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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle