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.

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.

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

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The murder of fearless journalist Pavel Sheremet must be solved - but Ukraine needs more

Sheremet was blown up as he drove to host a morning radio programme

On 20th of July Kiev was shaken by the news of the assassination of the respected Belarusian journalist Pavel Sheremet. Outside the ex-Soviet republics he was hardly known. Yet the murder is one that the West should reflect on, as it could do much to aggravate the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. 

Sheremet was one of the most significant and high profile investigative journalists of his generation. His career as an archetypal  examiner of the post-Soviet regimes in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia bought him fame and notoriety in the region. From 1997 onwards Sheremet became a name for fearless and non-partisan interrogation, both in print and as also as TV presenter. He paid the price early on when he was incarcerated by the Belarus government, then stripped of his Belarusian nationality and deported. Such is the way of things in the region.

Taking up residence in Kiev, Sheremet became immersed in interrogating the political life of Ukraine. He wrote for the Ukrayinska Pravda publication and also helped to develop a journalism school. Under these auspices he was a participant of a congress, "The dialogue between Ukraine and Russia", in April 2014. He reported on beginnings of the Euromaidan uprising. He warned of the rise of the concept  of "Novorossia" and suggested that Ukraine needed to reset its current status and stand up to Russian pressure. After the Russian occupation of Crimea his blame for the Ukrainian government was ferocious. He alleged that that they "left their soldiers face to face the [Russian] aggressor and had given up the Crimean peninsula with no attempt to defend it." These, he said "are going to be the most disgraceful pages of Ukrainian history."

Sheremet was blown up at 7.45am on 20 July as he drove to host a morning radio programme.

Ukraine is a dangerous place for journalists. Fifty of them have been murdered since Ukraine achieved independence. However, this murder is different from the others. Firstly, both the Ukrainian President and the Interior minister immediately sought assistance from FBI and EU investigators. For once it seems that the Ukrainian government is serious about solving this crime. Secondly, this IED type assassination had all the trappings of a professional operation. To blow a car up in rush hour Kiev needs a surveillance team and sophisticated explosive expertise. 

Where to lay the blame? Pavel Sheremet had plenty of enemies, including those in power in Belarus, Russia and the militias in Ukraine (his last blog warned of a possible coup by the militias). But Ukraine needs assistance beyond investigators from the FBI and the EU. It needs more financial help to support credible investigative journalism.   

The murder of Pavel Sheremet was an attack on the already fragile Ukrainian civil society, a country on the doorstep of the EU. The fear is that the latest murder might well be the beginning of worse to come.

Mohammad Zahoor is the publisher of Ukrainian newspaper The Kyiv Post.