Jack G. Shaheen, an Arab American scholar, author and activist who devoted his career to challenging venomous stereotypes of Arabs in film and television — usually depicted, he once said, as “billionaires, bombers and belly dancers” — died July 9 at a hospital in Charleston, S.C. He was 81.
The cause was cancer, said his daughter, Michele Tasoff.
Dr. Shaheen, who spent decades teaching mass communications at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, was at the forefront of efforts to expose and question ethnic stereotypes in popular culture.
He was best known for his books “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People” (2001), which later became a documentary film; “Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture” (1997); “Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11” (2008); and “The TV Arab” (1984), an eight-year study that examined hundreds of shows.
“Television tends to perpetuate four basic myths about Arabs,” he wrote in “The TV Arab,” the book that initially raised his profile. “They are all fabulously wealthy; they are barbaric and uncultured; they are sex maniacs with a penchant for white slavery; and they revel in acts of terrorism. . . . These notions are as false as the assertions that blacks are lazy, Hispanics are dirty, Jews are greedy and Italians are criminals.”
The son of Lebanese Christian immigrants, Dr. Shaheen said he grew up in suburban Pittsburgh largely free of ethnic slurs. Italians, Poles, Jews and others intermingled freely, he remembered, and goodwill seemed to pervade his memories of the sandlot and the schoolyard.
Mass images of Arabs as exotic and treacherous were as old as Valentino in silent film, but Dr. Shaheen said they had never affected him in any concrete way until his children came to him excitedly one Saturday in 1976 while watching a wrestling program on television.
“Daddy, Daddy,” he recalled them saying, “they’ve got some bad Arabs on.”
Walking to the set, he heard the ringside announcer lapsing into vivid descriptions of a wrestler purportedly from Saudi Arabia who “likes to hear the cracking of bones” and is “ugly, ugly.” “But in truth,” he later wrote in “The TV Arab, “this so-called scourge of the Middle East hailed from Texas.”
Dr. Shaheen found a cause that resonated with him on a scholarly and personal level. In a flurry of books as well as lectures, debates and frequent appearances on TV and radio, he persistently called out Hollywood studios and network television for their one-dimensional and often nefarious images of Arabs.
He attributed the modern proliferation of the Arab villain to a confluence of events in the 1970s, including the Arab oil embargo, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis. “We pray and we kill,” Dr. Shaheen once quipped of the depiction.
Albert Mokhiber, a past president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) who worked with Dr. Shaheen, said the scholar “brought intellectual and academic credibility to the issues that we raised.”
With the committee, Dr. Shaheen helped persuade Walt Disney Studios to change song lyrics in the 1992 musical film “Aladdin” that had called an Arab homeland “barbaric.”
In a Los Angeles Times opinion piece at the time, Dr. Shaheen blasted the film’s depictions of Arabs as thieves, unscrupulous vendors, “dastardly villains and harem maidens.”
“What impressions of Arabia will small children have when hearing ‘Arabian Nights,’ a song whose main enticement is uncivilized folk advocating ear-chopping?” he wrote. “What will kids make of hideous Arabian guards chasing Aladdin throughout the film, scabbards flying, just because the famished youth stole a loaf of bread?”
To Dr. Shaheen, the media industry’s portrayal of Arabs, Muslims and the Middle East in unflattering extremes had a real and sometimes dangerous impact on public policy and the treatment of real human beings.
“He often told me that children don’t know prejudice until they’re taught it,” said Tasoff, a television producer. “It’s so important to be able to see your people as normal people — whether it’s doctors or teachers. And when you’re only seeing somebody as a terrorist and ‘the other,’ that of course shapes peoples’ images.”
Dr. Shaheen consulted on films set in the Middle East, including “Three Kings” (1999) and “Syriana” (2005), and administered a scholarship to Arab American mass communications students who he hoped would bring greater accuracy and fairness to the profession. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Anthony Shadid was among the recipients.
“In his many calmly argued articles, books and videos, he provided the incriminating evidence directly from the biased media, unedited,” consumer advocate Ralph Nader, the son of Lebanese immigrants, said in a statement. “He was a tolerant, respectful discussant in hundreds of public programs and debates on prejudice, its various causes and ways to replace bigotry with enlightenment.”
Jack George Shaheen Jr. was born in Pittsburgh on Sept. 21, 1935, and grew up in the nearby steel town of Clairton, Pa. He was raised by his mother, who worked as a school janitor, and her parents. He became the first in his family to attend college.
He received a bachelor of fine arts degree, with a focus in drama, in 1957 from what was then Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. After Army service in Germany, he earned a master’s degree in theater arts from Pennsylvania State University in 1964 and a doctorate in communications from the University of Missouri in 1969. That year, he joined the faculty at Southern Illinois University.
He retired in 1994 and moved to Hilton Head Island, S.C. At the time of his death, he held the title of distinguished visiting professor at New York University, which hosts his archive of thousands of movies, TV programs, scripts, books, magazines, games, toys and other documentation of the depiction of Arabs and Muslims in popular culture.
John Kuo Wei Tchen, a cultural historian at NYU, said Dr. Shaheen had been “way ahead of people paying attention to this kind of stereotyping, even among Arab Americans and Muslims. . . . He knew that collecting this stuff makes it palpable and undeniable.”
Besides his daughter, of Los Angeles, survivors include his wife of 51 years, Bernice Rafeedie Shaheen, a research associate for her husband, of Hilton Head Island; a son, Michael Shaheen of Prague; a sister; and four granddaughters.
Dr. Shaheen told The Washington Post in 2007 that he was not advocating for a politically correct portrayal of Arab Americans and Arabs, but that he and other advocates sought more balance.
“The Arab serves as the ultimate outsider, the other, who doesn’t pray to the same God, and who can be made to be less human,” he said. “Do you have any idea what it must be like to be a young person watching this stuff over in the Middle East?”
Those old Chuck Norris films, with the martial-arts star single-handedly decimating armies of Arab bad guys, are not harmless artifacts of 1980s American swagger, he said. “Have you ever looked through a TV Guide?” he said. “These movies are on television constantly. The images last forever. They never go away.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the 1973 OPEC oil embargo. The embargo was by some Arab members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, but not by OPEC itself. The story has been revised.