A is for Arab: Stereotypes in U.S. Popular Culture

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Hi all,

Once again, it’s been a while since my last post! I had a wonderful summer interning as a business analyst with Capital One in Plano, and I’ve taken this first half of the semester to dive right into a very interesting, if hectic, start to senior year.

It’s a little crazy for me to think that this is the fourth year I’ve been keeping this blog! Time definitely flies by, and I’m having trouble believing that it will soon be time for me to leave the bubble that is college and make my way into the real world.

Fortunately, I still have some time left to enjoy OU, and part of what has made my time here great is attending various international events through this Global Engagement fellowship. My favorite events are often the lunchtime talks with different experts on various current events and areas of the world, but sadly, my class schedule this semester conflicts with all of these and I’ve had to get a little more creative.

The first event I attended this semester is a fantastic traveling exhibit in OU’s library called A is for Arab: Stereotypes in U.S. Popular Culture. This exhibit consists of a series of large displays with some photos of various negative representations of Arab people that have littered American popular culture for generations. Each large display is in the style of a children’s alphabet book, for, as the first display details, American stereotyping of Arabs can be found everywhere, including sources as seemingly-innocent as children’s books.

The exhibit strove to emphasize that even though anti-Arab and anti-Islamic sentiments have been on the rise post-9/11, these ideas are far from novel in American culture. Comics from Archie to Tarzan to Dennis the Menace have included negative Arab stereotypes, and American movies and novels have utilized such stereotypes for generations. Several of the displays detailed specific pervasive stereotypes that American culture has had a difficult time shaking.

One panel, entitled H is for Harem, outlines the ways in which the American portrayal of Arabic women is often seriously flawed and marginalizing. Arab women are rarely portrayed in American media, and when they are, they are often either hyper-sexualized or depicted as flat victims of violent oppression. There is very little accuracy in the way American media views Arab women, and this is incredibly damaging because many Americans draw their views on foreign cultures and people directly from the media. By allowing these negative (and false) stereotypes to be perpetuated, American culture perpetuates misinformation and ignorance that are extremely harmful to both race relations within the United States and the relationship that our country has with others.

In a similarly harmful vein, another of the panels in this exhibit is entitled V is for Villain, and it outlines the ways in which Arab men are so often portrayed as violent, dangerous villains, rather than as actual people. Much of American media paints Arab men with the same broad brush that in paints the women, but the men are made out to be evil, greedy, and dangerous. This is concerning for the same reason that all negative stereotypes are concerning; it breeds ignorance and mistrust, and it counteracts any hope the United States has of pursuing truly productive international relationships with Arab countries. Within our own borders, the ignorance fueled by these stereotypes makes it difficult for Arab people to assimilate into our culture, and it reinforces the idea that American prejudice against and fear of Arab people is okay.

Hopefully by now I have made it clear that I think this prejudice and fear is far from acceptable. The United States needs to work much more on eliminating stereotypes and instead viewing Arab culture and Arab people with the complexity that they possess. Broad brushstrokes are damaging and unproductive. We as a society have painted Arabs as the “other” for years, and it is time to turn the page.

It is reassuring to see exhibits such as this one focusing on educating people to this issue. Shamefully, before viewing this exhibit, I had not realized just how pervasive the negative stereotypes of Arab people were in U.S. culture, though I’m sure that any Arab-American is painfully aware. Hopefully, this exhibit can combine with an increasing number of positive, realistic portrayals of Arabs in American media to produce a positive change in American society. I know that we can rise above this hatred and fear that we have allowed to brew for so long; what we need now is to start taking our first steps.

The themes of this exhibit have significant overlaps with my honors research this semester, in which I am looking into the roots and rise of Islamophobia in the U.S. It is important to note that not all Arabs are Muslim and that not all Muslims are Arabs; these groups are far from homogenous, but we very often fail to treat them accordingly. This semester, I have been doing a lot of reading and writing over the origins of Islamophobia and their modern manifestations, and I look forward to sharing much of this in another blog post!

The Roots and Rise of Islamophobia in the West

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This semester, I have had the immense pleasure of doing honors research on the roots and rise of Islamophobia in the West under Dr. Charles Kimball. The semester is far from over, and I learn new things every day, but my research has many parallels to current events both in the United States and abroad, and I want to make a quick post sharing some of the things I’ve learned so far. This is a quick summary of my thoughts on what I’ve read so far.

Islam is the world’s second-largest religion and the fastest growing religion in the world. It was founded in 622 by a man named Muhammad, who Muslims believe is the messenger of God. The Quran, the central Islamic religious text, is believed to be God’s final revelation, a purification of the Torah and the Bible that came before it.

Islam shares many doctrinal similarities with Judaism and Christianity, and it even looks up to many of the same holy figures (the Quran mentions Jesus and Moses many more times than it mentions Muhammad). Yet, despite these similarities, many, many Americans and Europeans who are not Muslim view Islam to be a religion of violence and oppression, something far removed from so-called “Western values.” Post-9/11, both anti-terrorism efforts and anti-Islamic sentiments have been on the rise in the United States, but these prejudiced views of Islam are far from new. Rather, they date back to the earliest interactions between Islam and Christianity, and Western society has largely been unable to shake these biases that it formed so long ago.

When Islam first arrived on the scene, it definitely shook the status quo for the Christians at the time. Islam gained followers, power, and knowledge incredibly quickly, making the Western countries appear backwards by comparison. Thus, the first impressions that the West formed of Islam were formed in fear; Islam was the greatest threat to Christianity that Christians had ever seen, and in their fear, their initial assessment of Islam was incredibly inaccurate. They painted Muslims as godless villains and relied much more on their own imaginations than on research into what Islam is really like to form their first impressions. (Source: Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages, R.W. Southern)

Over the years, when Islam ceased to be as much of a military threat, Western scholars began to conduct more accurate research on Islam, but an anti-Islamic sentiment still persisted throughout much of the Western world. Negative caricatures of the prophet Muhammad and damaging misunderstandings of Islamic law and practices were pervasive. Even as Western society as a whole gained more understanding of the actual text of the Quran and of the actual religious practices observed by many Muslims, the prejudice generated in the Middle Ages remained ingrained in their societies. Events like the Crusades underscored the fact that Islam was treated as the enemy, and though some in the Western world, most notably St. Francis, sought peace and interfaith dialogues between Christians and Muslims, this attitude was the exception, not the rule. (Sources: Islam and the West: The Making of an Image, Norman Daniel, and The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace, Paul Moses).

European colonialism threw yet another wrinkle into Islamic-Western relations. European powers dominated many majority-Muslim countries for many years, and when they left, propped up oppressive authoritarian regimes, choosing their own economic interests over the implementation of the democracy that they claimed to value. These actions led to many political tensions in Africa and the Middle East that have yet to evaporate, as well as, understandably, mistrust of Western powers in the eyes of many Muslims. Western countries left terrible governments in their wake and claimed to support democracy but failed to do this in practice. As a result, many Muslims looked to Islam as a framework that could guide their political lives in addition to their private religious ones. Many majority Muslim countries have sought to implement Islam in some way into their governments, and this is an uncomfortable idea to many European countries, and to America, who pride themselves on the separation of church and state. (Sources: Islam: The Straight Path, John Esposito, and The Future of Islam, John Esposito).

Some in Muslim countries have felt so oppressed by the West that they’ve lashed out in terror attacks. Many non-Muslims in the West are quick to equate these attacks with all Muslims, when in reality, many of these attacks are politically-motivated, using Islam to justify violence but born from fear of Western political and military intervention rather than from fear of Christianity. (Sources: Islam: The Straight Path, John Esposito, and The Future of Islam, John Esposito).

What all of this boils down to is that there is a great deal of fear and mistrust on both sides of this divide, and these emotions and sentiments are far from novel. The challenge now comes in cutting through the fear and focusing more on our similarities and less on our differences. I know that sounds incredibly idealistic, but it is an ideal that I would like to strive for in my life moving forward.

At this point in my semester, I’m turning my attention to the specific case studies of the United States and Great Britain, looking at the historical roots of Islamophobia in each country and the modern manifestations of it. So far, it seems to me that much of the problem arises with an inability for many non-Muslims to imagine Muslim society complexly. Many have difficulty distinguishing between Muslims and Arabs, and equate all Muslims with the violence and extremism demonstrated by only a few. With my research, I hope to shed even a little bit of light onto this complex issue, as well as to champion the idea that we can and should see Muslims as the diverse, multifaceted group that they are. The enemy of ignorance is knowledge, and I hope to share a bit of that with my community with this semester’s research.