March 24, 2017 at the National Press Club, Washington, DC


Jack Shaheen

Strategies to Successfully Push Back Against Harmful Hollywood Stereotypes About Arabs and Muslims, and the Work New Generations Must Take On

Dale Sprusansky:  Our next speaker, many of you know, truly needs no introduction.  Jack Shaheen is an internationally acclaimed author and media critic.  His lectures and writing include many, many things.  His books include A Is for Arab: Archiving Stereotypes in U.S. Popular Culture, and Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs After 9/11.  He’s been in this field for an incredibly long amount of time, and we couldn’t be happier to have him here today.  His book signing will be at 6:00, rescheduled from lunchtime.  Ladies and gentlemen, Jack Shaheen. 

Jack Shaheen:  Well, colleagues, guest speakers, friends—heartfelt thanks for your participation today.  It’s extremely, it’s wonderful to be here.  My heart belongs with the Washington Report, mainly because the first speech I ever gave on stereotyping was in Beirut, and the man who sat in the front row was the Delinda Hanley’s father, Richard Curtiss. [APPLAUSE]

Anyway, to paraphrase Plato, those who tell the stories rule society.  Flashback 1962, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, commencement address at Yale University: “Damaging myths are doing our nation a great disservice.  The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, the myth—persistent, persuasive, and realistic.” 

Now journey with me briefly this afternoon as I offer five suggestions as to how to contest those persistent myths about Arabs and Muslims.  First, a bit of history: for nearly half a century—I know I look much younger than I am—I’ve tracked Hollywood’s Arabs and Muslims.  Almost always, I found they appear as villains.  They’re godless, evil, enemy, other.  Renewed and repeated over and over again, these images are hardwired into our psyches.  As the Arab proverb reminds us, “By repetition even the donkey learns.” 

Islamophobia has joined Arabophobia.  Prejudices are escalating, not diminishing.  Today’s villains are not just Arabs and Muslims from over there.  They are homegrown Americans with Arab roots, and American Muslims, including Muslims from countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran.  Before 9/11, dark-complexioned actors portrayed Arabs from over there as villains.  They were listed in the credits—I think this is interesting—the  credits always stated: Terrorist #1, Terrorist #2, Terrorist #3.  They had no identity.  No names.  But today, thanks to the rise of Islamophobia, they are listed: Jihadist #1, Jihadist #2, Jihadist #3. 

Now in my modest opinion, the dramatic changes in villains took place right after 9/11, due primarily to one producer by the name of Howard Gordon, who produced the series “24.”  This Fox television series aired about 10 weeks after the attacks.  Until that time, American Arabs and American Muslims were invisible on TV screens.  We did not exist in media land, except for Danny Thomas in the ’60s, you know, with the “Danny Thomas Show,” and Jamie Farr, lovable Jamie running around in the woman’s dress in “M*A*S*H.”  That was it.  Otherwise, we just were invisible. 

And then suddenly, Howard Gordon started showing Americans with Arab roots and American Muslims as homegrown terrorists out to destroy their country.  “24” was so successful that numerous copycat series copied that format from “24.”  Shows that I hope none of you have ever seen, like “Threat Matrix,” “Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye,” “The Agency,” “The Unit,” and others. 

And what’s really hurtful about all of this is that Arab Americans and Muslim Americans, like others at the World Trade Center—they were victims.  More than three dozen were killed.  There’s never been a story about the brave Yemeni who worked in the Marriott Hotel who lost his life saving people.  Yet here we are as victims of 9/11, and Gordon comes around and these other image makers, and they make us the terrorists.     

Today, more than ever, these villains prowl TV screens.  Arab and Muslim, along with American Arabs and Muslims, are terrorists.  They commit heinous acts like holding students hostage in a Hawaiian high school.  They blow up students in a coffee shop in Illinois.  They appear in popular series that I hope you don’t watch, such as “Tyrant,” “24: Legacy,” “Madam Secretary,” “Hawaii Five-0,” “Chicago Justice,” “Six,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” and a score of others. 

And the shows do not project our country’s mosques as they are—holy places of worship.  Rather, they are projected as a haven for terrorists.  God.  We don’t project synagogues or churches this way.  Why do we focus on mosques?  As Ed Murrow reminds us, “What we do not see is often as important, if not more important, than what we do see, the sins of omission and commission.”

Now, how to eliminate these stereotypes?  I’m not like the genie from Aladdin’s lamp, but I do have five suggestions.  The most important is this one:  Americans with Arab roots and American Muslims, people like writer/director Cherien Dabis, who made the movie “Amreeka” and other films; as well as those involved in the TV series “Mr. Robot,” Emmy Award-winners Sam Esmail and Rami Malek. Well, they’ve got to get their act together and form a coalition of activists.  Some organizations have reached out to the industry, but no one is more qualified, no one knows more about how best to offer correctives, than young Arab and Muslim American image makers.  They are part of the profession.  They are on the ground in Los Angeles and in New York.  This group of activists could meet regularly with the industry’s image makers.  Early on, as soon as they learn that a new TV show or film will be produced.  Before the show begins production, because once they go into production, it’s too late. 

For example, this summer there’s a new movie coming out called “Aladdin.”  It’s going to be a live-action Disney movie directed by Guy Ritchie.  Now, not one organization—except the ADC—not one individual—except yours truly, there may be others—has reached out to contact Disney and Ritchie about “Aladdin.”  Why?  So we could offer constructive suggestions about how best to avoid stereotypes that appeared in that animated version of “Aladdin.”  You know: “I come from a land from far, far away / a place where the caravan camels roam / where they cut off your ear, if they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric but, hey, it’s home.” 

It’s important that we work with Ritchie now, to help him make a film that will be successful, that makes a profit and that entertains, and that Americans can go to if they have Arab roots or American Muslims, and not be ashamed of their heritage or fear that their children are going to be damaged by these stereotypes. 

Why not?  Why can’t these image makers get together and try to lobby to make a difference?  For too many years, Arab and American Muslims have been relegated to playing terrorists.  Fortunately, there are some who have spoken out.  My friend, Maz Jobrani, an Iranian American, told his agent, “No more terrorists.  I don’t need to play these parts—you feel like you are selling out.” 

My other friend, comedian—my friends are all comedians.  You know, I tried.  I said, I’m available, but they didn’t want anyone with grey hair.  Anyway, Ahmed Ahmed had this to say.  He refused to change his name.  He said, quote, “I’m never going to change my name.  It’s my birth name, my given name.”  Now consider the plight of this young actor from England.  His name is Amrou Al-Kadhi.  He is a 12 year old.  When he was 12, he was cast as the son of a terrorist in Steven Spielberg’s movie “Munich.”  “I am 26 now,” he said recently.  “I have already been sent 30 scripts for which I’ve been asked to play terrorists on screen.”  My proposed coalition could hopefully end such typecasting. 

Second, when I first started to explore this issue back in the mid-’70s, I was alone.  With the exception of my wife and the cellphone that’s currently ringing, there was no one around.  My wife, God love her, Bernice, stood by me, but I was the only one.  Nothing was written.  Nobody talked about this image.  Nobody wanted to publish anything.  But now, thank goodness there are graduate students and faculty members who write and teach about shows that humanize and vilify Arabs and Muslims.  Now these scholars need to expand their research efforts.  How?  By going outside the walls of academe, going to Los Angeles, going to New York, meeting with producers and writers on a one-to-one basis, as I did in my early book, The TV Arab.  We’ve got to make our presence known.  It’s a great way to get something published.  So that’s my advice to my colleagues in academe. 

Third, more presence is needed in the media, just as more presence is needed in politics, right?  We need more than Keith Ellison in Washington.  Anyway, presence propagates power.  “The more power you have,” remarked producer Gilbert Gates, “the louder your voice is heard.”  Now, thanks to producers and directors like Stephen Gaghan, Charles Roven and George Clooney, I was fortunate to have my voice heard in a very, very positive way on two feature films—“Three Kings” and “Syriana.”  The men and women that I worked with on those two features were absolutely terrific.  They, I would say, embraced 90 percent of the suggestions that I offered to eliminate stereotypes.  But my main goal was to help them make a better movie without offending anyone.  So they deserve a tremendous amount of credit—but, again, my presence on the set made a tremendous difference.  I say that because when I initially read the screenplays, I thought they were the worst—I can’t use the word.  Anyway, they were bad. 

All right, four years ago, there were some signs of encouragement.  Four years ago, members from New York University came to our home on Hilton Head Island and took away 5,000 Arab artifacts, more than 2,000 films and TV shows.  Now at NYU, there is the Shaheen Archive, which houses this collection [APPLAUSE], which is available to scholars and students and filmmakers worldwide.  What’s interesting about this collection is they put together an exhibit called “A Is for Arab” (which is also the title of my new book, which I will be signing at 6:00).  This “A Is for Arab” exhibit goes all around the country to universities, and it’s available just to cover the cost of postage.

My wife, bless her heart, it was her idea to create the Shaheen Scholarships, and each and every year, we award scholarships to young Arab-American students majoring in media.  To date, we’ve awarded over 70 media scholarships to encourage these young people to become involved. [APPLAUSE]

Young Arab and American Muslims—I was doing research, I had to do research for this, because this was something fresh, and I told Delinda I wouldn’t use any of my old notes.  I found young Arab American filmmakers and Muslim Americans—comedians like Maz Jobrani, Ahmed Ahmed, Dean Obeidallah, all three of them—not only do they do standup acts, but they produce movies, feature films.  Jobrani did four—“Jimmy Vestvood: Amerikan Hero,” “Brown and Friendly.”  Ahmed Ahmed did a great film called “Just Like Us.”  Dean Obeidallah did “The Muslims are Coming!” 

They’re out there.  I discovered there are at least 10 Arab-American and Canadian women who actively make feature films.  And there are at least two dozen women from the Arab world, from 10 different countries, making feature films and documentaries.  Women like Saudi filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour, who directed the 2012 Academy Award-nominated drama Wadjda.  We still have a long way to go, but these young women, along with their male counterparts, are leading the way, replacing damaging portraits with inventive, realistic images. 

Fourth—I see the caution light is on—fourth, I’ll go quick.  Those [organizations] that do Arab film festivals throughout the country are great.  They just do a marvelous job.  My only recommendation is that they bring in producers and writers if they can, if their budgets allow—honor them, respect them, and showcase them during their festivals. 

Finally, the fifth and final suggestion: major organizations such as the ADC—of which I’ve been a charter member since, well, I won’t say when but I’ve been a major member for a long time.  Anyway, they should become active and acknowledge more often image makers whose films enhance tolerance and image makers who vilify Arabs.  They should do this on a regular basis.  They should let the trade papers know so it gets inked.  Use social media such as Twitter and Facebook.  We need to let them know that we know what they’re doing, and acknowledge those who are doing things to shatter myths. 

Stereotypes don’t exist in a vacuum.  They injure people, especially children.  Damaging myths also injure those who may look Arab—black, Sikhs, Native Americans, Hispanics and others.  They give ammunition to recruiters for extremist groups like the Islamic State, ISIS.  They use these stereotypes to recruit members in their propaganda films.  History teaches us the more people and their faiths are vilified, the more they are “them” and not “us.” 

There have been scores of TV series over the years focusing on physicians and lawyers and broadcasters and journalists.  Yet to my knowledge, not one of these series ever featured an Arab-American protagonist in medicine.  We have never seen the equivalent of a pioneering heart surgeon, Dr. Michael DeBakey, or Dr. George Hatem.  George Hatem, there’s a statue of him in China because of the wonderful work that he did there.  We have never seen the equivalent in law of a woman like Rosemary Barkett, the [former] chief justice on the Florida Supreme Court, or someone like our friend Ralph Nader.  In journalism, we’ve never seen the equivalent of Arab Americans like Leila Fadel, National Public Radio’s bureau chief in Cairo and a Shaheen scholarship recipient.  Or Michael Sallah, the Miami Herald’s Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.

From the beginning, I have always proposed that image makers project Arab and Muslim characters as three-dimensional humane individuals—no better, no worse than they project other people.  Why don’t they include in future scenarios a doctor, like “Dr. Victor Nassar, At Your Service”?  A lawyer like Michael Rafeedie and a reporter like George Hishmeh?  Why not?  Are we not part of America’s landscape?  Have we not made great contributions in these fields and others?  Then we should be part of the visual landscapes on television and in cinema.

In conclusion, perceptions impact public opinion and public policies.  I’ll repeat it.  They impact opinion and public policies.  Given the rise of ISIS and recent terrorist attacks here and abroad, shattering stereotypes is more difficult today than ever before.  Politicians and members of some special interest groups actively campaign to vilify all things Arabs and Muslims.  Resulting in what?  More hate crimes, more harassment, more fear, more deaths, notably innocent Arabs and Muslim Americans, college students in North Carolina, a Christian Lebanese in Tulsa, an imam in Queens, as well as the deaths of anyone who is perceived to be Arab or Muslim—an Indian in Kansas, a Sikh in Washington. 

Unfortunately, there are those who do not see or care about the difference between Sikhs and sheikhs.  Media images continue to teach us whom we should love and whom we should hate.  Yet in spite of the current barrage of hate rhetoric and racist policies and damaging images, I remain an optimist.  I have faith in young scholars and image makers, because I always believe the future belongs to them and to the men and women in the industry who are humanists. 

Let me just give you two examples of two shows that I just saw.  One is a CBS sitcom called “Superior Donuts.”  In this one episode, there’s a dry cleaning shop owned by Fawz, an Iraqi American.  Someone sprays on Fawz’s windows, “Arabs go home.”  When Arthur, who runs Superior Donuts, the donut shop, sees that—Arthur is Jewish, by the way—he takes a rag and he removes that from Fawz’s window.  Then he takes a can of spray paint and sprays on his window of the donut shop, “Arabs welcome.”  Arabs welcome—that’s a telling moment, I think, in TV sitcoms.  There are other shows, but in the interest of time, I’ll skip them. 

Finally, there’s Mandy Patinkin, who stars in the series “Homeland.”  He admitted for the first five seasons, Muslims were the bad guys.  Admitting that because it’s an on-the-edge-of-your-seat political drama, the series was not helping the American Muslim community.  “We take responsibility for it. We are part of the problem,” he said.  “But we also desperately want to be part of the cure.”  And then Richard Gere speaking out against the way Palestinians were being treated in the occupied territories. 

To rebuke these peddlers of prejudice—you like that: peddlers of prejudice?  I think I stole it from someone.  I don’t remember who, but I like it.  To rebuke these peddlers of prejudice, I think that we should keep in mind two things.  First, the wisdom of Václav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, who reminds us that none of us as an individual can save the world as a whole, but each of us must behave as though it was in his or her power to do so. 

Finally, yesterday I went to the African American Museum, whose moving displays reflect the damage that hateful stereotypes did for centuries upon the African American people of our country.  I thought when I was there of one quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  King was in a jail in Birmingham, Alabama, and he said something like, “I think the people who have ill will have used their time more effectively than have the people of good will.”  He says, to change all of this, we should become movers and shakers. 

So ladies and gentlemen, Hanan, Tom, Jim, Delinda, John, Mary, Bill, Abdul, whoever is in here, please join me in becoming a mover and shaker.  Thank you very much.

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