“Have you been on a train before?”
“How come you speak English well?”
These were some of the many questions asked to us, the Arabs, while on our journey to the States. What was more interesting is that they came from students, several of which were graduates, that had this weird, uncivilized, and apparently Bedouin view of us.
Stereotypes exist on both sides. I guess it’s something universal, and it may not necessarily be negative. However, there’s a difference to what extent we go with our imaginations, prejudices and perceptions. Arab societies usually see the West as blonds, having green or blue eyes, individualistic, often too liberal, etc. And in the Western part of the world, individuals generally see us as Muslims, fundamentalists, backward, oh and terrorists (we better not forget the last one).
Edward Said, one of my favorite authors of Orientalism, wrote in Islam Through Western Eyes: “…it is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression” (The Nation, 1980).
The question is why? Why so? Why would the average American think that an Arab Muslim is not safe to be around? Why would a “beautiful blonde” have a panic attack when seeing a dark veiled woman? Why would a tourist from our part of the world be subject to extra examination and profiling while entering the borders of the land of the free? And the questions are endless.
Most Americans I met and had contact with were amazing people. Their smiles and enthusiasm were beyond clear. They were nice folks and worth starting a conversation with. They live peaceful lives and their actions and gestures reflect that. And I’m confused that why would such great people have such a negative impression on our societies. It doesn’t make sense. Maybe it’s not their fault. Maybe US citizens are victims of their own system. Maybe (and I’m just saying “maybe” to be polite) they are misinformed, ill-informed and uninformed.
All this said, it is worth mentioning that the “Big Five” own much of the media outlets we know. The Five are Time Warner, Walt Disney Company, News Corporation (Rupert Murdock), Viacom and General Electric, and to a lesser extent Sony, Vivendi, Hachette and Bertelsmann. These literally control what you get to know and what you don’t. They censor what goes out to the public and what does not. Media affects our perception and formulates prejudice. We have an illusion of diversity, but in reality they are all a few outlets. The dominant voice is the West. Thus, the Arab world is portrayed to the world how they see it. In fact how the western governments would like them to see the Arabs.
Dr. Jack Shaheen studied 700 movies made during the last 70 years in Hollywood. In one way or another, directly or indirectly, implicitly or explicitly Arabs are portrayed as terrorists, aggressive, merciless killers. Movies made in the West show Arabs either as bandits or as a savage, nomadic race, or shows Arab women as belly dancers serving their men. The Bedouin Arab is reflected through tents and camps. An important image that comes again and again is the Arab terrorist. This means that 10 best seller Hollywood movies per year are feeding the public misconceptions and wrong impressions on this part of the world.
Shaheen explains the happenings with the ‘4 Ps’:
- Politics: Hollywood –Washington Cooperation
- Profit: Viewers like to see Americans saving the world against the enemies. They sell.
- Prejudice: Stereotypes in Society and in the people’s heads.
- Presence: Few Muslims/Arabs in Hollywood.
Come to think of it why is the Arab Region called “Middle East”? What does this show? It is believed that the terminology is a western phenomenon, a discourse in language, which we have adopted it as well. Our region is referred to as Middle East because Europe is taken as the reference. We fall on the East side and to be exact in the middle, that is, between Europe and the yellow race. It is a way of using language to portray power differences and relationships in society. Thus, Europe (and the West in general) is considered as the center of the world. That political power of Europe for quite some time now was transmitted to America, and apparently the Europeans are claiming back some power (at least in its ‘soft’ sense).
My point is prejudices and stereotypes can be formed as means of political tools to shape directions, perceptions and thus outcome. Maybe after the Cold War and the fall of the Reds, America needed to create a new enemy to justify its political and military expansion. Yet, Islam fundamentalists and many of the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world didn’t make it easier for the Arabs to prove otherwise. Maybe this compromises a bigger and more essential problem to the issue raised above.