The New Arab Logo

Breaking News
Jack Shaheen, a powerful voice against Arab stereotypes in popular culture, dies at 81 Open in fullscreen

Charlie Hoyle

Jack Shaheen, a powerful voice against Arab stereotypes in popular culture, dies at 81

Jack Shaheen was a pioneer in challenging and exposing racial and ethnic stereotypes of Arab-Americans.

Date of publication: 13 July, 2017

Share this page:
  • 0

  • twitter
Jack Shaheen was a pioneer in challenging and exposing racial and ethnic stereotypes of Arab-Americans, exposing deep-rooted Orientalism in US popular culture.
Jack Shaheen, a prominent Arab-American scholar who fought tirelessly to combat negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in popular culture, died on Monday in South Carolina aged 81.

Born in Pennysylvania in 1935 to Lebanese parents, Shaheen obtained a PhD at the University of Missouri and spent decades teaching mass communications at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.

His award-winning book, 'Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (2001)', documented American cinema's negative portrayal of Arabs in Hollywood.

His other books included 'Guilty: Hollywood's Verdict on Arabs After 9/11' and 'The TV Arab'.

His research found that of more than a thousand films made between 1896 and 2000 with Arab or Muslim characters, only 12 portrayed them in a positive light.

"I was driven by the need to expose an injustice: cinema's systematic, pervasive, and unapologetic degradation and dehumanization of a people," Shaheen wrote.

An acclaimed writer, lecturer and media critic, Shaheen was a pioneer in challenging and exposing racial and ethnic stereotypes of Arab-Americans, exposing deep-rooted Orientalism in the US media.

When one ethnic, racial, or religious group is vilified, innocent people suffer

Drawing parallels with the structural racist imagery of American Indians, African-Americans, Jews and Japanese-Americans, he argued that pervasive dehumanization had a real impact on public policy and the treatment of minorities.

"Dislike of 'the stranger,' which the Greeks knew as xenophobia, forewarns that when one ethnic, racial, or religious group is vilified, innocent people suffer," he wrote.

In one of Shaheen's notable victories, in 1993 he persuaded Disney to change the song lyrics of hit-film Aladdin, a rare instance of a major studio changing a film post-release.

'Where they cut off your ear/If they don't like your face' was changed to 'Where it's flat and immense/And the heat is intense', although anti-discrimination groups still widely criticized lyrics which included: 'It's barbaric, but hey, it's home.'

Shaheen also worked tirelessly to diversify the industry, creating scholarships for Arab-American college students to study media through organizations such as the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).

Safa Rifka, the ADC board chairman, said that the Arab-American community "lost one of its best".

"His work started a conversation about the representation of Arabs in Hollywood and the need for more nuanced depictions of the community. Dr. Shaheen will be greatly missed."

In a preface to one of his academic essays, Shaheen said that prejudice was an acquired trait, created and perpetuated by film and television. 

He often quoted the proverb: "By repetition even the donkey learns."

"My life," he said in a 2015 interview, "has been dedicated to trying to humanize Arabs and Muslims and to give visibility to American-Arabs and American-Muslims - to have us being projected no better, no worse, than anyone else."

Most Popular

Read More