Arabian Knight

Jack Shaheen crusades against cinema's depiction of Reel Bad Arabs

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On October 3, there appeared in The New York Times an article about how movie studios are struggling to find new villains in a post-September 11 environment. Writer Rick Lyman rounded up the usual suspects: a few film producers, a couple of screenwriters and the requisite amount of film scholars, all of whom gathered to pat themselves on the back for their self-control. Their point was this: After New York and Washington and Pennsylvania, it would be so easy to give the baddies brown skin and beards, to make them Middle Eastern and cruel and callous enough to kill innocent thousands. No way, these mythmakers chime as if in unison. We're too nice to do that. It's not like the good ol' days after Pearl Harbor, Lyman insisted, when filmmakers presented gross caricatures of bug-eyed, bespectacled Japs. "This time," he wrote, "the entertainment industry has opted for restraint to avoid accusations of bias and the danger of offending audience sensibilities in an increasingly multicultural America."

To which Jack Shaheen would emphatically say, Bull. Shaheen--the grandson of Lebanese immigrants, a recipient of numerous Fulbright teaching awards, a longtime CBS News consultant on the Middle East--has spent too much of his life, some 25 years, documenting the entertainment industry's long, sordid history of disparaging Arabs and Muslims.

He can name for you hundreds of films--more than 900, from Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion to Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid--in which those of Arabic and Islamic descent are portrayed as villains and dehumanized caricatures, "as brute murderers, sleazy rapists, religious fanatics, oil-rich dimwits and abusers of women." At great length, he will discuss how the sum total of these images of demonization has warped filmgoers' perceptions of Arabs and Muslims and harmed Arab-Americans' own sense of self-worth.

"I feel that people are being hurt, and it's hurt disguised as entertainment," he says, his voice soft but emphatic. "That, to me, is a grievous sin. It's wrong. It goes against everything I've ever believed in. Entertain without perpetuating these hatreds. Is it that difficult? Of course not."

So, yeah, Hollywood's desire to keep from offending our delicate sensibilities comes as news to Shaheen. He just doesn't buy it. He has seen too much evidence to the contrary.

"I'd like to think of this as an opportunity to cease the vilification and to be more balanced in terms of how we portray people--all people--but that's up to the individual filmmaker and writer," he says. "But will they do it? I don't know."

Just a few weeks before terrorists leveled the World Trade Center, wounded the Pentagon and crashed a fourth airliner into the Pennsylvania woods, Olive Branch Press (what an optimistic name) published Shaheen's third book on the subject of how horrifically the entertainment media portray those of Arab descent. Titled Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, it serves as both a criticism of a medium and plea for tolerance. It damns Hollywood for its stereotypes and begs for a more fair and accurate portrayal of a people and a religion.

Reel Bad Arabs doesn't discriminate in its selections; it's almost numbingly comprehensive. The book singles out the most egregious of offerings--among them, such films as Black Sunday and The Siege, which portray Arabs as terrorists--and those that contain only fleeting disparaging comments about Arabs, including much of Neil Simon's oeuvre. No film is too inconsequential in Shaheen's estimation, be it a low-rent Brooke Shields camel opera in which she's nearly raped by Arabs (Sahara), a big-budget film in which Arabs are depicted as greed mongers intent on controlling U.S. banks (Rollover) or a critically acclaimed movie in which Middle Easterners are portrayed as "medieval fanatics" out to take over television (Network). He lambastes lightweight comedies (Ishtar, Protocol, Jewel of the Nile), condemns almost all of the Golan-Globus catalog (including such films as The Delta Force and The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington) and celebrates only a handful of films that portray Arabs with any dash of sympathy and realism (among them Three Kings and The 13th Warrior).

The effect is staggering, a dirty-laundry list of shameful images--the sum of which, Shaheen insists, "is one of the reasons why we have such a hard time separating today this lunatic fringe from the vast majority of people from that region who are pretty much like us, who want the same things we do--peace, a good education for their kids, a good time on Saturday night. As we've learned from the past with African-Americans and American Indians, when you show people as barbarians, when an act like [September 11] happens, we think all the people of the region are this way."

Only, Shaheen worries now that the events of September 11 will render the book invisible to those who might have once shared his concern. After all, how do you convince people it's wrong to malign the very people who killed innocent thousands on American soil?

The week of the attack, I spoke with Austin-based New Yorker contributor Lawrence Wright, who wrote the screenplay for director Ed Zwick's The Siege. In that 1998 film, large sections of Manhattan are bombed by Arab extremists protesting the arrest of their terrorist leader. Much of the city's Arab population is interrogated; their civil liberties are violated. There are numerous scenes of Arabs behind the chain-link fences of interment camps; it's like watching a Holocaust movie, with the U.S. Army in place of German soldiers.

Wright spoke of how he intended The Siege as a cautionary tale that asked, How would we react if terrorism exploded on our shores? What kind of people would we become? The film insisted we'd become civilized monsters, willing to round up our own in the name of homeland security. Wright said he hoped The Siege had contributed to the national discussion of caution, as political leaders went on television and begged Americans to keep from harming their brown-skinned neighbors.

"I've been very impressed with the cautious commentary on the part of a lot of television and radio people and the exercise of restraint toward Arabs and Muslims shown in the media," Wright says. "I think, to some extent, The Siege might have contributed to that sense of caution, because it was meant to be a cautionary tale, and maybe it succeeded."

Shaheen doesn't buy it, and with good reason: He actually served as a consultant on the film at the request of the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Arab Islamic Relations, which had received a copy of Wright's screenplay from Zwick and producer Lynda Obst. He and two CAIR officials went to Los Angeles to meet with Obst and Zwick to voice their anger: Why, they demanded, did the filmmakers single out Arabs as the film's villains? They pointed out that the film would further damage the perception of the world's 1.1 billion Arabs and Muslims; they cited a 1995 Los Angeles Times study that reported that of 171 people indicted in the United States for "terrorism and related activities," only six percent had ties to Arab groups. Their protests fell on deaf ears, and when the film was finally released, Shaheen and Zwick could often be found on network news programs, debating The Siege till they were hoarse.

"I found the producers of The Siege to be, in my opinion, insensitive and arrogant and intent on conveying the hatred of Arabs from the very beginning," Shaheen says. "Zwick just felt that New York was gonna be blown up by Muslim Arab terrorists, and he was going to show it, which is exactly what he did. So we stand on opposite ends, he and I, on this particular issue. I say his film increased intolerance. I say it spread a gospel of hate. He says otherwise, and that's where we are."

Shaheen, who lectured about such issues during his 25 years as a professor of mass communications at Southern Illinois University, began writing about this topic in 1978 for The Wall Street Journal. Six years later came his book The TV Arab, in which he discussed and deconstructed the ways television pigeonholes Arabs as "billionaires, bombers and belly dancers"; that book was followed by another, Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in America. In all, he has published some 300 articles on the topic; Shaheen has made such research his life's work. "I will never, ever cease trying to bring people together," he says, "and I will never, never, never cease trying to eradicate hate from the psyches of my fellow Americans and the people of the world."

But it has not been easy, and the events of September 11 will only make it more difficult; he is shouting in the vacuum of prolonged war. Shaheen has tried to work within the system, but he's had only modest success: He consulted with Warner Bros. on the sympathetic Three Kings, which he considers a highlight of his career, but there have been other instances in which his advice has gone unheeded or projects have gone unmade. And now he has to fight for his cause knee-deep in bloodlust; the very networks for which he has consulted have passed on inviting him to discuss his book. He knows what he's up against: Who wants to hear about the vilification of Arabs when they did this to us?

"Not to do this would mean the terrorists have won," Shaheen says. "Not to move forward, not to make an effort to cease this unending barrage of images of hate would mean that I have allowed this lunatic fringe to prevent me and my colleagues from helping to bring people together. And that doesn't help any of us."

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