Reel bad Arabs: The negative portrayal of Arabs and Muslims in the media

Tick, tick, tick.

Time is running out. The bomb must be found, and the terrorists must be stopped. But who are terrorists? What do they look like? Where do they come from? Who are they?

At the word ‘terrorist,’ many people picture a dark skinned Arab or Muslim, wearing a hijab or a white cloth over their head. With such strong Islamphobia and prejudice in America, a question must be asked: for whom is time running out in America; the terrorist or the Arab?
Doctor Jack Shaheen spent 40 years of his life researching this question, and he presented his findings at the University of St. Thomas on Tuesday, April 22. His presentation, titled “Reel Bad Arabs: Images of Muslims and Arabs in Popular Culture,” covered the many ways that people who are Arab or Muslim are presented as brutes and villains in American media.

“I began thanks to my children,” Shaheen said. “I came across horrific images of Arabs in their cartoons, and it was stuff I had never quite seen before. Arabs were being made into animals.”

After witnessing vilified Arabs in classics like Disney’s ‘Aladdin,’ Shaheen set out to change the stereotypes. In the beginning, his research wasn’t well received, and he got over 50 rejection letters. His own university of employment would not support his research, and he became known as the “Arab Professor.” People did not want to face the fact that Americans were dehumanizing an entire ethnic group. Shaheen considered dropping the subject entirely, but knowing the pain that these stereotypes cause kept him going.

“Innocent people die because of stereotypes,” Shaheen said. “Adversity like this can amount to tremendous pain.”

Since his start, Shaheen has spread his message in over one thousand lectures all around the world and has spoken about the damaging effects that racial and ethnic stereotypes have on other groups, such as Asians, Jews, Latinos and African Americans. Samba Dieng, a member of the St. Thomas International Student Services, heard about Shaheen at a national conference and wanted this anti-stereotypical message to be spread in the St. Paul area.

“St. Thomas’ interfaith population is growing,” Dieng said. “In all places, there is a struggle to integrate because we don’t know enough about the ‘other,’ so we make assumptions. I want students to relate more to each other, and bridge the gap of cultural misunderstanding.”

Catered with food from the Middle East, the event focused on dismantling culture-induced stereotypes by humanizing Arabs and Muslims. Shaheen spoke of his journey into the world of stereotypes, and how difficult changing it is. His first major battle was between his small team and Disney. The goal was to change the opening song for “Aladdin,” which originally included a verse that stated “…they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face.” After six months of writing daily letters to Disney with his team, they still received no response. Finally, he told reporters at his lectures to ask Disney why they condoned the image of Arabs as brutes. Disney quickly set up a meeting with Shaheen, and the song now goes “…it’s flat and immense, and the heat is intense.” When Disney began producing “Pocahontas,” they consulted with American Indians in order to get all the facts straight, and an animator said that this change was in part caused by Shaheen’s research.

Despite this major victory, there are still many examples of the vilified Arab. In total, Shaheen found over 1,200 video clips of stereotyped Arabs. Movies like “Back to the Future” and TV shows like “24” and “Homeland” depict the culture as inept and brutish. Shaheen has faith in young people, to change this, as well as to change stereotypes involving many other ethnicities.

“When any type of harassment happens, speak out and get involved,” Shaheen said. “Don’t limit the struggle to just one harassment. Take a stand. That is most important.”
His presentation enlightened the audience on the reality of just how bad these stereotypes are, and Dieng hopes to host more lectures like it at St. Thomas.

“St. Thomas is always looking for the opportunity for students to think about the self and how to relate to others,” Dieng said. “We want to share this with the community and all the ACTC schools.”

Shaheen left with a message of hope.

“The best way to shatter stereotypes is to break the silence,” Shaheen said. “We have to become movers and shakers. Movers and shakers- these are where tiny ripples of hope come from.”

Jaimee can be reached at jrleibfried@stkate.edu.

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