Media has perpetuated a myopic view of Arabs for years
“In newsreels or news-photos, the Arab is always shown in large numbers. No individuality, no personal characteristics or experiences. Most of the pictures represent mass rage and misery, or irrational (hence hopelessly eccentric) gestures. Lurking behind all of these images is the menace of jihad,” wrote Edward Said, an influential Arab-American intellectual, in his book Orientalism. “Consequence: a fear that the Muslims (or Arabs) will take over the world.”
This is the context in which Arabs and Muslims have been depicted for years, and are still depicted today. BBC News, one of the most popular news organizations in the world, wrote this headline on March 31 about the killing of Palestinians during a peaceful demonstration in Gaza: “Gaza-Israel border: Clashes leave 16 Palestinians dead and hundreds injured.” The word “clash” suggests the Palestinians have equivalent power in the situation, but they do not.
“I want to be shot. I don’t want this life,” Yahya Abu Assar, who participated in the demonstration, told The Washington Post. Palestinians have been living under one of the longest military occupations in recent history. Therefore, people are bound to get frustrated and exhausted living in such a precarious condition, especially those who live in Gaza, which has been described as an “open-air prison” by former U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron.
Yet, Palestinians often are portrayed as violent and irrationally angry in the media. And at the same time, some political commentators—both liberal and conservative—without fail try to justify the Israeli government’s disproportionate use of force, with only tangential mention of the historic injustices that Palestinians have faced. Every United States administration, including Obama’s progressive government, has repeated this line: “Israel has the right to defend itself.” What about the right for Palestinians to do the same?
In response to Israel’s intervention in Syria, General James Mattis, President Donald Trump’s secretary of defense, said in a press conference in Rome: “They don’t have to wait until [Israel’s] citizens are dying under attack before they actually address that issue.” On the other hand, when the killings happened in Gaza, Trump’s administration remained silent, not even issuing an official statement. Palestinians are just people, much like Israelis and Americans—curiously enough, many people forget that.
The representation of Arabs and Muslims is not only relegated to the news, but also movies, like Back to the Future where the side villains are Libyan terrorist looking for plutonium, and books from “expert sources.” In his 1996 book, Clash of Civilizations, political scientist Samuel Huntington argued that post-Cold War conflict will be cultural, pinning the western world against the Islamic world. The book paints a grim and unrepresentative image of Arabs and Islam, a picture of culture in constant opposition to the world, and Huntington diminishes the diversity within the Middle East and Islam itself. He wrote: “The fundamental problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power. The problem for Islam is not the CIA or the U.S. Department of Defence. It is the West.”
When the media portrays Arabs and Muslims as single-mindedly violent and barbaric, people forget about our humanity—the fact that we are just people. Palestinians are people. Arabs are people. Muslims are people. It bears repeating, because violent images of us are being perpetually distributed. We are people who enjoy eating great food, playing sports and having a fulfilling job. We are not irrationally more inclined to be violent and “barbaric” due to our religion and/or ethnicity.
As a person born and raised in Saudi Arabia, the images that liter the media are not representative of my life. Yes, violence exists in the Middle East. However, it’s contextual, historical and affects us the most. Before moving to Canada, I, like many Arabs and Muslims, just lived life; I went to school, hung out with my friends and enjoyed watching cartoons. I also faced discrimination and dehumanization being a Shi’ite, as marginalized people do all over the world. Shia face discrimination on a systemic level and personal basis like many minorities; certain jobs are not available us; we are stereotyped and underrepresented in society. Protests against inequalities caused fear of instability, leading to a police crackdown and checkpoints surrounding the entrances to Al-Qatif, a majority Shia area, reported The Globe and Mail.
Yet, the media continues to misrepresent Arabs and Muslims—this has negative implications. Arabs are discriminated against in airports, in the streets, and in institutions in the West. On a larger scale, the advocacy of western intervention, selling weapons and military gear, and western ignorance on issues happening in Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, have wider implications that are disastrous for Arabs. While westerners are more fixated on the violence of Arabs, their own countries are helping arm and sustain war efforts in the Middle East. The Canadian government sold armoured trucks to Saudi Arabia, which the government is using against the Shia community in Al-Awamiyah, according to The Independent.
In my opinion, more people in the West should read Arab perspectives, and encourage and support Arab journalists, filmmakers, writers and academics. As Said argues, the perception of the Arab world was created through western academics’ eyes. Reshaping this myopic view of the Arab world is important, and it starts by listening to our voices, especially the marginalized voices in the Arab world.
Graphic by Alexa Hawksworth