Establishing the Study of Muslims in Film and Television

In American society there is a predominate public narrative that asserts that Islam is inherently violent, Muslims are foreign and dangerous, we should remain alert and suspicious, and policies or acts of aggression against them are therefore justifiable. One of the most fertile domains for cultivating this representational identity has been the American mediascape. Film and television, of course, rely on the voluminous archive of unfavorable and incomplete depictions of Muslims in European and American literary and visual sources, and largely continue earlier processes of exoticization and demonization. Despite the long history of producing negative portrayals of Muslims in cinema and television, scholarship dedicated to unraveling these images and their social consequences has emerged relatively recently.

Media Studies, Minorities and Jack Shaheen

In Media Studies, strengthening in the 1970s, scholars tackled media representations of several minority groups, producing new research on Jews, Asians, African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. The pioneer of the study of Muslims in film and television is Jack Shaheen (1935-2017). Shaheen worked tirelessly for decades cataloging representations of Arabs and Muslims on screen and making efforts to change negative depictions through social activism and lobbying media makers. After Shaheen’s passing in July 2017 several obituaries (New York Times, Washington Post, Al Jazeera, NPR) have recognized his legacy and outlined his key public victories. This essay sketches Shaheen’s contributions in establishing an important scholarly domain and demarcating key patterns and concepts within its analysis.

Jack Shaheen. Photo Credit: Arab American Discrimination Committee

Shaheen’s scholarship was part of scholarly conversations revolving around minority communities on screen emerging in the late 1970s. However, initially his research domain was obscured to broader scholars and audiences because, unlike other minority communities, Arabs and Muslims were not widely classified as a minority group. Two key social uncertainties led to this pattern of invisibility. First, publics often conflated Arab and Muslim identities despite the great diversity among both – of course, not all Arabs are Muslim and not all Muslims are Arab. Further, many Arabs historically framed their racial identity as white, which further complicated the bracketing of stereotypical biases (see Gualtieri, 2009). Publication of his work met with early rejection but Shaheen argued for the importance of this important omission in the scholarly literature of his time. Reflecting on his career, Shaheen noted, “When I first started, nobody even recognized the existence of the stereotype because there had been no documentation.”

 Jack Shaheen, American Media, and Muslim Representation

Shaheen eventually tackled questions of representation in his first book, The TV Arab (1984),  which documented depictions of Arabs and Muslims in American children’s cartoons, detective and police shows, prime-time comedies, and television documentaries. Structurally, The TV Arab established the model Shaheen would continue throughout the rest of his career: index, analyze, and advocate. In this case, Shaheen catalogued over 100 television shows, deciphered negative images, examined the social effects of these depictions, and strategized on how to transform media production to offer more balanced portraits of Arabs and Muslims and eliminate harmful representations. Many of the negative characterizations that he discovered and the analytical patterns he advanced in this early work would be visually echoed up until the present moment by media makers.

Shaheen argued in The TV Arab that “television tends to perpetuate four basic myths about Arabs: They are all fabulously wealthy; they are barbaric and uncultured; they are sex maniacs with a penchant for white slavery; they revel in acts of terrorism” (4). Often “TV Arabs” were framed within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, marking another key motif in Shaheen’s analytical trajectory. He would take up these thematic strands in his research over the next three decades of his life. Shaheen also outlined constructive strategies for dismantling the “TV Arab” that would be reiterated throughout his lengthy career as well: create an Arab-American lobby in Hollywood, engage media creators with objections and suggestions, actively counter repeated stereotypes in narrative compositions, and partner with writers, executives, and other television professionals. The comprehensive nature of Shaheen’s work is part of what made him so celebrated: his scholarship did not emerge simply as a creative thought experiment but from an immediate summons to instigate a remodeling of the mediascape.

Reel Bad Arabs: A Book and a Documentary Film

Shaheen’s foundational work on Muslims in film, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People ( 2001), surveyed more than a thousand films from as early as 1896 up until its publication in 2001. Through hundreds of pages he demonstrated that there is a long tradition of negatively portraying Arabs and Muslims by documenting the cinematic archive. Reel Bad Arabs’ great achievement is not its unmatched analytical insight but its incomparable cataloging. Shaheen employs a similar classification system as The TV Arab for his analysis, which he explains in the introduction.

Reel Bad Arabs’ great achievement is not its unmatched analytical insight but its incomparable cataloging.”
 Films are then tagged with thematic categories – Villains, Sheikhs, Maidens, Cameos, Egyptians, and Palestinians – and the bulk of the book primarily describes offending films and their particularities. Each film may only get a paragraph to a couple of pages of text. Shaheen also produced a Worst List, Recommended List, and Best List, of which films are more rigorously scrutinized. Overall, Reel Bad Arabs concluded that the cinematic “Muslim,” much like the small screen counterpart, is misogynistic, violent, and Arab. The book (unfortunately) needed a new and expanded edition in 2009, and then a 3rd edition in 2014, both increasing the canon of films and further substantiating the area of specialization.

In 2006, Shaheen’s decades of curation and analysis on Arabs and Muslims in the American mediascape merged in the groundbreaking documentary, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. This film was the natural medium for exposing dominant stereotypes and caricatures, processes of exoticization, and misrepresentations with the full weight of their sensorial effects. In the 50 minute film, Shaheen narrates key themes he identified in the media archive and showcases through vivid scenes the most incendiary assaults on Arab and Muslim representational identities. The documentary examines myths of imagined character traits and social geographies, the connections between the U.S. military and Hollywood, how media demonizes Palestinians, the social consequences of anti-Muslim sentiments, and how to transform media producing systems. While the documentary shares its title with Shaheen’s 2001 book, the documentary also incorporates his work from The TV Arab, intersplicing scenes from Popeye and Bugs Bunny episodes for example. Reel Bad Arabs clearly revealed the repetitious repertoire of images of Arabs and Muslims in the cinematic arts and how it drew from Orientalist archival depictions. Shaheen was able to make his case for the role of media in shaping public perceptions and policy, which largely demonized, vilified, and marginalized Muslims. He unquestionably demonstrated how cinematic representations manufacture negative stereotypes, forcefully disseminate these tropes, and reinforce anti-Muslim sentiments. For Shaheen rebuking the chronicles of media produced Arabs and Muslims is vital because, as he later put it, “The images last forever. They never go away.” By the end of the documentary film, the spectator is deeply immersed within the deep stream of unfavorable portraits of Arabs and Muslims that permeate popular media.

The Reel Bad Arabs documentary brought Shaheen’s work to broad audiences and introduced this media bias to publics in undeniable ways. The decade after its release Shaheen continued his efforts, speaking to public audiences, writing op-eds in numerous news outlets, consulting with media makers, and producing more scholarly work. In later writings, he argued that the post September 11 cinematic landscape largely recycled older stereotypical tropes about Muslims but, additionally, it now primarily framed them as terrorists.

Highlight of Shaheen’s Scholarship: “Guilty”

In 2008, with a new book, Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs After 9/11  Shaheen focused on representational and narrative trends in films from the twenty-first century. The primary conclusion of the book was that the proliferation of negative images after September 11have generally increased and perpetuated further anti-Muslim animus among Americans. However, it noted, there also were some “reel positives” that emerge in depictions of Arabs and Muslims after September 11, which Shaheen traces in Hollywood, independent, and international cinemas. He also returns to the small screen to delineate the contemporary core in the production of a new “bogeyman.”

Guilty structurally combines the archival documentation of Reel Bad Arabs with the analytical rigor of The TV Arab, making it the most satisfying single text of Shaheen’s oeuvre, and perhaps the best entrée point for those exploring his written work for the first time.”
 Shaheen found that the most contentious formulations of Arab and Muslim identities were produced in network television, such as 24, Navy NCIS, and Sleeper Cell. Finally, he makes a direct call for action to dismantle the dominance of derogatory and insulting images in Hollywood by creating alternative narratives through original productions, shattering the silence that enables the continuation of stereotypes, and establishing an organizing presence in media professions to lobby on behalf of American Arabs and Muslims. Guilty structurally combines the archival documentation of Reel Bad Arabs with the analytical rigor of The TV Arab, making it the most satisfying single text of Shaheen’s oeuvre, and perhaps the best entrée point for those exploring his written work for the first time.

 Expanding the Field

There is no study of Arabs and Muslims in contemporary media as we know it without the pioneering work of Jack Shaheen. His important research went well beyond the walls of academia, influencing media makers, journalists, and activists. For future researchers his work is invaluable since he has single-handedly outlined the annals of cinematic portrayals over the longue durée. His research firmly established both the framework and outline for subsequent scholarship. But there is an ensemble of scholars who have extended the study of Muslims in cinema and television in deeper and broader directions. Some have focused on the cultural context of American foreign policy and the role of media in framing international politics (see Khatib, 2006 and McAlister, 2001[rev.2005]). Some have placed mediated images within the broader context of  “American Orientalism” (See Edwards, 2005 and 2016). Others have examined how Arab and Muslim communities push back against the daily media bombardment of mediated images on the ground in the construction of their own identities (Jamal & Naber, eds, 2007 and Naber, 2012. And several scholars have probed further than Shaheen into specific examples within film and television to delineate exact modes of representation and processes of audience interpretation (See Mahdi, 2016 and 2014; Morey & Yaqin, 2011; Semmerling, 2006; Rashid, 2015; Ramji, 2016) .

Advancing the Study Today

Among the many inheritors of Shaheen’s legacy, Evelyn Alsultany is the most obvious successor in shaping the future study of Arabs and Muslims in contemporary media. Her research extends beyond Shaheen’s foundational labor and is some of the most theoretically rich and analytically compelling that has been produced. Her 2012 book, Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11, traverses some of the same terrain as Shaheen’s Guilty but offers a more detailed evaluation of the methods employed by media makers to defuse dominant negative stereotypes in their productions. She demonstrates that after September 11 there was a proliferation of sympathetic representations of Muslims, which seemingly offset any negative characters.

However, she argues the stereotypes of “good” Muslim and “bad” Muslim are incomplete because the only positive Muslims images conform to a limited conception of U.S. nationalistic goals, including hardworking patriots or hate-crime victims. She showed that, in this mediated world Muslims could only be either a patriotic Muslim, the helpful civilian willing to participate in the fight against terrorism, or the victim, a target of harassment and hate crimes, removed from flights, or unjustly detained. She called these “simplified complex representations” because they fail to move beyond narrowly defined boundaries of identity. The “good” Muslim and “bad” Muslim images fail to engage the diversity of Muslims and hardens the imaginal boundaries of the Hollywood “Muslim,” which effectively defines an entire group of people for viewers.

“Alsultany’s work underscored that while there is tremendous diversity among Muslims, the average American will not be exposed to the nuances of contemporary Muslim communities.”

Alsultany’s work underscored that while there is tremendous diversity among Muslims, the average American will not be exposed to the nuances of contemporary Muslim communities. The mediation and repetition of these established roles produce wide social effects, shape U.S. politics, and influence public policy. Media industries ignore alternative stories that don’t align with the manufactured public assumptions about Muslims and their interests because they are generally not legible to American publics. Alsultany was mentored by Shaheen in many ways and has worked closely with him over the years. In 2012 she won the Jack G. and Bernice Shaheen Achievement Award from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee for her contributions to the field. Like Shaheen, public engagement is a key part of her work, such as serving as the Guest Curator of the online exhibit “Reclaiming Our Identity: Dismantling Arab Stereotypes” for the Arab American National Museum, and co-producing the #IslamophobiaIsRacism project, which is an open access teaching and learning resource about anti-Muslim racism. Overall, Evelyn Alsultany embodies both the rigorous analysis and generous character of Jack Shaheen making her the clear leader for the future study of Arabs and Muslims in cinema and television.

A Final Note on Jack Shaheen’s Legacy

Jack Shaheen’s research demonstrates how racism and prejudice functions in mediated worlds. He was deeply invested in disrupting stereotypical media images and narratives that aren’t representative of the majority of Muslims’ lived realities, especially in the United States.

“Jack Shaheen’s research demonstrates how racism and prejudice functions in mediated worlds.”
He skillfully combined his scholarship with his role as social activist, tirelessly putting his research to work to affect the social world beyond the walls of academia. Shaheen’s legacy will live on beyond his scholarship and activism in The Jack G. Shaheen Archive at New York University, which houses the countless examples of material culture related to Arabs and Muslims in American media and Shaheen’s copious notes, interviews, and unpublished materials. He has made a strong call for diligent work on representations of Arabs and Muslims in media, noting, “In the past, you could say there was no awareness. Now there is awareness and, despite that, it persists and endures more than before.” Therefore, scholars need to continue to expand the materials we explore, methods we employ to investigate the vast mediascape, and urgency with which we make our findings available. With the continued public interest in Islam and the limited range of materials that reach general audiences, we can only hope that Jack Shaheen’s exemplary precedent will be followed en masse.

*Cover image credit: University of South Carolina Beaufort Libraries.