Arab stereotypes are terrorising people's common sense.
“Sorry sir, the toilets are off bounds,” said the girl with serious lip-control problems. “For security reasons, you understand,” she explained pertly, even though her colleague had been about to point them out to me. She eyed me up suspiciously from the safe sanctuary behind her desk in an insignificant first floor office on a grey and wet summer's afternoon in provincial Oxford, England.
Offended by this uncalled for hostility, I retorted sarcastically, “Damn! Now I can't plant my bomb!”
Is that all an Arab is? A fundamentalist? A terrorist?
Physical Profile: A kufiya wrapped around the head and face; a waist-length beard; a Koleshnikov hanging from the shoulder; and a blank, murderous expression in the eyes.
This is an image that seems to epitomise the modern Arab: mysterious, unsavoury, faceless. Arab, Iranian, Turk, Muslim are all synonyms in this outdated and reactionary vernacular. They all bring to mind the same basic set of adjectives: dirty, slimy, ignorant, violent. Never mind that all the above represent a diversity of distinct cultural and historical backgrounds.
Why do people have such an unfavourable picture of Arabs? Being an Arab myself, this is a question I have often pondered. Is this image deserved? Are Arabs truly so detestable? Call me biased, but I would suggest that this demonisation of the Arab is a social myth that holds only a minor link to reality. However, all myths have a very real social and political basis.
Her prejudice is not entirely her own fault. She could be forgiven as being a victim of her ignorance and her society's bias. She doesn't often come into contact with Arabs and, when she does, she feels obliged to be on her guard. She can only go by what she knows and sees. And, for her, she relies heavily on the images she sees in the trusted ‘free' media that reports things as they ‘really are'.
For her, the Middle East is an alien, hostile and inhospitable place. Its inhabitants are frantically killing each other off, irrationally refusing to shake hands and make an honourable and ‘lasting peace', and, perhaps most importantly, they hate the West, ‘Us', for no apparent or logical reason. Moreover, their rulers aren't any better, the region is simply teeming with crackpot despots and dictators.
The rather patchy and sporadic reporting of the Middle East tends to focus almost exclusively on conflicts and crises, often casting the Arab in an extremely unflattering light: a ghoul-like character straight off the pages of a children's fairytale. And, as in pantomime, it is not only OK, but also desirable to slay the monster.
That is why what, anywhere else, would be perceived as inherently unjust and inhuman is largely accepted when it comes to the Arab and, in a larger context, the Muslim. Their perceived sub-human and inherently sinister nature is used to excuse or justify a diverse range of actions. Moreover, their nature makes them unable to offer genuine resistance.
Therefore, when Hizbullah, an indigenous Lebanese faction dedicated to the liberation of occupied Lebanese territory, mounts an attack on the occupier, they are instantly, and usually without a second thought, branded terrorists. The cycle is an unending one: a long drawn-out peace process that is hijacked more often than not by Israeli whim, derailed on every track; the continuous series of indiscriminate and out of proportion bombings of defenceless neighbours; years of crippling sanctions.
In effect, this can be viewed as a watered-down manifestation of Orwellian thought control. “But we don't have propaganda. We live in a democracy,” I hear you protest. As Edward Said painstakingly and effectively highlights in his insightful Covering Islam, there is certainly no central state-controlled propaganda apparatus.
However, what the media produces is neither spontaneous nor completely ‘free'. The mainstream media adopts unconsciously the political ideology of the state it emanates from because this is seen as looking out for ‘our' interests. Therefore, when it comes to reporting, there is often a particular slant and voluntary censorship by unspoken consent. This can be viewed as a natural by-product of culture because it is by its very nature subjective. However, the danger lies in the fact that many in the West believe that this, even if true for other societies, does not hold in their case.
Certainly, this unconscious, or in some cases unspoken, political agenda is not the sole constraint holding back a fairer portrayal of the Islamic World. Many of the journalists and Middle East ‘experts', especially in the US, have only a tentative understanding of Islam and have a precarious grasp of what actually goes on in the region.
This makes them more susceptible to lumping together, over-simplification and employing convenient stereotypes, because neither they, nor their readers, have the time or the inclination to expend the necessary energy to analyse. Moreover, even well intentioned publications cannot depart too far from the received view, because they will only succeed in isolating and ostracising themselves, possibly being branded dissidents, as happened with Noam Chomski.
Below this layer of prejudice fed by ignorance, there lie other factors at play. The Middle East is a strategic region for its cheap and abundant oil supplies. To ensure an uninterrupted supply, the inhabitants of the region have to somehow be dehumanised and tamed. By laying fault squarely on ‘their' shoulders, they become a convenient scapegoat, ‘we' can pursue ‘vital national interests' uninhibited by conscience and unrepulsed by our own avarice.
There is also the bottom line of economics. The media is in the business of making money, and sensationalism and taking jabs at the monster help raise circulation or ratings. Furthermore, the received view of the Arab and the Muslim is similar to that of the communist, especially during the Cold War: deserving of no sympathy, only hostility.
At the core of the issue is the residue of the long legacy of historical rivalry between so-called Christendom and Islam, between the Orient and the Occident, due to its geographical and cultural proximity and its centuries of ascendancy. More than any other culture, Islam has had the most powerful and perhaps traumatic influence on Europe. It helped propel Europe out of the Dark Ages and provided much of the scientific and cultural foundation for the Renaissance (although this influence is largely ignored).
Furthermore, European inadequacy towards and fear of the more advanced Islamic Empire provided much of the fuel for the crusades. Europe was never fully able to get over its insecurity towards Islam, even after Islam's decline and after it had been conquered by Europe. Moreover, to make the process of ruling its Muslim subjects more manageable there emerged the study of Orientalism (also superbly dissected by Edward Said in his classic of the same title).
Orientalism, although it professed itself to be an academic study, was rife with racism. Its underlying aim was to map out the essentials required to subjugate. It delineated certain universal traits that it claimed were common to all Orientals, ignoring the enormous cultural diversity therein. By making the oriental appear to be a single and indivisible unit, who was, of course, innately inferior to the European because he was irrational and fatalistic, provided them with adequate justification to continue their rule. It was, after all, in the Oriental's best interest that they do so.
This argument, in one form or another, sometimes disguised, sometimes blatant, has proved remarkably resilient over the centuries. The Arab is still very much the bad guy, and if you can get your pound of flesh out of him, then all the better.
Prejudice and demonisation of this sort are not the sole domain of the West. Take Iran's portrayal of America as Satan and anything that emanates from there as satanic. However, we find such attitudes mind-boggling and bemusing. We ask ourselves, “How can anyone possibly make such a sweeping generalisation?” But hasn't the rational, objective West created a billion little demons called ‘the people of Allah', who, bearing the ‘sword of Islam', follow a handful of devils incarnate and will overrun the civilised world with their barbarism?
This article appeared in the April 2000 issue of Insight magazine.