Book Review: Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs After 9/11 February 20, 2015 15:00

By Jack Shaheen, Olive Branch Press, 2008, paperback, 198 pp. 

Get the book here!

Reviewed by Jamal Najjab

The influence and power of movies in American society, as well as the rest of the world, cannot easily be avoided. One aspect of our lives that films affect more than most is how we perceive and interact with the world outside of the U.S. and those who inhabit it. According to Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan, “Movies are really hard-wired into our psyches, shaping how we view the world. It’s when politics infiltrate entertainment that it is most subversive—and most effective...Artful entertainment easily beats full-on propaganda.”

With this in mind, Professor Jack G. Shaheen—described by veteran journalist Helen Thomas as “a one-man anti-defamation league” because he’s devoted much of his adult life to persuading Hollywood to be fair in its portrayal of Arabs and Muslims—has penned his latest book, Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs After 9/11.

According to Shaheen, author of the bestseller Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People,“Arabs remain the most maligned group in the history of Hollywood. Malevolent stereotypes equating Islam and Arabs with violence have endured for more than a century...Arab=Muslim=Godless Enemy.” In fact, Shaheen argues, the entertainment industry’s vilifying of Arabs and Muslims helped prepare the American public, as well as our fighting men and women, to go to war in the Middle East.

Shaheen makes it clear that the U.S. government has had a hand in ensuring that Hollywood sends the public a negative image of this part of the world and the majority of the people who live there. “Filmmaking is political,” he explains. “Dehumanizing stereotypes emerging from the cinema, TV, and other media help support government policies, enabling producers to more easily advance and solidify stereotypes.”

In Guilty, Shaheen covers a new aspect of Hollywood’s misrepresentation of Arab and Muslim Americans living among us. Before 9/11—as far as Hollywood was concerned, at any rate—they were invisible. Now, however, they are portrayed in movies and television programs as members of sleeper cells, waiting to receive the call to become active terrorists and do harm to their neighbors. Since 9/11, Shaheen has found, more and more prime time TV dramas include the theme of out-of-control Arab and Muslim terrorists.

Shaheen’s book is a valuable resource on a subject he knows better than anyone. Quoting well-known sources to reinforce his already strong argument, he then attempts to suggest tangible solutions to this pressing problem—leaving this Arab-American reader with a sense of hope. Finally, as he did in Reel Bad Arabs, he has compiled a list of the films that have been produced since 9/11 for the reader to use as a guide. The list—which now exceeds 1,150 films—includes not only offensive movies, but also those in which their makers attempted to present a more balanced representation.

This reader made good use of this section of the book. I was thinking of renting the film “Young Black Stallion” for my 7-year-old son after noticing that the back cover of the DVD box had pictures of Arabs with their horses. After reading Shaheen’s assessment of how negative the film is toward Arabs, however, I know not to go anywhere near the movie. On the other hand, Shaheen’s review led me to rent Roberto Benigni’s “The Tiger and the Snow,” which is set in Italy and Iraq during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Besides being a warm, moving and funny movie, it presents the Iraqi people as just that—people.

This, after all, is what Professor Shaheen and the majority of the world’s Arabs and Muslims desire: simply to be seen in an objective light, no better, no worse than anyone else. It really isn’t that much to ask—is it?

Jamal Najjab is administrative director for the American Educational Trust and Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.