On July 10, 2017, the Arab and Muslim community lost a great scholar and activist, Dr. Jack G. Shaheen. Shaheen is known as the foremost scholar on the representations of Arabs and Muslims in film, television, and popular culture in the United States. His work researching, writing, and speaking against villainous depictions of Arabs and Muslims in popular culture spans nearly half a century.
Born in 1935 in Clairton, Pennsylvania and raised by Lebanese immigrants, Shaheen received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1957, Master’s degree from Pennsylvania State University in 1964, and PhD from the University of Missouri in 1969. Most recently, he served as professor emeritus of Mass Communications at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and as visiting scholar at New York University’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies.
Shaheen critiqued and challenged problematic media depictions of Arabs and Muslims in his works, which included his 1984 breakthrough book, The TV Arab, which examined more than 100 popular television portrayals of Arabs in cartoons, sitcoms, and documentaries. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Shaheen lectured at universities and conferences on the topic and continued to review of hundreds of films – further underscoring the damaging stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood. This led to Shaheen’s book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, published in 2001, which focused specifically on the caricatures of Muslims as terrorists.
His activism in the media industry led him to be retained as a consultant of Middle East affairs on CBS News, and caused Disney to change the lyrics to a song in the film Aladdin that perpetuated negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims.
Understanding the need to help Arabs and Muslims enter and eventually influence positive change in the media industry, Shaheen set up a scholarship fund to honor Arab American students excelling in media studies through the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). Every year, students are selected to receive scholarships to support their studies in journalism, radio, television, and/or film. This scholarship is awarded to students at ADC’s annual National Convention in Washington, D.C.
Shaheen’s works have inspired a generation of scholars and activists and have served as a foundation for numerous university courses on Islam and popular culture. A grateful Arab and Muslim community remember Dr. Jack G. Shaheen for his invaluable contributions to our society.