American Arabs mourn passing of author Jack Shaheen
A former consultant on Middle East Affairs for CBS Network News, Jack G. Shaheen was an accomplished professor of Mass Communications at Southern Illinois University who helped shatter stereotypes against Arabs, Muslims and other ethnic groups by exposing the biases of Hollywood and the American media.
By Ray Hanania
Jack G. Shaheen, the Lebanese American authority on mass communications, died Sunday, July 9, 2017. He was 82.
Shaheen was a news consultant on Middle East affairs for CBS News and in 1984 published the groundbreaking book that pulled the cover off of Hollywood’s inherent racism against Arabs in movies, film and television.
Born in 1935 in Clairton, Pennsylvania to Lebanese immigrant parents, Shaheen was Professor Emeritus of Mass Communications at Southern Illinois University at the Edwardsville Campus where I met him during my own early days in mainstream journalism.
In 1975, when I launched my first American Arab newspaper, The Middle Eastern Voice, Shaheen wrote to tell me how important it was to publish an American Arab ethnic newspaper in English that spoke not just to Arabs in America but to the American people too.
“You don’t know how encouraged I was to see your newspaper,” Shaheen told me later. “The stories you write speak to Arabs as being a part of this great country of immigrants and ethnicity.”
As I moved to mainstream journalism in 1976 covering CHicago City Hall for 17 years including for the Chicago Sun-Times, Shaheen would often call or later email thoughts or pose questions about mainstream journalism practices and news coverage.
On Nov. 2, 1998, I wrote a column for Newsweek Magazine’s “My Turn” column called “One of the Bad Guys” that challenged the anti-Arab stereotypes facing all Americans of Arab heritage including those, who like myself, served this country in the military, writing:
In Hollywood’s view, I’m a gun-toting terrorist bent on killing innocent people
As a child in the 1960s, i thought my relatives were famous. It seemed like they were in many Hollywood movies, often playing similar roles. OK. They weren’t the headliners, but they did appear alongside stars like Paul Newman (“Exodus”), Sophia Loren (“Judith”) and Kirk Douglas (“Cast a Giant Shadow”). My “relatives” always played the “terrorists.”
As I grew older, though, I realized that those actors were not my relatives, at all. They just looked like them. They have that “terrorist” look, and so do I. I can safely assure you, though, I don’t have the mannerisms. I’m tired of seeing my likeness wielding an AK-47, murdering innocent women and children, getting stomped by Arnold Schwarzenegger (“True Lies”), or Harrison Ford (“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”), or Kurt Russell (“Executive Decision”), and now Bruce Willis (“The Siege”). …
Shaheen was ecstatic and encouraging, imploring me to write more about the stereotypes facing American Arabs.
Jack’s voice challenging stereotypes and racism in the mainstream news media, entertainment and information media will be missed, not just in the American Arab journalism community but in professional journalism as a whole.
Shaheen was a role model for any American Arab who took a detour from the favored Arab career paths of medicine, engineering or operating grocery food stores, and instead pursued journalism.
Shaheen addressed stereotypical images of race and ethnicity and his writings and public speeches helped the public understand how stereotypes injured.
Shaheen was deeply involved with the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), where he was instrumental in efforts to change the original song lyrics of the children’s animated movie Aladdin. The original lyrics served to characterize the Arab world as alien, exotic, and “other” in the American society.
Shaheen created the “Jack G. Shaheen Mass Communications Scholarship,” which awards annual scholarships to Arab American college students studying journalism and mass communications through ADC.
ADC Officials said his positive impact in the Arab-American community will be felt for generations to come. Among those expressing condolences were ADC Board Chairman Rafa Rifka who said, “The community lost one of its best. We will miss his sharp intellect, his enthusiastic demeanor, and his infectious personality.”
ADC President Samer Khalaf said, “Dr. Shaheen worked passionately and tirelessly to shed light on the common media stereotypes of Arabs in Western film, providing invaluable resources to the academic community at large. His work started a conversation about the representation of Arabs in Hollywood and the need for more nuanced depictions of the community. Dr. Shaheen will be greatly missed.”
Among Shaheen’s awards recognizing his “outstanding contribution towards a better understanding of our global community” are the University of Pennsylvania’s Janet Lee Stevens Award, and the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of “his lifelong commitment to bring a better understanding towards peace for all mankind.”
Shaheen is a recipient of two Fulbright teaching awards. He holds degrees from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Missouri. He regularly discusses media stereotypes on national programs and networks such as CNN, MSNBC, National Public Radio, Nightline, Good Morning America, 48 Hours, and The Today Show. Professor Shaheen has given over 1,000 lectures in nearly all the 50 states and three continents. Oxford, Amherst, Harvard, Kenyon, the University of Southern California, Emory and Northwestern, are among those universities which welcome him, as well as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Shaheen authored three books on Hollywood depictions of Arabs including the ground-breaking expose in 1984, “The TV Arab.” He published “Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11” in 2008 and “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People” in 2014.