When we think of regions such as the Middle East or countries like the United States, why do we often have a preconceived notion of the kind of people who live there – what they believe, how they act? We mainly acquire such knowledge and notions about other peoples and cultures through the media: cinema, radio broadcasting, television news, performance art, books, paintings, museums and the internet.
The representation of other cultures and peoples through these means is not the end result of an innocent or objective process, but rather one often motivated by political and/or commercial interests. All those involved in cultural production – advertisers, network executives, editors, producers, designers, museum curators, authors, artists – are involved in this process.
The West s view of the cultures and peoples of the Middle East and other non-Western societies has often been distorted as a result, but what are the origins of these representations? Edward Said, in his well-known work of the same name, termed this phenomenon Orientalism – the framework by which the Orient was approached systematically, as a topic of learning, discovery and practice by the dominant white cultures of Western Europe and the Unites States during the era of colonialism.
This discourse often gives primacy to Eurocentric, imperialist and racist representations -and thereby fails to suitably analyze or understand the inhabitants of the Middle East region.
Often, the people of other regions are negatively portrayed as the other – as dangerous or savage populations that are looked upon with fear and astonishment. Those in power often mobilize such perceptions for economic or political gain. The net result is blind stereotyping and a reduction in the other’s perceived humanity, a stepping-stone to inequality, mistreatment and oppression.
Such attitudes continue in the West, long after the original colonial projects that spawned them have been abandoned, increasing the perceived dichotomy between the West and the rest .
In Western media, Arabs are commonly depicted as threatening figures, usually terrorists. Bookstores in the United States are filled with books and magazines proclaiming to expose Islam , as if it were some secret threatening force. Meanwhile, scholarly works, such as Raphael Pati’s 1973 The Arab Mind , which has been widely criticized in academic circles for its generalizations and abstractions, continue to influence contemporary policy-makers.
It is interesting to consider the impact of such thinking on recent events such as the war in Iraq. As the Bush administration repeatedly states, its Middle East policy is designed to bring freedom and democracy to the Middle East, implying that this is not possible without Western intervention. Viewing Arabs negatively, as other , no doubt also plays some role in the dehumanization process that resulted in such deplorable acts as the torture of Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib.
This labeling and generalization goes both ways, however, provoking misunderstandings of the United States and Americans by Arab governments and peoples as well. Anti-Americanism is genuinely widespread among Arab governments and peoples, as many understand the United States to be a self-interested, self-motivated imperial power.
Often, this negative view is based on American policy in the Middle East. But the United States is also often a convenient scapegoat for domestic problems in the Arab world. Again, the hostility and negative generalizations of the other are the product of self-interested manipulation by various groups or politicians within Arab society.
Only extremely misguided perceptions of the other can explain the horrific acts of terrorism carried out by Islamist radicals in the Middle East and the rest of the world, engrained as they must be with specific notions of their religion and of the West. However, their views and actions are not representative of the majority of Muslims in the Middle East or around the world.
Ultimately, the problem we encounter with all of this is coexistence. How can we, as Arabs, Muslims, Israelis, Americans, etc., accept difference without hostility and eliminate often deeply embedded and erroneous perceptions of each other?
Drastic measures should be taken to eradicate or resolve critical international issues which create stereotypes, and to dispel the stereotypes that fuel such crises. Special programs should be integrated at various levels of education teaching future generations to be more tolerant and adopt a different approach which develops an appreciation for diverse views as well as for our common values.
And critical thought must be fostered amongst all populations to enable them to make rational decisions when faced with the media and political rhetoric that they consume daily.
Kimberley Doyle & Maha Bensaid are participants in the Soliya program, which connects university students from the United States and Muslim-majority countries. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.