Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture

By H, Richard | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 1998 | Go to article overview
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Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture

H, Richard, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture

Dr. Jack G. Shaheen, Pennsylvania-born emeritus professor of mass communications at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and now a visiting professor at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, wrote the book, literally, on media stereotyping of Arab Americans. In 1974, upon returning from a one-year Fulbright teaching grant at the American University of Beirut, he began collecting material illustrating the treatment of Arabs and other Middle Easterners by U.S. television, films and the mainstream press.

The result was a series of articles printed in national publications followed, in 1984, by his landmark book, The TV Arab. His research also established the need for and helped define the mission of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), an organization with which he has been informally affiliated since its establishment in 1980. Subsequently, he has lectured at universities and before Arab-American, Muslim-American and human rights organizations throughout the United States and abroad.

His new book concentrates also on the stereotyping of Muslims in the United States, which in many ways has subsumed the original problem of Arab-American stereotyping. To explain to readers why it is important to distinguish between stereotypes and realities, Shaheen submits a series of meticulously footnoted findings concerning the Muslim presence in the world in general and the United States in particular, as well as the Christian Arab presence in both.

"Islam, the fastest growing of the world religions, is now the second largest," Shaheen points out. "It is estimated that by the year 2000, Muslims will constitute 27 percent of the world's population. The 56 states which are predominantly Islamic constitute one-third of the membership of the United Nations...Eighteen million -- nearly 80 percent -- of the world's 23 million refugees are also Muslims...

"Through immigration, conversion, and birth, Muslims are our country's fastest growing religious group. Approximately five to eight million Muslims -- African-Americans, South Asians, American whites and members of other ethnic groups -- live in the United States...In 1970 there were fewer than 1,000 Muslims in Houston; today there are an estimated 60,000. Nearly half a million Muslims now reside in the Chicago metropolitan area...Approximately 400,000 Muslims live in New York City...There are more than 200,000 Muslim businesses [in the U.S.], 1,500 mosques, 165 Islamic schools, 425 Muslim associations and 85 Islamic publications."

Turning to the Christian presence in the Middle East and among Arab Americans, Shaheen presents carefully documented statements such as these: "As [Duke University Prof.] Ralph Braibanti points out, `While there are profound theological differences between Islam and Christianity, there are also significant similarities. For example, social harmony with Christians and Jews has always been a central tenet of Islam...On social problems for instance, there is almost complete agreement between believing Christians and Muslims'...

"Approximately 15 million Christians -- ranging from Eastern Orthodox to Episcopalian to Roman Catholic to Protestant -- reside in Arab countries. But motion pictures and television programs never show Arab Christians even though the majority of America's three million Arab-Americans are Christians. According to the American Muslim Council, `about 30 percent' of Arab Americans are Muslims."

Having established the importance of his subject, Shaheen tells some surprising tales. For example, "in 1980, during the height of the Iranian hostage crisis, a national poll gauging American attitudes toward Arabs revealed that 70 percent of the American people surveyed identified Iran as an Arab country and 8 percent `admitted they did not know whether it was or not.'"

Just as three-quarters of Americans could not distinguish between the Indo-European Iranians and the Semitic Arabs, according to Shaheen, nearly 40 percent of America's Muslims are African-Americans, but the U.

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