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 8 bits of good news about integration buried in the Casey Review

It's not all Trojan Horses.

The government-commissioned Casey Review on integration tackles serious subjects, from honour crimes to discrimination and hate crime.

It outlines how deprivation, discrimination, segregated schools and unenlightened traditions can drag certain British-Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities into isolation. 

It shines a light on nepotistic local politics, which only entrench religious and gender segregation. It also charts the hurdles faced by ethnic minorities from school, to university and the workplace. There is no doubt it makes uncomfortable reading. 

But at a time when the negative consequences of immigration are dominating headlines, it’s easy to miss some of the more optimistic trends the Casey Report uncovered:

1. You can always have more friends

For all the talk of segregation, 82 per cent of us socialise at least once a month with people from a different ethnic and religious background, according to the Citizenship Survey 2010-11.

More than half of first generation migrants had friends of a different ethnicity. As for their children, nearly three quarters were friends with people from other ethnic backgrounds. Younger people with higher levels of education and better wages are most likely to have close inter-ethnic friendships. 

Brits from Black African and Mixed ethnic backgrounds are the most sociable it seems, as they are most likely to have friends from outside their neighbourhood. White British and Irish ethnic groups, on the other hand, are least likely to have ethnically-mixed social networks. 

Moving away from home seemed to be a key factor in diversifying your friendship group –18 to 34s were the most ethnically integrated age group. 

2. Integrated schools help

The Casey Review tells the story of how schools can distort a community’s view of the world, such as the mostly Asian high school where pupils thought 90 per cent of Brits were Asian (the actual figure is 7 per cent), and the Trojan Horse affair, where hardline Muslims were accused of dominating the curriculum of a state school (the exact facts have never come to light). 

But on the other hand, schools that are integrated, can change a whole community’s perspective. A study in Oldham found that when two schools were merged to create a more balanced pupil population between White Brits and British Asians, the level of anxiety both groups felt diminished. 

3. And kids are doing better at school

The Casey Report notes: “In recent years there has been a general improvement in educational attainment in schools, with a narrowing in the gap between White pupils and pupils from Pakistani, Bangladeshi and African/Caribbean/Black ethnic backgrounds.”

A number of ethnic minority groups, including pupils of Chinese, Indian, Irish and Bangladeshi ethnicity, outperformed White British pupils (but not White Gypsy and Roma pupils, who had the lowest attainment levels of all). 

4. Most people feel part of a community

Despite the talk of a divided society, in 2015-16, 89 per cent of people thought their community was cohesive, according to the Community Life Survey, and agreed their local area is a place where people from different backgrounds get on well together. This feeling of cohesiveness is actually higher than in 2003, at the height of New Labour multiculturalism, when the figure stood at 80 per cent. 

5. Muslims are sticklers for the law

Much of the Casey Report dealt with the divisions between British Muslims and other communities, on matters of culture, religious extremism and equality. It also looked at the Islamophobia and discrimination Muslims face in the UK. 

However, while the cultural and ideological clashes may be real, a ComRes/BBC poll in 2015 found that 95 per cent of British Muslims felt loyal to Britain and 93 per cent believed Muslims in Britain should always obey British laws. 

6. Employment prospects are improving

The Casey Review rightly notes the discrimination faced by jobseekers, such as study which found CVs with white-sounding names had a better rate of reply. Brits from Black, Pakistani or Bangladeshi backgrounds are more likely to be unemployed than Whites. 

However, the employment gap between ethnic minorities and White Brits has narrowed over the last decade, from 15.6 per cent in 2004 to 12.8 per cent in 2015. 

In October 2015, public and private sector employers responsible for employing 1.8m people signed a pledge to operate recruitment on a “name blind” basis. 

7. Pretty much everyone understand this

According to the 2011 census, 91.6 per cent of adults in England and Wales had English as their main language. And 98.2 per cent of them could speak English. 

Since 2008-2009, most non-European migrants coming to the UK have to meet English requirements as part of the immigration process. 

8. Oh, and there’s a British Muslim Mayor ready to tackle integration head on

The Casey Review criticised British Asian community leaders in northern towns for preventing proper discussion of equality and in some cases preventing women from launching rival bids for a council seat.

But it also quoted Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, and a British Muslim. Khan criticised religious families that force children to adopt a certain lifestyle, and he concluded:

"There is no other city in the world where I would want to raise my daughters than London.

"They have rights, they have protection, the right to wear what they like, think what they like, to meet who they like, to study what they like, more than they would in any other country.”

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.