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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

The Arab world has lost one of its most powerful advocates

Fighting stereotypes embedded in films is essential, if we really want to make a difference in the battle against intolerance. 

“Walt Disney's "Aladdin" is not an entertaining Arabian Nights fantasy as film critics would have us believe but rather a painful reminder to three million Americans of Arab heritage, as well as 300 million Arabs and others, that the abhorrent Arab stereotype is as ubiquitous as Aladdin's lamp", according to Shaheen. Disney/REX
“Walt Disney's "Aladdin" is not an entertaining Arabian Nights fantasy as film critics would have us believe but rather a painful reminder to three million Americans of Arab heritage, as well as 300 million Arabs and others, that the abhorrent Arab stereotype is as ubiquitous as Aladdin's lamp", according to Shaheen. Disney/REX

In a world where the misrepresentation of certain ethnic groups is commonplace, a select few devote their lives to shattering misconceptions and battling prejudices. With the death of Jack Shaheen, sadly announced late on Monday evening, the Arab and Muslim world has lost one of its most fervent advocates.

Arabs and Muslims are often vilified and portrayed as terrorists by Hollywood. As Shaheen wrote in these pages a few years ago, "as a rule, Arab women are still projected as mostly mute and submissive figures: bundles in black, beasts of burden, exotic belly dancers, and later on even bombers. Arab men surface as villains: Bedouin bandits, sinister sheikhs, buffoons, and gun-wielding terrorists”. These stereotypes have long been ingrained and often unchallenged.

Shaheen, of course, did push back. He was renowned for his lifelong efforts to counter racial and ethnic stereotypes in American pop culture, and in Hollywood films and TV series. .

Demonisation of the other is a root cause of difficulties faced by Arab and Muslim communities in the West and it has crept into the subconscious of successive generations.

A select few have developed more sophisticated narratives, like Marvel Comics. The group “felt the passion of Chinese fans”, and decided to introduce Chinese superheroes and characters to its universe. Though this may be fed by economic rather than social motives, it does lead us to wonder: does Hollywood or any of its major production companies have it in their plans to “feel the passion” of Arab or Muslim fans?

When ethnic stereotypes have built up over many years, it won't be easy to erode them. Nevertheless, we must sustain that reversal.

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