Arab American Writer Dissects How Hollywood Vilifies a People

Published November 17th, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

Jack Shaheen, who was born in Pennsylvania to Christian Lebanese parents, had never met any Arab Muslim till he was 40, when he went to teach in Beirut in the 70s. Since the time, he has been trying to find the reasons behind the deference between the Arabs’ image in the US and their reality, according to news agencies.  

Shaheen has just come out with a new book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, which is a groundbreaking book that dissects a slanderous history dating from cinema's earliest days to contemporary Hollywood blockbusters that feature machine-gun wielding and bomb-blowing "evil" Arabs. 

Award-winning film authority Jack G. Shaheen, noting that only Native Americans have been more relentlessly smeared on the silver screen, painstakingly makes his case that "Arab" has remained Hollywood's shameless shorthand for "bad guy," long after the movie industry has shifted its portrayal of other minority groups.  

In this comprehensive study of nearly one thousand films, arranged alphabetically in such chapters as "Villains," "Sheikhs," "Cameos," and "Cliffhangers," Shaheen documents the tendency to portray Muslim Arabs as Public Enemy, brutal, heartless, uncivilized Others bent on terrorizing civilized Westerners. 

"[The Arabs] all look alike to me," quips the American heroine in the 1937 movie "The Sheik Steps Out."  

"All Arabs look alike to me," echoes the protagonist in the 1968 'Commando'.  

"I can't tell one [Arab] from another. Wrapped in those bed sheets they all look the same to me," says the US Ambassador in the 1986 movie, "Hostage".  

Shaheen writes in his new book, "In Hollywood's films, they certainly do [look alike]. Pause and visualize the reel Arab. What do you see? Black beard, headdress, dark sunglasses. In the background-a limousine, harem maidens, oil wells, camels. Or perhaps he is brandishing an automatic weapon, crazy hate in his eyes and Allah on his lips. Can you see him?"  

The image is easy to conjure, according to Shaheen, because the vast majority of Hollywood features portray Arabs in this stereotypical way. And such relentless stereotyping is not without real world consequence. When the Oklahoma City federal building was bombed in 1995, Arab-Americans were the first to be blamed-- Rupert Murdoch's U.S. papers headlined: "In the name of Islam" over a picture of a dead child. The Council on Arab-Islamic Relations reported more than 300 hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims in America. Mosques were trashed, community members received bomb threats, children were harassed at school.  

Shaheen examines how and why such a stereotype has grown and spread in the film industry and what may be done to change Hollywood's defamation of Arabs. 

"Caricatured villains are as vital to the movie business as car chases and shoot-outs. But the spotlight of derision shifts. When blacks were no longer shiftless jokes, the Asians no longer the Yellow Peril, and good Indians no longer had to be dead Indians, Arabs became the all-purpose bad-guys. Countless movies have portrayed them as loathsome lechers who terrorize, murder, and finally die in droves. In Reel Bad Arabs scholar Jack Shaheen exposes in appalling detail this nightmare side of the Hollywood dream machine," quoted Christopher Dickey, author and editor for Newsweek Magazine, as saying – 

© 2001 Al Bawaba (

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