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How long will TV continue to pollute viewer's minds?

How much longer will TV screens pollute viewers' minds, worldwide, with negative stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims? Asks Jack G Shaheen
In June 1984 I attended a conference in Washington, DC hosted by the newly-formed American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). I could not have been happier because, after several years of receiving scores of rejection letters, my work, The TV Arab, the first-ever to document television's Arab images, was making its debut.

At around the same time, Dr Edmund Ghareeb, my friend and colleague, was celebrating the publication of his edited book: Split Vision: The Portrayal of Arabs in the American Media.

We were the first Americans with Arab roots to write scholarly works about media stereotypes, and we were also the first to seek out those individuals responsible for all those one-dimensional images.

To help ascertain why Arabs were continually being vilified in both news and entertainment media, Edmund travelled to New York and Washington, DC where he questioned prominent American journalists. I went off to LA and New York and confronted not-so-friendly TV executives, writers and directors.

Fast forward to the present day. Recently, at a Washington, DC panel discussion hosted by the Palestine Center, we discussed in great detail the theses of our pioneering books.

We talked about past, present and future challenges, and debated when, if ever, more accurate depictions of Arabs and Muslims would surface. How much longer, we mused, would fabricated myths run rampant? We also noted that over the years media consumption had increased, profoundly.

Those damaging stereotypes that infiltrated the world's living rooms when The TV Arab was first released - billionaires, bombers and belly dancers - are still with us today.

Chapters in The TV Arab focused on reel Palestinians as terrorists, Arab sheikhs as rich and oily and Arab women as mute and submissive. And, most Americans still believe all Arabs are Muslims. Another myth, "those people" all-look-alike, endures, because most Americans still believe Iranians are Arabs and vice-versa. Also, 30 years ago few, if any, criticised the stereotype. Today, too, most mainstream critics are silent.

Much has happened since 1984. Though there fewer series with Arabs today, the images that are projected are much more dangerous than ever before. We now have the Israeli connection. Currently, American TV networks are filming two anti-Arab series in Israel: Tyrant and Dig. This week we saw some of TV's most damaging portraits ever in the filmed-in-Israel series, Tyrant. We will have to wait and see whether even more Arab portraits created by both American and Israeli writers continue to embellish the stereotype. I am not optimistic.

Since the September 11 attacks, not only are Arabs and Muslims being portrayed as the evil "other" but America's Arabs and Muslims are appearing in numerous popular TV shows as terrorists, intent on blowing up America. The vilification process began with the Fox TV series, 24 and the CBS TV movie, The President's Man: A Line in the Sand. Other series expanded on and embellished the stereotype; shows like NCIS, The Agency, Sleeper Cell and The Unit. As a result, Islamophobia joined Arabophobia.

Today's TV's villains are not only Arab Muslims; some hail from Russia, Pakistan, or Afghanistan, others are both black and white Americans who embrace radical Islam.

As for Arab Americans, they remain invisible in positive roles on TV screens - with one major exception.

Comedian Ahmed Ahmed appears as Ahmed in the successful series, Sullivan & Son. In the past, only two Arab Americans characters could be identified by their Arab roots: Danny Thomas in the Make Room for Daddy series, 1953-65, and Jamie Farr in M*A*S*H, 1972-83.

Yet, in spite of all these dismal realities, there is some good news. Today, there is a greater awareness now about injurious images, their telling impact on opinion and policy. Also, many more activists are writing and lecturing about perceptions of Arab and Muslims in popular culture. We have more Arab film festivals, and more Arab-American and Muslim American organisations committed to shattering all these dangerous stereotypes. Scholars, worldwide, utilise many of the 4,000-plus Arab artefacts from my research collection that is housed at New York University.

True, we still have a long way to go. Viewers need to see America's Arabs and Muslims on TV as everyday human beings, not as stock characters.

But when will prejudices against Arabs and Muslims eventually dissipate? How much longer will TV screens pollute viewers' minds, worldwide, with these stereotypes? Other groups shattered ugly myths - so can we. TV executives and programmers should keep in mind the wisdom expressed in this excerpt from an early 1950s episode of Milton Berle's TV series, Texaco Star Theater. Berle's guest was Danny Thomas, who said: "The white man, the Negro, the Oriental,the Protestant, the Catholic, the Jew; they've all shared the spotlight on this stage." Berle responded: "Well Danny, if I may interject, that's the way show business operates. Danny, there's no room for prejudice in our profession." No room indeed.

Jack G Shaheen is the author of Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People and Guilty: Hollywood's Verdict on Arabs After 9/11

Updated: July 2, 2014 04:00 AM

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