Dr. Jack Shaheen Discusses Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People

By H, Richard; C, Delinda | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 31, 2001 | Go to article overview

Dr. Jack Shaheen Discusses Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People


H, Richard, C, Delinda, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Dr. Jack Shaheen Discusses Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People

Richard H. Curtiss is the executive editor and Delinda C. Hanley the news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

Dr. Jack G. Shaheen is just about as excited as he's ever been and, for those who know this expert on media stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims, that's very excited. After 20 years of research Shaheen's latest book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, is complete, and Interlink Books, Inc. has given it a June 2001 release date. (Previous books include The TV Arab and Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture.)

The timing of Reel Bad Arabs could not be better. It explains how Israel won its public relations war with Palestinians even before the first rubber-coated steel bullet was fired: American journalists and their audiences have been raised on "bad Arab, good Israeli" images their entire lives.

When he first started investigating and documenting Hollywood's image of Arabs from 1896 to the present, Shaheen said, he thought he'd "crank out the book in a couple of years." The trouble was, he soon discovered, more films kept coming out every year, each one even worse than the last. Shaheen reviewed more than 900 films, many of which are all too easily available on network TV, cable, or videocassette. Others he had to find in the Library of Congress, New York City's Museum of Modern Art, and in film libraries at UCLA and other film centers. Some early silent films have been lost.

Shaheen located the films by searching for Arab names and plots, punching key words like "Arab" and "camel" in computer search engines, and reading reviews of every motion picture made. This took a lot longer than he ever imagined. "After four or five years," he said, "my friends stopped asking when I was going to finish the book."

As he researched movies, Shaheen also began collecting material illustrating the treatment of Arabs and other Middle Easterners in eight years of U.S. television for The TV Arab "The ugly images are the same," Shaheen said, "but in motion pictures there are just more of them."

Asked if he has seen any improvement in the realistic portrayal of Arabs since he began his research two decades ago, Shaheen demurred. "There seems to be a Saddam Hussain/Osama bin Laden industry in Hollywood, the U.S. military and the news media," he noted.

The military can justify more peacetime spending if the public believes in the dangerous terrorist villain, he continued. In an age when the U.S. government fights offensive stereotypical images for every other group, Arab and Muslim stereotypes seem to be ignored--or even encouraged. It's hard to believe, Shaheen said, that in the 21st century, the print and news media, as well as the motion picture industry, can continue to perpetuate this vile image.

In fact, he pointed out, the U.S. Department of Defense, as well as the Army, the Marines, the Navy and the National Guard, have provided technical assistance to Hollywood producers to ensure that films like "The Rules of Engagement" (2000), "True Lies" (1994), "Executive Decision" (1996) and "Freedom Strike" (1998) accurately portray U.S. Armed Forces mowing down Arabs. The FBI aided producers of "The Siege" (1998), a movie showing Americans of Arab heritage and Muslim Arabs attacking Manhattan.

Through their association with these films, Shaheen said, the Defense Department at best shows a lack of sensitivity. What do movies that demonize Arabs and Muslims teach American soldiers, especially those serving in the Arab world? he asked. Why would U.S. military officials cooperate with Hollywood producers who have purposely set out to pick on the vast majority of real, and friendly, Arab countries?

Not surprisingly, Israel is a vital part of the equation. Shaheen's book examines 28 movies with an Israeli connection, released between 1983 and 1998, that vilify Arabs and often feature Palestinians as terrorists. …

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