the film, he spoke of his upbringing as the son of Lebanese Christian immigrants in a diverse and neighborly Pennsylvania town. He pointed out how people assume that because he writes about and advocates for Arabs and Muslims, he himself must be Muslim. Shaheen was adamant that his life’s work emerges from his belief in the rights of others to be treated with dignity and to have their humanity recognized. The thought that only Muslims should, and do, care about the well-being of other Muslims is in itself an affront to the idea of humanity, and Shaheen’s emphasis that speaking truth to power is a duty of all of us continues to resonate with me. I introduced myself after the talk and, like so many others, was struck by his warmth, kindness and eagerness to engage with students — qualities that exemplify his significance as a scholar, educator and activist.
Our current reality underscores the necessity of Shaheen’s teachings and research. The caricatures of Arabs and Muslims discussed in his work are at the forefront of justifications for Muslim travel bans, attacks on Muslims in the U.S., and unending wars in the Arab World and Muslim-majority countries. Among other statements, from the absurd to the terrifying, Donald Trump ran his 2016 presidential campaign on the promise that he would dump political correctness, which he argued impeded the U.S.’ ability to take tough military stances. In other words, racist stereotypes should be welcomed into the White House policy apparatus.
However, as many are aware, Shaheen had a great deal of hope that with the help of dedicated scholars, activists and artists, vilification of Arabs and Muslims in popular culture would eventually fade into obscurity. Despite all the reasons to be fearful, we are also witnessing an important increase in positive and nuanced visibility of Arabs and Muslims on television screens. Aziz Ansari’s portrayal of a Muslim family on his hit show, Master of None, is one example. There’s no doubt that Hollywood will be pressured to change in response to audience demands for characters who exemplify the complexity, diversity and beauty of these groups. Although “yesteryear’s Arabland is today’s Arabland,” this doesn’t mean we have to tolerate tomorrow’s Arabland, and we shouldn’t.
Shaheen will be profoundly missed. His life and work will undoubtedly continue to serve as an inspiration to those who believe that representation matters in the fight for a just and fair world.
*Image: Jack Shaheen speaking at the Israel Lobby and American Policy conference on March 24, 2017. YouTube/Washington Report on Middle East Affairs