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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Racism, media stereotypes, and the Middle East

Racism, media stereotypes, and the Middle East

Teresa Cambria

Issue date: 3/26/08 Section: News/Features

Lately I've been going through a little something I like to call West Wing television withdrawal. In the years since "The West Wing" finale, I have missed the show's sharp, fast paced humor and cutting political commentary. To alleviate my withdrawal symptoms, I recently revisited an old episode - but instead of feeling warm and fuzzy liberalness, I was unsettled.

"Isaac and Ishmael" was an effort by the writers and producers to address the changes in the world directly after September 11, and thus was suspended from the plot and chronology of the rest of the series. In this episode, Josh Lyman (deputy White House chief of staff/sexy protagonist) speaks to a group of high school students while the White House is in lock down during a potential terrorist threat. This framework provides an ideal opportunity for an extensive discussion about terrorism, Arabs, Muslims, and the interactions between the United States and the rest of the world. The show focused on breaking down stereotypes and understanding those who are different from us.

The content was not what was unsettling. What left me so perplexed was that an episode with content that should have been extremely dated to a hostile, post-9/11 climate still seemed so relevant to today's political discourse. It seems to me that despite our increased interaction with the Arab and Muslim world, as a nation we haven't moved passed many of the incorrect and absurdly negative assumptions and stereotypes held directly after the attacks.

How is it that as a nation we can be at war for five years in a region and still be so ignorant about it? People continue to conflate Arab with Muslim, despite the fact that not all Arabs are Muslim, and not all Muslims are Arab. Naturally, the most alarming is that both of these groups have become synonymous with "terrorist" in the typical American mind set. There is a large population in this country who would take issue with the terms "Muslim American" or "Arab American" and have absolutely no problem completely stripping all people who fit either of those bills of all their civil liberties and rights in the name of "national security." Although there has been some effort to fix these misconceptions, I have yet to see a true concerted effort as everyone clamors to avoid being called unpatriotic. A recent poll demonstrated that around 50% of Americans would approve of restricting the civil liberties of Arab Americans, and 25% of people would not feel comfortable living next door to these groups.

At MESA's Middle Eastern Night, Dr. Jack Shaheen pointed out that negative stereotypes about the Arab world have been rampant in visual culture for centuries. Especially with the rise of the movie industry and television, depictions of Arabs have typically been of backward, ruthless desert dwelling foreigners, and yet no one calls out this obvious racism. In ten minutes from his documentary "Reel Bad Arabs," there must have been at least forty film clips spanning the history of the movie industry with absurd characterizations of Arabs. He also pointed out that while before, these imaginary Arabs with scimitars in the movies were in a far away desert land, more recently the media has begun to demonize Arab and Muslim Americans as well. TV shows such as Fox's "24" and "Sleeper Cell" on Showtime portray Arab characters in a constantly negative light. As Dr. Shaheen pointed out, where are all the normal Arabs and Muslims? In Hollywood, good Arabs are seemingly nowhere to be found.

As a non-Arab and non-Muslim, I had never truly considered the cultural and social ramifications of movies like Aladdin where Arabs believe that where they live is "barbaric, but hey, it's home!" And yet, continually negative portrayals of Arabs and Muslims in the media do have an impact.

I am constantly frustrated with the news media creating words like "Islamo-fascism," as well as the rise of evil Arab/Islamic characters that are always terrorists. If I feel frustrated, I can not even begin to imagine how it must be to constantly turn on your television, and watch the media turn you into a terrorist. As Dr. Shaheen pointed out, this is systematic barbarization of a people, and there remains little opposition or honest discussion about it.

What we have really done is lumped all Arabs and Muslims together, and made them "the other." I think the crux of the issue is that believing Iraqis, Arabs, and Muslims all make up the "other" does make what we are currently doing in the Middle East easier to digest. We like to think that we are doing some modicum of good for these backward, unfortunate people, but we have separated them enough from ourselves that we have no problem with mass civilian casualties abroad, or throwing Arab U.S. citizens in jail without just cause here at home. For example, on the weekend before the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004, there was a crackdown in which thousands of Muslims and Arabs (including noted comedian and guest at Middle Eastern Night Ahmed Ahmed) were arrested without charges. Some argue that this is all in the name of national security, and when at war, we must fight by any means necessary, here at home as well as abroad. The truth is that we are not benevolently helping a backward people, nor are we protecting anyone by throwing someone in jail based upon their religion and/or ethnicity. We are allegedly fighting to protect our freedom, but by "our freedom," it seems that what we really mean is the freedom of those who don't happen to be Arab and/or Muslim - their freedom and rights mean little to us.

There is absolutely no way we can ever move forward towards any kind of peaceful resolution if we don't have any desire to know who we are dealing with abroad. If we refuse to relate on any level to the people affected by U.S. foreign and domestic policy, we will only continue to deepen the rift. At home, we must first accept Arab and Muslim American citizens as Americans just like the rest of us. In the Middle East, we must try to understand the perspective of those who may drift into radicalism. If we begin to see the "other" as less intimidating, then perhaps we can begin a dialogue that will lead to increased understanding and a de-escalation of current tensions.

Towards the end of the special episode of the West Wing, Josh recounts the biblical story of Isaac and Ishmael. In the end, despite their differences and quarrels, Isaac and Ishmael come together for the common cause of burying their father. There is hope for peace and reconciliation, and above all, there is a commonality between even those who seem irreconcilably in conflict. Despite all the animosity that has built up between them, if you tear it all away, at the most basic level there is common ground upon which to start building.

I just hope that when another five years has passed, I can watch "Isaac and Ishmael," and it will seem as dated as Rocky fighting a Soviet.


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