Written by Professor Evelyn Alsultany

My personal experience with Dr. Shaheen is a testament to his generosity and kindness as a scholar and mentor as well as his accomplishments and legacy for the field of Arab American Media Studies.

This narrative itself emerges from a moment during one of two interviews I was fortunate enough to conduct with Dr. Shaheen, once via Skype at an Arab American Civil Rights conference in Dearborn, Michigan, organized by the National Network of Arab American Communities in 2015, and once at the University of Michigan in 2016.  

Towards the end of the 2015 interview, I asked him if there was something he wanted to discuss that we hadn’t covered.  He smiled and said: “Tell them how we met.” So, let me tell you how we met and how he became such an important figure for me and for the field.

My connection with Dr. Shaheen began when I applied in 2003 for the Jack G. Shaheen Mass Communications Scholarship Award, which I learned about from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.   The scholarship supports Arab American students working in media or communication. 

At the time, I was a graduate student, having started a Ph.D. at Stanford University in 1999 with the goal of studying the field of Arab and Muslim American Studies and putting these groups in conversation with U.S. race and ethnic studies, an unusual undertaking at the time given the common assumption that Arabs and Muslims were to be studied outside of the U.S. context.

After 9/11, my research began to focus on the politics of media representations.  Doing my research, I discovered that while little had been written on representations of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. media, two ground-breaking books — both by Dr. Shaheen — had laid what would become the foundation for the field of Arab American Media Studies.  

In The TV Arab,published in 1984, Dr. Shaheen examined police dramas, sit-coms, and documentaries — more than100 different popular entertainment programs, on network, independent and public channels in the mid-1970s. He revealed four basic myths about Arabs: they were stereotyped as being fabulously wealthy, barbaric and uncultured, sex maniacs with a penchant for white slavery, and reveling in acts of terrorism.

In Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, published in 2001, Dr. Shaheen documented in alphabetical order virtually every Hollywood film that has depicted or referenced Arabs — almost 1,000 films between 1896 and 2001.  Yes, he had watched every single one of them — I asked him once.  He showed that according to Hollywood, Arab men were “brute murderers, sleazy rapists, religious fanatics, oil-rich dimwits, and abusers of women.” The Arab man on screen usually had a black beard, wore a headdress and dark sunglasses, and had a limousine, harem girls, oil wells or camels in the background. Alternately, he brandished an automatic weapon, prayed to Allah and then committed an act of senseless terrorism. Arab women were usually harem girls, belly dancers, oppressed, veiled women, and, occasionally, terrorists.  Out of these 1,000 films, he characterized approximately 50 as evenhanded and only 12 as containing positive representations of Arabs.  In this encyclopedic work, he revealed Hollywood’s systematic, pervasive, and unapologetic degradation and dehumanization of an entire people. Reel Bad Arabs, the book, became a documentaryfilm in 2006. It’s a fantastic educational tool that I use in the classroom every year.

I did not get that scholarship, but received a handwritten note in the mail from Dr. Shaheen — yes, a handwritten note.  He explained that I deserved the scholarship but did not receive it because I was not majoring in mass communications or media studies and therefore was not eligible for the award.  In this kind note, an early sign of his generosity, he also wrote, “If in any way I can assist with the dissertation, please call on me,” and gave me his phone number.

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Shaheen traveled to San Francisco, where we met for the first time; we remained in regular contact ever since. He became a mentor, advising me on research, sending relevant opportunities my way, and always reminding me to enjoy life. Over the years, it became apparent that he loved meeting students and discussing with them all the latest films and TV shows that depicted Arabs and Muslims. He also loved mentoring young people in the field and helping them network.

I also had the opportunity to collaborate with Dr. Shaheen on a project. From 2007-2010, I worked with him when he served as a consultant on the Reclaiming Identity: Dismantling Arab Stereotypesonline exhibit at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, for which I served as the guest curator. His expertise in the area was invaluable to the exhibit, and it was a privilege to work with him.

In 2012, nine years after our first communication, Dr. Shaheen recognized me for my work in the field through the Jack G. and Bernice Shaheen Achievement Award, presented at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee annual convention.  This moment brought me full circle to that first moment of communication between us.  It is an understatement to say that that Dr. Shaheen’s work has been foundational and inspirational to my own and that he is an icon in the field. He provided the foundation for everyone who works on media representations of Arabs and Muslims.  It is not possible to write or teach about representations of Arabs or Muslims in the U.S. without his meticulously documented research.

Over the last four decades, Shaheen has created an archive of materials that is housed at the New York University library. The Jack G. Shaheen Archivecontains nearly 3,000 moving images, including motion pictures, cartoons, newsreels, and televisions programs, as well as editorial cartoons, advertisements, books, magazines, comic books, toys, and games featuring anti-Arab and anti-Muslim depictions, an incredible resource for researchers.  The archive also includes notes on films for which he served as a consultant (e.g. Three Kings, Syriana) and legal cases for which he served as an expert witness.  It also contains letters he wrote to television and film producers to make them aware of the stereotypes they were perpetuating, along with some of the responses he received. When I visited this archive, I was overwhelmed by this evidence of his energy and advocacy. In the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, he was a lone force directly taking on the news media for perpetuating stereotypes, and seeking to raise awareness, one letter at a time, and then, one op-ed at a time.

In 2008, he published his book, Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11, in which he examined more than 100 movies released after 9/11. He noted that while about a third of these films contain more positive representations of Arabs, many films also rehash the same old stereotypes.

Dr. Shaheen’s legacy of raising awareness of damaging stereotypes is awe inspiring. He traveled the world lecturing, writing articles and op-eds, including more than 300 essays featured in outlets such as Newsweekand The Washington Postas well as in college textbooks. He gave more than 1,000 lectures in nearly all the 50 states and on three continents. He appeared on national network programs such as CNN, MSNBC, CSPAN, Good Morning America, 48 Hours, and The Today Show. He received numerous awards throughout his life. I had the good fortune of being present when he was recognized as Arab American of the Year by the community nonprofit organization, ACCESS in 2015.

When Dr. Shaheen was to come to the University of Michigan in April 2016, I called him ahead of time to prepare for the interview, but he said that he did not want to know the questions in advance.  When I said, “I am thinking that I will ask you about …,” he quickly cut me off with an emphatic “No! Don’t tell me!” He wanted to be in the moment, unrehearsed, and kept on his toes.

Students and colleagues loved meeting him and were struck by his dedication to challenging stereotypes and his incredible warmth and generosity — not to mention his promptness with a good joke. I will remember him for his unyielding dedication and tireless advocacy for Arab and Muslim civil rights — just two weeks ago, he was considering doing a podcast series. I will remember him for his kindness and sound advice. I will remember him for the incredible legacy he has left behind in his books, film, archive, publications, and lectures. I will remember him for his message that stereotypes dehumanize people, that it is important not to remain silent, and that it is possible to create a more just world.

 

 

Evelyn Alsultany is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Associate Professor in the Department of American Culture and Director of Arab and Muslim American Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11 (2012). She is guest curator of the Arab American National Museum's online exhibit, Reclaiming Identity: Dismantling Arab Stereotypes. More recently, she collaborated with colleagues at other universities to create the #IslamophobiaIsRacismOnline Syllabus to support others in teaching and learning about Islamophobia. In 2012, she was honored with a Jack G. and Bernice Shaheen Achievement Award.