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Why are we still relying on decades-old stereotypes when we talk about the Middle East?

Media narratives and the stereotypes they employ matter because they frame the way the world understands events. The reporting of Middle Eastern conflicts has the potential power to impact western political responses.

Members of the Free Syrian Army's 'Commandos Brigade' photographed in 2012. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

What is the first image that springs to your mind when you hear the word “Arab”? If western media portrayals over the last decade are anything to go by, it will be one of these: a wealthy sheikh with a dodgy oil interest, a keffiyeh-clad terrorist, a mad dictator, or a wild and intemperate crowd of protesters. An article called “100 Years of Anti-Arab and Anti-Muslim stereotyping”, written by the director of media relations for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee puts it succinctly: “Arabs in TV and movies are portrayed as either bombers, belly dancers, or billionaires.”

These stereotypes matter, because they shape the reporting of Middle Eastern conflicts, and have the potential power to impact western political responses. The Arab Spring of 2011, when protesters across the region took to the streets to demand democracy, toppling dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, turned these stereotypes on their head. Suddenly, Arabs were campaigning for democracy, and were depicted as enlightened underdogs, fighting brutal oppressors. Now, two years later, Syria is mired in civil war, Egypt has been the site of a bloody military coup, Libya is in chaos, and even Tunisia is increasingly unstable. Images of the Middle East have reverted to something more recognisable: bearded men, veiled women, violence.

On 24 August, the Economist published a blog looking at Barack Obama’s approach to intervention in Syria. It stated: “Such chilly rationality will not placate Arabs whose blood is boiling. From Syria to Egypt and beyond, partisans yearn to crush old rivals or sectarian foes once and for all.” The language is telling; a perpetuation of the old stereotype of the “angry Arab” with passionate fury fuelled by intemperate Mediterranean blood. Language like this subtly (or not so subtly) underscores the division between “us” – rational beings – and “them” – the dangerous other.

Of course, this is not a new phenomenon. Perhaps the most well known recent example was Newsweek’s controversial “Muslim Rage” front cover. Published almost exactly a year ago, during widespread protests against a crude and low-budget anti-Islam clip on YouTube, the cover image shows two bearded men, spittle flying, faces contorting. Writing in the aftermath of the Newsweek cover, US academic Khaled A Beydoun argued that “the recent events and their associated images have re-shifted the focus from progressive revolutionary back fully back to prevailing image of the Arab and Muslim as menace”.

That trend is continuing as the debate over western intervention in Syria rolls on. Of course, it is the truth that there have been brutal war crimes from both sides in the Syrian war, that the conflict is complex and sectarian in its nature, and that there is a high risk of the conflict spilling over Syria’s borders and affecting other countries. But these essential facts have formed the basis for much ill-informed commentary on Syria, much of which perpetuates the stereotypes mentioned. A satirical piece over at Policy Mic, entitled “How to write for or against US intervention”, eviscerates these pieces. “Nuance is a friend of your enemy, no matter what side you're on. If you can’t convey the entire situation in a sentence, maybe this job isn’t for you.” It goes on: “If you’re Arab, emphasise that fact, since all Arabs are exactly alike and every Arab speaks for all Arabdom. Be sure to divide the entire population of Syria into "good guys" and "bad guys".”

There are many journalists risking their lives in Syria to bring the conflict to the world’s attention – but even they are expressing frustrations. In an impassioned, bleak piece for the Columbia Journalism Review in July, Italian freelancer, Francesca Borri, complains that despite interest from readers, editors insist on descriptions of bloodshed rather than detailed analysis. She wrote:

The truth is, we are failures. Two years on, our readers barely remember where Damascus is, and the world instinctively describes what’s happening in Syria as “that mayhem,” because nobody understands anything about Syria—only blood, blood, blood.

This feeds back into the notion of stereotypes; angry people, killing each other senselessly, far away. Why do media narratives and the stereotypes that inform them matter? Put simply, because this affects how the world understands, and responds to these crises. A few years ago, I saw the veteran foreign correspondent Lindsey Hilsum give a talk in London. She had been one of the few western journalists present in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. She spoke about a “failure of journalism”; the story gained international traction only when people began to flock to camps in Goma – Africans fleeing was a familiar story, even if it was not the correct one in this instance.

In 1980, Edward Said wrote an article for the Nation, entitled “Islam Through Western Eyes”. It is worth quoting from at length, given its relevance to the current situation:

So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Moslems and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. 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.

What emerges is that Ayatollah Khomeini, Col. Muammar e-Qaddafi, Sheik Ahmad Zaki Yamani and Palestinian terrorists are the best-known figures in the foreground, while the background is populated by shadowy (though extremely frightening) notions about jihad.

In the intervening 23 years, with numerous wars behind us, it seems that not very much has changed in the way we look at, and speak about, the Middle East.