Reel Bad Arabs. The propagation of discrimination

Reel Bad Arabs book by Jack Shaheen

Reel Bad Arabs book by Jack ShaheenMy son Arif’s Christmas gift to me was the book “Reel Bad Arabs, how Hollywood vilifies a people” by Jack Shaheen (it was made into a film as well – vimeo). It is a fascinating reference which took the author more than two decades to compile. In it, he reviewed over 1,000 Hollywood films which have denigrated Arabs, our culture and traditions, religion and way of life. The films reviewed were from the start of the age of cinema through to the present day. The amount of hate carried through these films – sometimes un-intentioned – is mind-boggling.

The book poses many important questions and premises which are worthy of consideration. The author’s considerable work was primarily to challenge stereotypes propagated by Hollywood because this challenge is extremely important. Left unchallenged, these stereotypes can devolve into violence against a whole people whose numbers exceed 300 million and the vast majority of which are “normal” human beings who want a “normal” life and who abhor violence. The vast majority are peace loving and peaceful and do not deserve to be singled out discriminated against.

He proposes that lobbying is necessary to correct this situation, just as others have successfully done like African Americans, Jews and other minorities who stood up to Hollywood’s vilification.

The author notes that:

Damaging portraits, notably those presenting Arabs as America’s enemy, affect all people, influencing world public opinion and policy. Given the pervasive stereotype, it comes as not surprise that some of us – and the US State Department – find it difficult to accept Egyptians, Moroccans, Palestinians, and other Arabs as friends.

Not only do these violence news images of extremists reinforce and exacerbate already prevalent stereotypes, but they serve as both a source and excuse for continued Arab-bashing by those filmmakers eager to exploit the issue. In particular, the news programs are used by some producers and directors to deny they are actually engaged in stereotyping. “We’re not stereotyping,” they object. “Just look at your television set. Those are real Arabs.”

Such responses are disingenuous and dishonest. As we know, news reports by their very nature cover extraordinary events. We should not expect reporters to inundate the airwaves with lives of ordinary Arabs. But filmmakers have a moral obligation not to advance the news media’s sins of omission and commission, not to tar an entire group of people on the basis of the crimes and the alleged crimes of a few.

Taken together, news and movie images wrench the truth out of shape to influence billions of people. Regrettably, gross misrepresentation abound and continue to plaster on movie screens those distorted “pictures in our heads” that Walter Lippmann bemoaned some 70 years ago.

I agree with this assessment. I have come across this prejudice in this very blog across many threads. My intention right from when I started blogging was to try to address this issue and to show that we Arabs are just regular folks. We have the good and the bad. We have the same aspirations and dreams. And we have the same basic human needs. No more and no less.

I’ve tried to provide a platform to bring our cultures together on the same platform so that people from both camps can come to this conclusion. I’ll leave it to you to decide wether I have succeeded. In fact, success is not really relevant as the issue is immense. What I would be happy with is if I had engendered conversations that allowed people to see the other’s point of view and accept them as human beings and view them as they too could be seen as possible friends.

I highly recommend reading the book and going through some of its observations in the film reference section. You will soon realise how big this vilification problem is to this day in Hollywood and other productions against Arabs.


  1. Steve the American

    Mahmood, it is not the Hollywood depiction of Arabs in movies that has given them a bad reputation in the eyes of Americans and the West but the real depiction of Arabs crazy with hate against the West and particularly America, eager to do violence against us. A few fictional Arab villains in films are feathers in the wind when you weigh public opinion compared to the Sep 11 attacks. Had Arab Muslims been depicted as angels in every film ever made, the terror attacks of Sep 11 would have undone that.

    I can tell you that there was no general bad public opinion against Arabs in America on Sep 10, 2001. That all changed on Sep 12 when we saw that Arabs did the mass murder and celebrated it everywhere. Now there is a profoundly negative opinion of Arabs and their despicable Islam, and rightly so.

    This would take a generation to forget, if Arab Muslims would stop killing people for their religion. Every few months, a Muslim tries to bomb a public building or kill people at public Christmas trees or just shoots up a nightclub or bombs a public event like the Boston Marathon. Even if Muslims weren’t killing people for their barbarous religion in America and Europe, ISIS by itself would be enough to tar the image of Arabs. You hardly need fictional Arab villains when you have ISIS randomly butchering people, buying and selling women in sex slave markets, beheading little girls, teaching little kids to execute non-Muslims, etc. If you want to know who is giving Arabs a bad image, look in the mirror.

    And isn’t it disingenuous to complain about Arabs cast as the villains in Hollywood films when the West and particularly America is villified without relent in the Arab Muslim world? In Islam, America is literally Satan. Most of your news about America is crude propaganda. The most fantastic lies are told about America and the West in your media and willingly believed by Arabs, who are dumb as dirt about the outside world. If you oppose negative stereotypes of people, you need not board an airliner to fly halfway around the world to fight them. You can start right at home.

    That said, Arab Muslims are not all bad, of course. There is a spectrum, just like all people. There are evil Arab Muslims who should be shot on sight. There are Arab Muslims who are as sweet as pie, who are embarrassed by Islamic terror. There are a lot of Arab Muslims in the middle who range from passive supporters of terror to people just living their lives to people who hate the violence but don’t know what to do about it. The problem is that the Arab Muslim population is weighted more heavily than civilized populations toward hate and violence. The crazies are driving the bus in the Arab world.

    1. Post

      Hi Steve

      I’m not going to get into an argument with you on the generalisations you offer. You’re welcome to your opinion.

      The problem is that the Arab Muslim population is weighted more heavily than civilized populations toward hate and violence.

      However, the above quote is patently inaccurate. I suggest that quite the opposite, Arab societies are more weighted toward peace than hate and violence. If what you say is true and we are veering toward hate and violence, with a population of some two billion, the world would’ve been annihilated a long time ago.

      The crazies are driving the bus in the Arab world.

      No. The ones who are “driving the bus” are despots whose survival is directly proportional to the chaos they can muster, in their own societies as in yours.

      Guess who your administration is unstintingly supporting.

  2. Shachar

    To me, the next logical question to your blog is this. How would you like Arabs to be portrayed? Also, and possibly even more importantly, who do you think should make this portrayal.

    I don’t think portrayal of Arabs is one dimensional in Israeli culture, but this is, at least partly, driven by Arab script writers writing about the Arab society aimed at the general populace.

    I think most notable of those is Sayed Kashua. In particular “Arab Labor” was a very honest satire, poking ruthless fun at both the Jewish and the Arab societies in Israel. It was a highly successful in Israeli TV, running for several seasons (at least 3), and winning awards.

    Maybe as a result, maybe unrelated, other writers came along (including Jewish writers) who gave Arabs more round characters.

    Ultimately, however, if you think Arab portrayal in the movies is one dimensional and unfair, it is up to Arab writers to write more even movie plots.


    1. Post

      Ultimately, however, if you think Arab portrayal in the movies is one dimensional and unfair, it is up to Arab writers to write more even movie plots.

      Yes. I completely agree.

      We are not doing ourselves any favours by not being involved. The kind of over-the-top that is mostly seen on our Arab television screens are the result of us not taking this art and medium seriously enough.

Comments are closed.