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Arab and Muslim stereotypes can be changed by the entertainment industry

Negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims continue in popular media in the West, but progress is being made

Several years ago, I, along with 31 noted Arab journalists and international media specialists, participated in a conference hosted by Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies.  Later, the Centre published a telling book, Arab Media in the Information Age (2005). In my essay for the same book, The New Anti-Semitism Hollywood’s Reel Bad Arabs: Impacting Public Opinion and Policy, I wrote about the creative power of the entertainment and media industries to reduce Arabs and Muslims into a single imaginary threatening entity. 

For more than four decades, I have lectured, collected and written about Arab images in US popular culture. Why? Because I wanted to make an injustice visible by shattering damaging myths that injured a people. “Entertainment” – a power instrument more subtle than open propaganda – was being employed to inflict pain and dehumanise the Muslim and the Arab “other”.

From the beginning, I discovered that anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudices have a long and powerful history. Degrading images have been virtually unchallenged for more than a century. As a rule, Arab women are still projected as mostly mute and submissive figures: bundles in black, beasts of burden, exotic belly dancers, and even bombers. Arab men surface as villains: Bedouin bandits, sinister sheikhs, buffoons, and gun wielding terrorists.

Such stereotypes do not exist in a vacuum. History teaches us that perceptions impact public opinion, which in turn impacts policies, which in turn bring about conflicts between nations, often resulting in destruction and death.  

Words and images teach us who we should love, who we should hate. Regrettably, to many, the word “Arab” has a derogatory meaning. Unlike words like “Irish” or “Italian,” the word “Arab” is almost never used as a complimentary or even neutral term. Instead, “Arab” is employed to help advance the sinister stereotype: Arab=Muslim=Evil Enemy Other.

This damaging Arab-as-enemy myth may have helped expedite America’s involvement in conflicts. Constantly repeated, these entertainment images helped create and reinforce prejudicial attitudes toward Islam, Arabs, and Muslims, resulting in a narrow view of the Arab, specifically US domestic and international policies.

Although the Arab-as-villain has remained a motif in US popular culture, I am optimistic that there is a trend of change in the media and in people generally.  I believe that, for several reasons, future popular images will be more balanced. Before the tragic events of 9/11, there was a great deal of ignorance about Arabs, Muslims and the Middle East.

Since then, however, there has been an increased interest in the region; thanks to international exchange venues and other programmes, world citizens have gained more knowledge and understanding of Islam. In addition, more American students are learning Arabic and studying abroad in Arab countries; and major US universities are establishing campuses in the Middle East, notably in Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi. The result is a steady increase in American understanding of the Middle East and the people of the Muslim world, which is all to the good. The more Americans learn directly about Islam and the peoples of the region, the less we will tolerate negative stereotypes.

Presence propagates power. An increased presence of Arab Americans in the media has also increased the number of positive images available. Since 1996, my wife, Bernice, and I have awarded more than 55 academic grants to outstanding Arab American college students studying mass communications. Many of these scholars have gone on to leadership positions and are dispelling damaging images. Annemarie Jacir and Eyad Zahra, for example, produced and directed three critically acclaimed feature films, Salt of this Sea (2008), When I Saw You (2012), and The Taqwacores (2010). In 2007, Leila Fadel, another recipient, received the George Polk Award in Journalism for outstanding international reporting. Ms Fadel now serves as Cairo’s bureau chief for National Public Radio.

Some American television networks such as Turner Classic Movies (TCM) have taken positive steps to address the stereotype. In July 2011, I was the curator and guest expert on the TCM series Race and Hollywood: Arab Images on Film. Altogether, 32 features, five shorts, and several cartoons were telecast over eight days.  The Learning Channel’s (TLC) critically-acclaimed All-American Muslim series about five Muslim American families from Dearborn, Michigan, inspired a nationwide conversation about what it means to openly practice one’s religion. There was some concern that the reality series would be taken off the air when Lowe’s, one of the show’s main advertisers, pulled its commercials. But the series was not cancelled. In fact, the advertising time for the remaining episodes sold out.

Currently, several young Arab American image-makers are making impressive independent films: Men and women like Rola Nashef. Her Detroit Unleaded, (2012), is a feel-good story about an Arab American couple in love. There’s Sam Kadi’s The Citizen, a terrific film about an Egyptian immigrant who arrives in the US the day before 9/11; Jackie Salloum has directed Sling Shot Hip Hop (2008) and Planet of the Arabs (2006); her documentaries about Palestinian hip-hop artists and reel Arabs are screened worldwide. And Rashid Ghazi’s Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football (2011), is an impressive documentary about Dearborn, Michigan’s Arab-American football team. There is Alicia Sams’s  Arab American Stories (2012), a TV series about everyday Arab-Americans, telecast on PBS-TV. Suha Araj’s short film, Khsara, The Cup Reader (2013), charms viewers. Finally, there is Canada’s Ruba Nadda. She has directed several major features, including Cairo Time (2009) and Inescapable (2012).

The emerging emphasis on film studies programmes and an increased number of international film festivals taking place in countries such as Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia and other Arab countries are helping to create innovative directors and fresh images.

The “movers and shakers” of these festivals should continue to support, financially, and bring together these talented up-and-coming Arab American film makers, and provide them with opportunities to interact with young filmmakers from the Arab world. Creators like: Emad Burnat, Five Broken Cameras (2011); Susan Youssef, Habibi (2012), Nadine Labaki, Caramel (2007), Cherien Dabis, Amreeka (2009) and Haifaa Al-Mansour, her critically-acclaimed Wadjda is the first feature ever directed by a Saudi woman. Elie Suleiman and Hany Abu Assad could lead the way with their outstanding films that focus on Palestinians.

Years ago, few universities (if any) offered materials or academic courses related to Arab images in US popular culture. But that is no longer the case. Recently, New York University reached out to acquire my “Arab” collection; today more than 4,000 items are housed at New York University’s Tamiment Library. The Jack G Shaheen Archive is a rich trove of audio-visual artefacts; television programs, films, comic books and comic strips, movie stills and posters, print advertisements, toys and games, editorial cartoons, novels, and other ephemera. Taken together, the items form an invaluable source for historians of popular culture and for scholars of cinema, media, and visual culture. This archive also reveals the harm perpetuated by systemic misrepresentations; the collection has transformed my quest for justice into archival research agents in contesting what was wrong.

Western students and scholars are building on the Shaheen collection. Utilising my work on the Arab stereotype as a base, they are examining in greater depth – in their books, lectures and courses – how popular culture’s Arab and Muslim portraits impact opinion and policy. As Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, points out in his book The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice, “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 power to do so.”

Make no mistake; fear, distrust, dehumanisation and violence against Arabs and Muslims remains a sad reality. There are individuals and special interest groups with political agendas continually vilifying Islam; and there are damaging movies such as Taken, Taken 2, Iron Man and The Kingdom as well as the Homeland TV series.

Stereotypes take a long time to wither away. To some, eliminating these harmful portraits may seem an impossible task. Yet, openness to change is an American tradition. Eventually, I believe storytellers from Arkansas to Abu Dhabi will celebrate our differences and embrace our commonalities by projecting more honest images. Damaging portraits will be shattered, image by image. Young scholars and artists from the Arab world and the United States will lead the way, creating inventive portraits that project Arabs as fellow human beings, with all the potentials and frailties that condition implies.

Jack Shaheen is the author of Reel Bad Arabs. He will give his A is for Arab lecture on October 2 at the Intercontinental hotel in Abu Dhabi, as part of the NYUAD lecture series

Details at nyuad.nyu.edu

NYU’s The Jack G Shaheen Archive can be found at neareaststudies.as.nyu.edu/ object/kc.media.jackshaheen

More details on the Reel Bad Arabs documentary at www.reelbadarabs.com

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