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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 12    Issue 10   01 - 15 October 2017


Jack George Shaheen, a well-known Arab-American author, teacher and media consultant who carried out a courageous campaign to expose the negative, demeaning portrayal of Arabs and Muslims in US media, passed away on July 9, 2017

Minaret Research Network

Islamophobia may be defined as a complex and irrational mix of prejudices, sentiments, attitudes and behaviour patterns that is marked by antipathy towards Islam and Muslims. Since the publication of the report Islamophobia: A Challenge to Us All by the Runnymede Commission in 1997, the term Islamophobia has gained wide currency in academic discourse and in the media in Europe, the United States and other parts of the world. The report defined Islamophobia as “an outlook or worldview involving an unfounded dread and dislike of Muslims, which results in practices of exclusion and discrimination.” The report emphasizes that Islamophobia represents “a dramatic aspect of social exclusion, the vulnerability of Muslims to physical violence and harassment.” Islamophobic sentiments and attitudes, which are deeply ingrained in the collective consciousness of Western societies, are fuelled and reinforced by the media, the writings of some right-wing intellectuals and scholars and far-right political groups and organizations. A few years ago, France’s far right and anti-immigrant National Front party printed on its campaign posters the preposterous claim that “France will become a Muslim country by 2020.” Certain events at the turn of the century, including the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, the Bali night club bombings in 2002, the Madrid train bombing in March 2004 and the terrorist attack on London’s public transport system in July 2005, have intensified anti-immigrant sentiments and prompted many European governments to take anti-immigration measures.

Author and researcher Nathan Lean says in his book The Islamophobia Industry” How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims (2012) that the massive million-dollar Islamophobia industry began booming in the wake of 9/11 when “a cadre of bloggers, pseudo-scholars, religious leaders and activists emerged touting special knowledge of Islam and Muslims.”

Modern information and communication technologies, including the Internet, videos and films, are being increasingly used to disseminate hate against Islam and Muslims. A survey of 900 Hollywood film appearances of Arab characters found that the vast majority of them were racist caricatures. Images of ordinary Muslims and of Muslim societies are almost non-existent or distorted in the Western media. Modern information technologies, especially web 2.0 features such as blogs, social networks, websites and instant messaging, are being used by racist and neo-Nazis groups in Western countries to spread anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism and xenophobia. Social network sites are being used by extremist groups to spread a message of hate against minorities and immigrants. There are thousands of hate videos that are uploaded on YouTube with messages of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and intolerance towards minority groups.

In September 2005, a minor Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 highly derogatory cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. In one of them he was shown wearing a bomb-shaped turban (thus portraying him as a terrorist). In early February 2006, several newspapers in 22 European countries reproduced the cartoons, which generated an enormous amount of resentment among Muslims around the world. There were massive protests in Muslim countries in which scores of people were killed. Danish embassies in Iran, Lebanon, Libya and Syria were attacked and vandalized. Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Libya recalled their envoys to Denmark. Large numbers of Muslim consumers across the world boycotted Danish products on a massive scale. Trade between Denmark and the Persian Gulf, which amounted to billions of dollars each year, came to a halt.

A Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh made a derogatory film called Submission, which was aired on Dutch television in the summer of 2004. The script of the film was written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a self-styled Somalian-born rebel who sought asylum in the Netherlands. The film opens with a prayer and then presents, through Ali’s voice-over, the stories of four Muslim women telling God about the abuse (including incestuous rape) they have suffered at the hands of men. The film shows semi-nude images with verses from the Quran inscribed on their naked bodies. The film quite explicitly conveys the message that Islam denigrates and enslaves women and that the abuse and humiliation of women is sanctioned by the Quran. The film created a great deal of anger and resentment among Muslims in the Netherlands. On November 2, 2004 a Muslim youth of Moroccan origin stabbed Gogh to death.

Islam: What the West Needs to Know is a documentary film premiered at the American Film Renaissance Festival in Hollywood on January 15, 2006 and was also distributed on the web. The film argues that Islam is a violent religion and that Islamic violence is enshrined in the teachings of the Prophet and that the Quran sanctions and prescribes violence against non-Muslims.

The Clarion Foundation (formerly Clarion Fund) is a rabidly anti-Islam and anti-Muslim organisation founded by Raphael Shore in Washington in 2006. The purported objective of the Clarion Foundation is the perceived threat of radical Islam to Western civilization. Shore is a Canadian-Israeli film writer, producer and rabbi who has been actively associated with the extremist Israeli settler group Aish HaTorah. Clarion Fund has been involved in the production and distribution of several anti-Islam films like Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West, The Third Jihad, Iranium and Honor Diaries.

Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West was made by the Clarion Fund in 2006. An unnamed Canadian Jewish businessman provided nearly 80 per cent of the film’s $400,000 budget. The film, co-written and produced by Shore, portrays Islam as posing a threat to Western civilization and compares the Islamic threat with that of Nazism before World War II. The film features scenes of Muslim children being urged to become suicide bombers, interspersed with incendiary and demonising commentary on Islam. According to the Council of American-Islamic Relations, the people interviewed in the film constitute a veritable who’s who of Muslim bashers, including someone who said “Islam is not the religion of God – Islam is the devil.” The film was initially promoted via the Internet and later through screenings at various university campuses in the US. It was also distributed at Jewish synagogues and Christian churches across the country. Parts of the movie were shown on CNN and Fox News. Some prominent and influential newspapers, including The New York Times, distributed nearly 145,000 DVDs of the film. About 28 million DVDs of the film were freely distributed by direct mail and through more than 70 American newspapers in 10 key electoral swing states just before the 2008 presidential elections in an attempt to inflame the suspicion of the “Muslim Manchurian candidate” Barack Hussein Obama.

Iranium, produced by the Clarion Foundation, is an unabashed call for regime change in Iran, involving the use of military action.

Geert Wilders made a short film “Fitna” in March 2008, which shows certain verses from the Quran, interspersed with media clips and newspaper clippings showing acts of violence and terrorism by Muslims. The film also reproduces a caricature of the Prophet wearing a bomb-shaped turban (published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2006) and footage of the September 11 attacks on the US, the Madrid train bombing and the terrorist attack on London. The film conveys the message that Islam encourages acts of violence and terrorism, anti-Semitism and violence against women. Wilders described the film as “a call to shake off the creeping tyranny of Islamisation”. As Robert Fisk has observed, “the film is crass in its presentation, crude and vulgar in its message”. All mainstream television channels in the Netherlands refused to air the film. On March 27 Fitna was released on the video-sharing website Liveleak in Dutch and English versions. The next day, Liveleak removed the film from their servers, citing serious threats to their staff. It can be seen on the Internet on the sister channel to Wikipedia, Wikileak.

Britain's Channel 4 screened a film 'It Shouldn't Happen to a Muslim' on 7 July 2008. The film was accompanied by a pamphlet Muslims Under Siege: Alienating Vulnerable Communities, written by Peter Oborne and James Jones, who are professional journalists. The slim pamphlet covers a substantially larger ground than the contents of the film and investigates the atmosphere of hate, discrimination and vilification surrounding Muslims in Britain. It focuses on the role of the media, the far-right political parties and (some of) the Anglican clergy in fuelling and reinforcing mistrust and hostility towards Muslims. It provides instances of the manner in which some of Britain's leading journalists and commentators distort and misrepresent Islam and how some of the popular newspapers in the country give credence to fabricated stories about Muslims which inflame passions and further demonise them. The authors point out that Muslims in Britain are easily targeted with impunity because they are generally poor, vulnerable and powerless.

Oborne and Jones, who are members of the Church of England, point out that Islamophobia is widespread in British society and can be encountered in respectable newspapers, literary circles and sections of the clergy. Islamophobia remains, they say, "Britain's last remaining socially respectable form of bigotry." They quote the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee who brazenly wrote, "I am an Islamophobe and proud of it". Toynbee often portrays Islam as bloodthirsty, hate-filled and opposed to civilized values.

Some of Britain's leading newspapers have no qualms in publishing fabricated stories about Muslims which reinforce stereotypes and mistrust about Muslims. On 7 October 2006 the Sun newspaper splashed a sensational story about how a "Muslim hate mob" had vandalized a house near Windsor. The paper reported that local Muslims in Windsor were waging a vendetta against four British soldiers who hoped to rent a house in the area on their return from Afghanistan. One can well imagine how millions of readers of the Sun must have felt about Muslims on reading the report. However, an investigation by Oborne and Jones revealed that though the incident did occur, it had nothing to do with Muslims. In fact, as they found out, no Muslims lived in the residential colony at Montagu Road, where the incident happened. The police also denied any involvement of Muslims in the incident.

The facts, as reported by the Windsor Express a day earlier, were quite revealing. The local army barracks had received three anonymous phone calls the previous week, not from Muslims as the Sun had maliciously and falsely reported, but from local residents. The anonymous calls objected to the presence of soldiers because this would lower property prices in the area. The Windsor Express also reported that about 40 local residents had signed a petition expressing their objection to the soldiers moving in. Evidently, the Sun had twisted and distorted the whole incident to give it an anti-Muslim slant.

The Sun was forced to admit that there were problems with its story. In the meantime, the Press Complaints Commission exerted pressure on the newspaper to come clean about the matter. Eventually, the Sun published a half-hearted apology.

Oborne and Jones point out that a number of fabricated stories about Muslims regularly appear in the British media from time to time. One such story, for example, insinuated that Muslims in Britain wanted to ban Christmas celebrations. When they investigated the story, it turned out to be entirely baseless. Fabricated stories circulated by the media reinforce the stereotypes and misperception about Muslims. By and large, attacks on Muslims go unreported in the British media.

Islamophobic sentiments have crept into literary circles as well. Oborne and Jones quote the shocking statement of Martin Amis, one of Britain's best-known writers, who said in September 2006: "The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they're from the Middle East or from Pakistan. Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children."

The far-right political parties in Britain, especially the British National Party, thrive on fanning people's primordial sentiments and Islamophobic passions. The BNP often takes advantage of sensitive issues and fans racist and xenophobic sentiments in the majority population in order to draw political advantage. Far-right political parties in other European countries, such as the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the Swiss People's Party, France's Front National, Austria's Freedom Party and Belgium's Vlaams Belang, indulge in similar kind of Islamophobic rhetoric. Filip Dewinter, leader of Belgium's far-right Flemish Interest party, proclaimed some time ago, "Islam is the No 1 enemy not only of Europe, but of the entire free world.”

Jack Shaheen

Jack George Shaheen was born in a Lebanese Christian family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1935. He graduated from Carnegie Institute of Technology and thereafter obtained a Master’s degree in theatre arts from Pennsylvania State University and a Ph. D. in mass communications from the University of Missouri. He received two Fulbright teaching awards and joined the faculty at Southern Illinois University in 1969 where he taught courses in mass communications for several years. After retirement in 1994, Shaheen was appointed as Distinguished Visiting Scholar at New York University’s Hagop Kevorkian Centre for Near Eastern Studies. He was also Emeritus Professor of Mass Communications at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.

In addition to teaching, Shaheen served as a professional consultant with film and TV companies like DreamWorks, Warner Brothers and Showtime. He was a CBS News consultant on Middle East affairs. He died at the age of 81 on July 9, 2017.

Shaheen had a deep and abiding interest in racism and xenophobia, particularly as manifested in American popular culture. He devoted a lifetime to exposing the depiction of racist stereotypes in Hollywood films. Shaheen’s focus of analysis, research and critique was the negative, demeaning representation of Muslim Arab-Americans in the American mass media. He wrote three books and dozens of articles on this subject. His first book The TV Arab, published in 1984, focussed on the demeaning portrayal of Arab Muslims in the US media. This was followed by Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11, which highlighted the escalation in the misrepresentation and vilification of Arab Muslims in Hollywood films in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, 2001. Another book Reel Bad News: Hollywood Vilifies a People, published in 2012, carried the analysis further. It was made into a documentary film “Arab and Muslim stereotyping in American popular culture” in 1997.

In The TV Arab (1984), Shaheen observed that the US media tends to perpetuate four basic myths about Arabs: They are all fabulously wealthy; they are sex maniacs with a penchant for white slavery; they are barbaric and uncultured; they revel in acts of violence. Shaheen pointed out that these widely prevalent notions are as false as the assertions that Blacks are lazy, Hispanics are dirty, Jews are greedy and Italians are criminals.

According to the Arab American Institute, the population of Arab-Americans is around 3.5 million. About 63% of Arab-Americans are Christian while 24% follow the Islamic faith. By and large, Christian Arab-Americans are well integrated into mainstream American society while Muslim Arab-Americans have maintained their religious and cultural identity. It is the Muslim Arab-Americans who are at the receiving end of vilification and demonization. The Muslim Arab-Americans are generally portrayed in the US media as “billionaires, bombers and belly dancers.” Shaheen felt that Muslim Arab-Americans are an easy target of ridicule and stigmatization because there is no pressure group to protest against the discrimination and marginalisation experienced by Muslim Arab-Americans and also because Arab governments do not bother about the problem. Moreover, Arab-Americans are not a homogeneous, organised group. The prevailing political and cultural atmosphere in the US is such that if an American were to portray Muslim Arab-Americans in a positive manner in the mass media he would be labelled as anti-Israeli.

Shaheen believed that the social, economic and political context for the perpetuation of negative stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims in the US was provided by a confluence of events in the 1970s, including the oil embargo by the oil-producing Gulf countries, the continuing Israel-Palestine conflict, the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis, and 9/11.

The terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001 had devastating short-term and long-term consequences for American Muslims, including Arab-Americans. Shaheen pointed out that three distinctive consequences flowed from 9/11. First, Muslim Arab-Americans and American Muslims in general came to be perceived as terrorists or potential terrorists and therefore as the national enemy. This negative perception and stereotyping was fuelled and reinforced by the mainstream US media. Fox News, a popular and influential American TV network, has an evident anti-Muslim and anti-Arab agenda, which spilled over to the Fox TV network in shows like 24. Shows like 24 played a leading role in sustaining and reinforcing the negative stereotyping of Muslims. The reach and influence of 24 was so sweeping that all other TV networks in the US began to copy its format and programmes. Homeland, which is watched by millions of Americans and which was described by the former US president Barack Obama as a great TV series, is actually a very slick anti-Islam show.

Second, the negative, demeaning representation of Muslims, fuelled and reinforced by the US media, dehumanized Muslims and alienated them from American society. The atmosphere of fear and insecurity created in the wake of 9/11 dissuaded them from interacting with local Americans and engaging with the wider society. Third, they became afraid to speak up about the discrimination and humiliation experienced by them and some of them felt embarrassed about their own cultural heritage.

Shaheen was not an arm-chair scholar. He travelled extensively across the US, Europe and the Middle East to talk to film makers, journalists, media persons, opinion leaders and those who were at the receiving end of stigmatization and vilification. He delivered over 1,000 lectures on the negative and demeaning stereotyping and representation of Arab Muslims in the US mass media.

Shaheen was an active member of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and played a significant role in its deliberations and campaigns by bringing intellectual and academic credibility to issues of ethnic discrimination and the negative stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims in the US media. In 1992 Walt Disney produced a popular film “Aladdin” which portrayed Muslims in a highly negative and pejorative manner. Shaheen wrote a devastating opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times in which he blasted the depiction of Arabs as “thieves, unscrupulous vendors, dastardly villains and harem maidens” in Aladdin. He wrote that the film was a “painful reminder to 3 million Americans of Arab heritage that the abhorrent Arab stereotype is as ubiquitous as Aladdin’s lamp.”

The song “Arabian Nights” in Aladdin included these lines:

Oh, I come from a land
From a faraway place
Where the camels roam
Where they cut off your ear
If they don’t like your face
It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.

Following protests by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Walt Disney agreed to drop the word “barbaric” from the song and to change the last lines of the lyrics to “Where it’s flat and immense and the heart is intense.”

Jack Shaheen and his family created a scholarship programme, called Jack G. Shaheen Mass Communications Scholarships, to encourage Arab-Americans to take up courses and researches in media studies with a view to focus on issues of racism, ethnic discrimination and negative stereotyping of Muslims in US popular culture. The scholarships are administered by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

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