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.

Photo: Getty
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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia