Page One

Arab/Muslim stereotypes hurt

By Nabil Al-Hadithy
Thursday September 14, 2000

Friday, author and film critic, Jack Shaheen will present Arab Screen Images at the Fine Arts Cinema in Berkeley as part of the Fourth Annual Cinamyaat series. Using a compilation of film and television clips, Dr. Shaheen presents the development of misrepresentation of Arabs in American entertainment as well as current examples of positive efforts in film to counter this bias. This highly provocative presentation will be followed with an opportunity for audience members to ask questions.  

Dr. Shaheen is an internationally recognized specialist on stereotypical portraits of Arabs in the media. He teaches mass communications at Southern Illinois University and is the author of The TV Arab, The Comic Book Arab and The Hollywood Arab. 

It is difficult for me, an Arab American, to bring up my daughter with a positive image of her culture. The Hollywood image of Arabs and Muslims is one big reason. When my daughter is watching cartoons or children’s movies, I find myself constantly fumbling for the words to tell her why people who look like her and her parents are either not present at all or portrayed as something we aren’t. 

The usual Hollywood portrayal Arabs are as dark, hooked nosed and violent people, as in Alladin, or the terrorist as in Back to the Future, the animal killer in Black Stallion, or the true inheritors of Arab lands as in Prince of Egypt. It is difficult to find any positive image of Arabs and Muslims for children to read or watch. For years I gave the Berkeley library hints about the shameful lack of children’s books on Islam and Arabs. After years of indifference I gave up on them and stopped taking my daughter to morning storytelling.  

A wonderful group of young UC Berkeley undergraduate women started a Sunday school for kids, concentrating on Arabic and Islamic studies. We talked to Arab friends with kids about the school and while we had misgivings, we joined the group anyway. My wife, and her friends who are of Christian Arab background, were concerned about misogynistic Islam. I too was concerned about orthodox Islamic teachings; while I was comfortable with Islamic culture I was brought up in a secular household. We pushed ahead with Sunday school primarily because our daughter was singing Christmas and Hanukkah songs and her preferential self-image was as a Chinese American girl of Arab ancestry.  

Her Chinese pre-school teachers had a big impact on my daughter’s development. 

Jack Shaheen said that hurtful and harmful stereotypes do not exist in a vacuum. Continuously repeated, they denigrate peoples, narrow our visions and blur reality. My “Chinese-Jewish-American” daughter can testify to that. 

I would go a step further than Dr. Shaheen, however. I would say that constant denigration of the Arab image in Hollywood translates into American laws and policies that target Arabs and Muslims as the enemy, the successor to the Red Menace. I would say the Hollywood image was the building block for the anti-terrorist laws of 1996 through which secret evidence was introduced in U.S. courts. It is the basis for our collective congressional whoring in support of Israel right or wrong. It provided the basis for the Gulf War and the famine and pestilence that followed. The Hollywood image is the reason why I get profiled at airports as a terrorist, not withstanding the FBI records that indicate far more terrorist incidents are linked to South America than the Middle East. 

Jack Shaheen is a refreshing voice but hardly one who is given media attention. Arab Screen Images shows at 7 p.m. Friday evening after which he will speak. The Fine Arts Theater is at 2451 Shattuck Ave. 


Nabil Al Hadithy is an Arab-American activist living in East Bay.