Arabian Knight

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

On October 3, there appeared in The New York Timesan 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 soeasy 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He can name for you hundreds of films--more than 900, from Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legionto Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid--in which those of Arabic and Islamic descent are portrayed as villains and dehumanized caricatures, "as brute murderers, sleazy rapists, religious fanatics,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.

Jack Shaheen consulted on Three Kings, which the author believes failed at the box office because audiences "didn't want to see American soldiers bonding with Muslims."
Jack Shaheen consulted on Three Kings, which the author believes failed at the box office because audiences "didn't want to see American soldiers bonding with Muslims."
Jack Shaheen consulted on Three Kings, which the author believes failed at the box office because audiences "didn't want to see American soldiers bonding with Muslims."
Jack Shaheen consulted on Three Kings, which the author believes failed at the box office because audiences "didn't want to see American soldiers bonding with Muslims."

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"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 Arabsdoesn'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 Forceand 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 Kingsand 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 Yorkercontributor 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.

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