The DeKalb County Public Library and the Marist School are to be honored at a dinner of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta, which is to be held Nov. 2 at the Atlanta Marriott Perimeter Center.
Kenny Blank, executive director of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, is to chair the event, and Brenda Wood, WXIA-TV news anchor is to serve as mistress of ceremonies.
Jack G. Shaheen, a former CBS news consultant on Middle East affairs, an Oxford Research Scholar and a frequent lecturer is to be the keynote speaker.
The DeKalb library is to be recognized for participating in the national initiative, “a Muslim bookshelf,” providing a collection of books, films and other resources containing information about the history, culture and beliefs of Muslims in the U.S. and around the world.
The Marist School, an independent Roman Catholic college preparatory school in Brookhaven, is to be recognized for providing a series of speakers about the Muslim community and religions and its participation in the annual “High School Model Arab League,” and the “Peace by Piece” program.
For more information and to register, go to ISB 2013 Building Bridges Awards Dinner.
A guest commentary follows by Dr. Shaheen reviewing his groundbreaking work about the perceptions of American popular culture concerning Muslims.
For more than four decades, I have lectured, collected and written about Arab and Muslim images in American popular culture. Why? Because I wanted to shatter damaging myths. Entertainment — a power instrument more subtle than open propaganda — was being employed to inflict pain and dehumanize the Muslim and Arab “other.” My intent was to illuminate justice and to shelter children. Guiding me was the traditional proverb, “One generation plants a tree. The tree’s branches shade those of the next generation.”
From the beginning, I discovered that anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudices have a long and powerful history. Degrading images have been virtually unchallenged for more than a century. As a rule, Arab women are still projected as mostly mute and submissive figures: belly dancers, bundles in black, and beasts of burden, even bombers. Arab men surface as villains: Bedouin bandits, sinister sheikhs, buffoons, and gun wielding terrorists.
For decades, the creative power of the entertainment/media industries have reduced Arabs and Muslims into a single imaginary threatening entity. These stereotypes do not exist in a vacuum. History teaches us that perceptions impact public opinion, which in turn impact policies, which in turn bring about conflicts between nations, resulting in destruction and death. Regrettably, to many in the business community and elsewhere, the words Muslim and Arab have a derogatory meaning. Unlike words like Irish or Italian, the words are sometimes employed to help advance the sinister stereotype: Arab=Muslim=Evil Enemy Other. This damaging stereotype may have helped expedite America’s involvement in our recent two wars.
Constantly repeated, these entertaining images helped create and reinforce prejudicial attitudes toward Islam, Arabs, and Muslims, resulting in a narrow view of the Arab, U.S. domestic and international policies.
Although the Arab-as-villain motif has remained fixed in the U.S. and other popular cultures, I am optimistic that there is a trend of change in our business communities. In time, popular images will be more balanced. Prior to the tragic events of 9/11, there was a great deal of ignorance about Arabs, Muslims, and the Middle East.
Since then, however, there has been an increased interest in the region; thanks to international business exchange venues and other programs world citizens have gained more knowledge and understanding of Islam. In addition, more American students are learning Arabic and studying abroad in Arab countries; and major U.S. universities are establishing campuses in the Middle East.
The result is a steady increase in American sophistication about the Middle East and the people of the Muslim world, which is all to the good. The more Americans, especially those professionals doing business in the region, learn directly about a faith embraced by 1.3 billion people, the more we may alleviate and reject negative stereotypes.
Presence propagates power. An increased presence of Arab and Muslim Americans in the media and in business communities has also increased the number of positive images available. Since 1996, my wife, Bernice, and I have awarded more than 55 academic scholarships to outstanding Arab American college students. Many of these scholars have gone on to leadership positions and are dispelling damaging images. Annemarie Jacir and Eyad Zahra, for example, produced and directed three critically acclaimed feature films,Salt of this Sea (2008), When I Saw You (2012), and The Taqwacores (2010).
TV networks such as Turner Classic Movies (TCM) have taken positive steps to address the stereotypes. In July 2011, I was the curator and guest expert on the TCM series Race and Hollywood: Arab Images on Film, which aired in July 2011. Altogether, 32 features, five shorts, and several cartoons were telecast over eight days.
Two impressive TV series inspired a nationwide conversation about what it means to openly practice one’s religion — PBS-TV’s three-part series, Muhammad Legacy of a Prophet, and The Learning Channel’s (TLC) critically-acclaimed All-American Muslim series about five families from Dearborn, Michigan, There was some concern that the reality series would be taken off the air when Lowe’s, one of the show’s main advertisers, pulled its commercials. But the series was not canceled; in fact the advertising time for the remaining episodes sold out.
The emerging emphasis on film studies programs and an increased number of film festivals here at home and in Arab and Muslim majority countries are helping to create innovative directors and fresh images. For example, young image-makers are making impressive independent films: Men and women like Rola Nasif; her Detroit Unleaded, (2012), is a feel-good story about an Arab American couple in love. There’s Sam Kadi’s The Citizen, a terrific film about an Egyptian immigrant who arrives in the U.S. the day before 9/11. And Rashid Ghazi’ s Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football (2011), is an impressive documentary about Dearborn, Michigan’ s Arab American football team. Canada’s Ruba Nada has directed several major features, including Cairo Time (2009) and Inescapable (2012).
Years ago, few universities (if any) offered materials and/or academic courses related to Arab images in U.S. popular culture.But that is no longer the case. Recently, New York University reached out to acquire my Arab collection; today more than 4,000 items are housed at New York University’s Tamiment Library. The Jack G. Shaheen archive is a rich trove of audiovisual artifacts; television programs, films, comic books, TV and print advertisements, toys and games, editorial cartoons, novels, and other ephemera. Taken together, the items form an invaluable source for historians of popular culture and for scholars of cinema, media, and visual culture. This archive also reveals the harm perpetuated by systemic misrepresentations; the collection has transformed my quest for justice into archival research agents in contesting what was wrong.
Utilizing the Shaheen collection as a base, scholars, business leaders and government officials can now better understand how popular culture’s Arab and Muslim portraits have impacted opinion and policy. As Vaclav Havel, former President of the Czech Republic, points out in his book, The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice, “None of us as an individual can save the world as a whole. . . . But each of us must behave as though it was in his power to do so.”
Make no mistake; fear, distrust, dehumanization and violence against Arabs and Muslims remains a sad reality. There are individuals and special interest groups with political agendas continually vilifying Islam; and there are damaging movies such as Taken,Taken 2, Iron Man, and The Kingdom, as well as the Homeland TV series. Stereotypes take a long time to wither away. To some, dispensing with these harmful portraits may seem an impossible task. Yet, change is an American tradition.
The future belongs to the optimists. Eventually, I believe business leaders, from Atlanta to Abu Dhabi, will help lead the way by creating advertisements that celebrate our differences and embrace our commonalities. Damaging portraits will be replaced by fresh, accurate images. Young people will lead the way, creating inventive portraits that project Muslims and Arabs as fellow human beings, with all the potentials and frailties that condition implies.