Colleagues and friends recently paid tribute to a much-loved pioneering scholar and activist, who dedicated nearly 50 years of his life to battling negative media stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims.
Jack Shaheen died July 9 at the age of 81 in a hospital in Charleston, South Carolina, after succumbing to cancer. The son of Orthodox Christian Lebanese immigrants, Shaheen spent most of his working and personal life challenging racialized media stereotypes after he saw firsthand the effect they had on his two children. His family recalled the incident in a statement they released after his death. “When people asked what brought him to explore the Arab stereotype — a previously untouched field — Shaheen would quote the calls of his own young children as they followed morning cartoons: ‘Daddy, daddy, there are bad Arabs on TV!’ ”
Shocked by their comment, he asked his children to point out other examples of cartoons where they saw “bad Arabs” and was flabbergasted by the number of examples they gave. His distress at the fact that millions of children were growing up exposed to such negative stereotypes was a pivotal moment in his life and changed the trajectory of his academic work at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville (SIUE), where he was a professor at the time.
Helga Tawil-Souri, director of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University (NYU) — one of the departments where Shaheen was a distinguished visiting professor before he died — wrote to me in an email:
This began an investigation of sorts on his part to sift through the entire gamut of Hollywood movies, through which he found that indeed Arabs and Muslims — mostly conflated with one another — were always negatively portrayed and fell into different stereotypes: the womanizing “sheikh,” the poor and dirty backwards Arab, the evil terrorist, the lying merchant, among others. People might think that certain stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims — particularly their depictions as “terrorists” — began in post 9/11 America, but Shaheen’s research shows how these misrepresentations have been embedded in American pop culture for almost a century.
Shaheen, with the help of his wife Bernice, began cataloging cartoons, sitcoms, dramas and documentaries that featured negative depictions of Arabs. This lead to an archive with more than 3,000 television and film titles that was donated to New York University.
But Shaheen didn’t only write books and articles and lecture on the research he did, he was also on the front lines challenging Hollywood executives on their depictions. Jack Tchen, founding director of NYU’s Asian/Pacific/American Studies Institute and program, and co-founder of the Museum of Chinese in America, where Shaheen was also a visiting professor, wrote to me in an email that Shaheen “was open and sophisticated in his analytical understanding while at the same time had a singular focus on how to fight media representations and how to challenge media executives beyond how stereotypes sell tickets. He was immensely effective in challenging a large faceless industry and lit up one of the ways we have to continue the fight.” One such example was his successful fight to get Disney to change the lyrics to one of its songs in Aladdin, which depicted Arabs cutting off the ears of people whose faces they don’t like.
But it wasn’t just his academic work and activism that affected people. Tchen recounted to me how “his sharp sense of humor kept him going even in the toughest of times. He used to call me ‘Fu’ for the Anglo-America yellow peril villain Dr. Fu Manchu, and he decided I should call him ‘Jafar’ after the Disney villain in Aladdin. While the powers that be ignore us until they can’t anymore, this kind of boyishness always reminded me what was at stake — the most harm is done to the world’s young hearts and minds who get colonized by such simple-minded feelings of who is good and who is bad.”
As well as serving as a journalism professor at SIUE from 1969 to 1994, and then as an independent researcher until 2001, Shaheen was a consultant on Middle Eastern affairs for CBS News and a motion picture and television consultant with DreamWorks, Warner Brothers, Hanna-Barbera Productions and Showtime. He regularly discussed media stereotypes on national programs and networks such as CNN, MSNBC, National Public Radio, Nightline, Good Morning America, 48 Hours and The Today Show. He wrote scores of op-ed pieces for newspapers and according to the statement released by his family, contributed 300-plus feature magazine essays published in major venues around the world, and gave over 1,000 lectures throughout the U.S. and on three continents. He was the author of six publications, the most famous of which was the award-winning Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. It was adapted to a 2006 documentary made by Media Education Foundation.
Shaheen and his wife also set up a scholarship fund to increase educational opportunities for Arab American students majoring in mass communications, journalism and film. Shaheen also took time out of his hectic schedule to encourage, support and champion Arab Americans working in the media landscape. He had a personal impact on many, whether through a one-off conversation or a lasting friendship.
Dalia Mogahed, a director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), recalled Shaheen’s kindness at a conference where they were both panel members. In an email, she wrote:
I was on a panel with Dr. Shaheen in NYC to discuss a horrific play by a Dutch playwright called “Veiled Monologues.” For context, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was an advisor on the play. It featured a series of monologues by purportedly Muslim women living in the Netherlands, each more demeaning and degrading and demonizing of Islam and Muslims than the next. The play features every possible negative stereotype of Muslim women without even an attempt at “balance.” Dr. Shaheen was brilliant on the panel but what really moved me is he came to me right after the show ended before we started the panel and said, “I am so sorry you had to endure what we just saw. I am so sorry.” He knew exactly how personally painful it was to see Muslim women and Islam portrayed that way. He was a man of empathy and great courage. His books personally inspired me to challenge media images of Arabs and Muslims. I often cited his work in my outreach and writings.
Kamal Marayati, who has acted in shows such as Law & Order and Day Break, told me in a phone call, “It did not occur to me there were stereotypes until after I graduated acting school. I did not think I would be playing a Middle Easterner. I thought I would be playing the same roles as my White peers. Instead, I was called in for ethnic roles. I then came across Jack’s book Reel Bad Arabs and realized how deep the negative stereotypes were.”
Marayati decided to make a montage of negative clips mentioned in the book at a convention held by the Muslim Public Affairs Committee. He reached out to Shaheen to tell him about it, but didn’t expect what happened next. “He called me and said how proud [he was at] what I was doing. He said what I was doing as an actor was so important. He referred to himself as Uncle Jack. I remember everything he said. It made such an impact.”
Comedian, radio talk show host and commentator Dean Obeidallah also paid tribute in an email, telling me, “Jack was truly an inspiration and one of the kindest, most supportive people I ever met. I cited his book Reel Bad Arabs in many articles I wrote and even featured it in a show I did years ago in NYC. I will always remember Jack for dropping me random emails if he saw an article I wrote or an appearance on TV to offer generous praise. He will be greatly missed for his kindness, support and for providing us tools to fight anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry in the media.”
A private family burial and reception took place in Hilton Head, South Carolina, on July 15. Shaheen is survived by his wife Bernice, daughter Michele, son Michael and granddaughters Julie, Lauren, Camilla and Veronica.
*Image: Jack Shaheen speaking at the 2016 International Education Week at the University of South Carolina. IntlStudentServices.