Arabian Knight

Jack Shaheen crusades against cinema's depiction of Reel Bad Arabs

Wright spoke of how he intended The Siege as a cautionary tale that asked, How would we react if terrorism exploded on our shores? What kind of people would we become? The film insisted we'd become civilized monsters, willing to round up our own in the name of homeland security. Wright said he hoped The Siege had contributed to the national discussion of caution, as political leaders went on television and begged Americans to keep from harming their brown-skinned neighbors.

"I've been very impressed with the cautious commentary on the part of a lot of television and radio people and the exercise of restraint toward Arabs and Muslims shown in the media," Wright says. "I think, to some extent, The Siege might have contributed to that sense of caution, because it was meant to be a cautionary tale, and maybe it succeeded."

Shaheen doesn't buy it, and with good reason: He actually served as a consultant on the film at the request of the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Arab Islamic Relations, which had received a copy of Wright's screenplay from Zwick and producer Lynda Obst. He and two CAIR officials went to Los Angeles to meet with Obst and Zwick to voice their anger: Why, they demanded, did the filmmakers single out Arabs as the film's villains? They pointed out that the film would further damage the perception of the world's 1.1 billion Arabs and Muslims; they cited a 1995 Los Angeles Times study that reported that of 171 people indicted in the United States for "terrorism and related activities," only six percent had ties to Arab groups. Their protests fell on deaf ears, and when the film was finally released, Shaheen and Zwick could often be found on network news programs, debating The Siege till they were hoarse.

Jack Shaheen consulted on Three Kings, which the author believes failed at the box office because audiences "didn't want to see American soldiers bonding with Muslims."
Jack Shaheen consulted on Three Kings, which the author believes failed at the box office because audiences "didn't want to see American soldiers bonding with Muslims."

"I found the producers of The Siege to be, in my opinion, insensitive and arrogant and intent on conveying the hatred of Arabs from the very beginning," Shaheen says. "Zwick just felt that New York was gonna be blown up by Muslim Arab terrorists, and he was going to show it, which is exactly what he did. So we stand on opposite ends, he and I, on this particular issue. I say his film increased intolerance. I say it spread a gospel of hate. He says otherwise, and that's where we are."

Shaheen, who lectured about such issues during his 25 years as a professor of mass communications at Southern Illinois University, began writing about this topic in 1978 for The Wall Street Journal. Six years later came his book The TV Arab, in which he discussed and deconstructed the ways television pigeonholes Arabs as "billionaires, bombers and belly dancers"; that book was followed by another, Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in America. In all, he has published some 300 articles on the topic; Shaheen has made such research his life's work. "I will never, ever cease trying to bring people together," he says, "and I will never, never, never cease trying to eradicate hate from the psyches of my fellow Americans and the people of the world."

But it has not been easy, and the events of September 11 will only make it more difficult; he is shouting in the vacuum of prolonged war. Shaheen has tried to work within the system, but he's had only modest success: He consulted with Warner Bros. on the sympathetic Three Kings, which he considers a highlight of his career, but there have been other instances in which his advice has gone unheeded or projects have gone unmade. And now he has to fight for his cause knee-deep in bloodlust; the very networks for which he has consulted have passed on inviting him to discuss his book. He knows what he's up against: Who wants to hear about the vilification of Arabs when they did this to us?

"Not to do this would mean the terrorists have won," Shaheen says. "Not to move forward, not to make an effort to cease this unending barrage of images of hate would mean that I have allowed this lunatic fringe to prevent me and my colleagues from helping to bring people together. And that doesn't help any of us."

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