Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2001, page 103

Special Report

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

By Richard H. Curtiss and Delinda C. Hanley

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. More than half were filmed in Israel and, if the Israeli government didn’t finance the production, it assisted in various ways. The plot of “Death Before Dishonor” (1987) is a perfect example of these “made-in-Israel” films. A fanatical terrorist group attacks an American Embassy compound in the Middle East. It’s up to the hero to become a one-man army, free the abductees, and kill as many Arabs as he can.

The Israeli Connection

For decades Israeli filmmakers and producers have collaborated with their supporters in Hollywood toproduce films with a common theme: Arabs invade the U.S.—New York, Los Angeles, or even a high school in Indiana. Terrorists storm in, take hostages, and kill civilians. Arabs enslave and abuse Africans. While Hollywood concocted “True Lies,” “Wanted Dead or Alive” (1986) and “The Siege,” Israel made “Iron Eagle” (1986), “Chain of Command” (1992), “Death Before Dishonor,” (1987) and “Delta Force” (1986).

Nazis made vile, anti-Semitic films that cannot be shown in movie theaters in Germany because of the messages they carry, Shaheen continued. “Yesterday’s Jewish image is the same as the Arab image today,” he noted. “How different is today’s Arab from yesterday’s Jew: the funny-looking sheikh, wearing the robe, the money grubber who is killing innocents, worshipping another god, trying to take over the world...?”

Why have American studios like Cannon Films, owned and operated by two Israeli producers, Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus, released more than two dozen of these Arab-bashing since 1985, like “Hell Squad” (1985) and “Killing Streets” (1991)? Why would a people who were treated so badly treat others the same way? Why does it keep getting worse?

Dr. Shaheen’s wife, Bernice, catalogued every analysis, singling out the unrelenting slurs, of which the milder ones were “rag heads, towel heads, sons of she-camels, and Ay-Rabs.”

It is inconceivable that similar racial slurs against other ethnic groups would be tolerated in American films today. “It’s an unremitting disaster for generation after generation of Arab Americans,” Dr. Shaheen said, “and no one stands up to say—that’s enough. Where is the outrage?”

Anti-Arab virulence in films has increased in the last three decades just as more news reports in the print media, radio, and TV have focused on radical Arabs and bad guys since 1948. The news adage seems to be: “ If it bleeds it leads,” Shaheen observed. Along with the demonization of leaders such as Saddam Hussain, Muammar Qaddafi and Ayatollah Khomeini, reporters focus on lunatic fringe extremists, project Arabs as terrorists, use certain phrases to describe Arabs, and report a distorted truth. By and large, every Arab is a terrorist and every Muslim an extremist. Almost never is an Arab Christian portrayed. It’s easy for filmmakers to find a villain, Dr. Shaheen said: “You pick someone who will cause the least trouble, a convenient scapegoat.”

Has Hollywood maligned any other group as much as it has Arabs? Shaheen said that Arab Muslims are right up there with Native American Indians, “who have gotten a bad rap in 1,000 films. While Asians, Jews and Latinos are often stereotyped in the media, the abuse suffered by these groups pales in comparison with Arabs.”

Despite all the recent attention of the TV show “The Sopranos,” Italian-American stereotypes have never come close to the meanness faced by Arab-Americans. At least in the Italian mafia movies and TV shows, they make a little effort to balance the violence with happy Italian families. There are no Arab families in films, Shaheen pointed out. No other ethnic group is the subject of such uniformly unflattering stereotyping.

Why has this happened? Repeating something over and over is a common teaching tool, Dr. Shaheen said, and bombarding viewers with the bad Arab theme and image creates a never-ending stream of prejudice. Repulsive images boost more images.

Speaking candidly, Shaheen admitted it was difficult to finish the book and remain objective after viewing 750 emotionally disturbing movies. “It beats you down,” he said. “You think it can’t get any worse—and it does. You try to stay detached and scientific, but it is difficult to write about such persistent defamation. You begin to take it personally...It’s a double whammy. We [Americans of Arab heritage] are invisible—we don’t exist. Meanwhile, nearly all Arabs on the silver screen are heinous characters. It leads to a denial of heritage.”

It also can lead to serious political reactions, Shaheen said: “Imagine if a Muslim- or Arab-American had bombed the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City—God help us. Timothy McVeigh was never described as an Irish Catholic or a veteran. When one person’s terrible actions are linked to a whole group the effect is disastrous.”

Now that Dr. Shaheen has exposed the injustice done to Arabs in Reel Bad Arabs, he hopes that scholars will use the book as a springboard for hundreds of articles that can expand and develop the themes of his research. Universities with Middle East centers should now take a long-overdue look at the portrayal and perception of Arabs and Muslims in contemporary culture. Dozens of film courses address stereotypes of other groups, he said. So, why aren’t Middle East studies centers and film studies departments offering courses that look at the portrayal of Arab Muslims in films, he asked.

Dr. Shaheen maintains that more Arab- and Muslim-Americans need to become journalists, TV producers, and filmmakers. “If your boss is Arab-American, you won’t vilify an Arab American in your screenplay,” he explained. Through the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), Shaheen is now offering an annual mass communication scholarship to encourage Arab Americans to become part of the industry.

The Arab-American community is to blame for remaining apathetic and silent and for not supporting ADC, which is committed to contesting hurtful stereotypes, Shaheen concluded. Though the community is wealthy and well-educated, it has failed to lobby the entertainment industry. “There should be an office in LA, near the makers of our myths,” he proposed, “just as we have an office near the makers of our policy in Washington, DC.

“We can’t walk away from this issue,” Shaheen said. “We have to stop blaming other people and take it on ourselves.

“Once upon a time I thought the stereotyping of Arabs was because of ignorance,” he said. “No more. I know it is more straight-out purposeful now. Films vilify Arabs for different reasons, not all political. Some reasons are financial. Arab-bashing is a surefire box office winner.”

And finally, it should be noted that Hollywood exports these films all over the world. Hollywood doesn’t just shape what we think in the U.S., Shaheen warned, but what the global community thinks as well. What about Arab countries that actually import these films? he wondered. Perhaps Arab political leaders don’t worry about attacks on another Arab land’s image as long as their own country is untarnished. But, he said, they don’t realize that to American viewers an Arab is an Arab.

Shaheen challenged the Arab and Muslim community to read Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People and send it to men and women who have influence— teachers, advertisers, movie-makers, screenwriters, film critics, members of Congress and the press—as well as to libraries. Otherwise, he said, one can just sit there and let another generation of Arab-American children flinch when they go to a movie that lambasts their heritage. 


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

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