Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 21 May 2019

Jack Shaheen spent his life exposing Hollywood’s culture. It is now up to Arab-Americans to provide the cure

A fitting legacy for Shaheen is not merely to praise the body of work he left behind, but to create institutions that change that work from social science to history

Jack Shaheen went beyond dissecting negative portrayals of Arab-Americans into lobbying against them. Courtesy Jack Shaheen
Jack Shaheen went beyond dissecting negative portrayals of Arab-Americans into lobbying against them. Courtesy Jack Shaheen

By now, a week after his passing, Jack Shaheen has been fulsomely praised from both coasts of America to both edges of the Arab world. As an academic and author, Shaheen spent his life exposing and lobbying against stereotypical portrayals of Arabs on television and in Hollywood. Through books, lectures and articles, he meticulously documented the pernicious caricatures and characters that present barely half a face of the Middle East to an American audience.

Crucially, Shaheen went beyond dissecting negative portrayals of Arab-Americans into lobbying against them. As Edward Said, whom Shaheen noted was an inspiration for his work, understood, that such portrayals were part of a mechanism of power, and rarely innocent.

Shaheen recognised that these malign portrayals don't merely affect Arab-Americans. They seep into the attitude that Americans have towards other groups, like South Asians and Africans, or religious groups, like Sikhs and Hindus. All have been attacked because their clothes were mistaken for “Muslim” clothing.

Yet it goes further. Once such prejudice becomes normalised, it is much easier for slurs against other ethnic and religious groups to reappear. The current heightened political tensions in the United States (and elsewhere) have also brought a resurgence of hate-speech against other ethnic and religious groups. Hatred is contagious.

And of course such prejudice, in a militarily powerful country like the US, has severe consequences for the Arab world. The normalising of prejudice made it much easier to sell wars to the American public, with catastrophic consequences for Middle Eastern countries.

This prejudice also affects what information Americans are given: in the American media, the recent victory against ISIL in Mosul emphasised the role of US soldiers, barely mentioning that the leading role in the battle was fought by Arabs and Muslims. These groups are not only whitewashed from their roles in American life, they are removed even from the stories of their own countries.

So the seriousness of the topic should not be underestimated, and Shaheen never did. He methodically catalogued examples of films, television shows, comic books, advertisements and magazines, creating the Jack Shaheen Archive, now kept at New York University. And when he spoke of these issues, despite their gravity, he did so without rancour, always in a courteous, even playful spirit. He was like that. I spoke to Shaheen by email a couple of weeks before he died and he was, as always in the few interactions we had, kind and courteous, something that those who knew him much better have attested to. Few described issues in Hollywood's culture with more tenacity or fun.

Yet now that this culture has been described, the next step is to provide a cure. And that is where Arab-Americans need to do more. For although many scholars have now followed in Shaheen's footsteps, essentially creating a new field of study, the essential second step of institutionalising that lobbying effort has not happened.

Hollywood, like any industry, is an ecosystem. Its attitudes and ideas don't come from the top down, but from the bottom up, a result of thousands of conversations and interactions and decisions by screenwriters, producers and casting directors on a daily basis. Decisions that are then dissected by the media, old and new, and validated by the public at the box office.

To successfully influence such an ecosystem requires an ecosystem of its own, a set of groups and institutions that can educate a new generation of artists and filmmakers, influence the current generation, and, crucially, deal with Hollywood on an institutional level.

What does it say that there is a well-funded, well-organised group that ensures animals are treated safely in Hollywood films – the American Humane Association, which owns the trademark to the phrase “No Animals Were Harmed” – but nothing equivalent to influence the portrayal of an entire ethnic group?

These are not new ideas. Shaheen himself advocated them. Again and again, he wrote about the need for collective action, for actors to get together regularly, for activists to lobby film producers en mass. True to his personality, he was never confrontational. He saw it as advice, helping producers of films with Arab themes or characters to create more authentic worlds.

Yet as far as I know, after half a century of Shaheen writing about these ideas, there is still no Arab or Middle Eastern lobby group in Los Angeles that meets regularly. Take a moment to let the reality of that sink in. Such institutions don't exist – Arab-Americans have not created them. And those few organisations that lobby Washington are always starving for funds – because Arab-Americans have not funded them.

Shaheen himself endowed a scholarship for Arab-American media students. It is active and counts some impressive names among its past scholars, such as the filmmaker Annemarie Jacir. Yet it is a relatively modest scholarship, and the only one.

In his talks and articles, Shaheen used to present calls to action as challenges. With that spirit in mind, I challenge the Arab-American community – and Arabs beyond those shores – to create a true legacy for Shaheen. Create a Shaheen Centre to continue his work; fundraise for his scholarship programme; create institutions of bricks and mortar, not merely words and letters.

The Arab-American community must take responsibility. Funding for representative institutions is woefully inadequate. Funding for artists barely exists. There is no coherent community structure that draws in money, ideas and talent and funnels them to, as Shaheen was fond of remarking, the twin power centres of Hollywood and Washington. Changing that would be a genuine legacy for Jack Shaheen.

Shaheen spent his life studying the fictional portrayal of Arabs. It is now up to Arab-Americans to use those studies to change the real world.

Updated: July 17, 2017 06:17 PM