Muslim and Arab Stereotypes
Chimamanda Adichie, in her TEDTalk “The Dangers of the Single Story,” discusses the stereotypes and generalizations that arise when we form opinions about a group of people based on limited exposure to their real lives. Often stereotyped as a “poor African woman,” Adichie found herself at a disadvantage. After her first glance at Adichie, Adichie’s roommate had classified her as such and due to this prejudgment, Adichie’s roommate was surprised Adichie liked Mariah Carey, an American singer, and that she spoke English. If the roommate had not been subjected to the danger of the single story, she would not have stereotyped all African women. She figured that because Adichie came from a continent often portrayed in the media as the poorest and in need of saving, she did not know the ways of the world. Basically, what Adichie’s roommate was thinking was that she was “someone else from somewhere else and therefore has no similarities with me.” Adichie’s roommate’s preconceptions portray the effects of the single story.
Single stories exist and continue to be acted upon by intellectual individuals and others. I will be focusing on the single story about Arabs and Muslims. I want to make it clear, first, that not all Arabs and Muslims equal each other. Being one does not mean being the other. An “Arab” person comes from the Middle East, so the term describes a race. A “Muslim” can from anywhere and practices Islam, so the term describes a religious belief. (For more information on this, click here).The media lumps these two groups together, which makes it so the stereotypes of one group becomes the identifier of the other. As a result, I will describe these groups as one just because people think of them as one. Both groups of people have been going through serious butchering in the media ever since—and even before—the attack on 9/11.
The usage of rhetoric applies to many other media besides news channels. Good examples of rhetoric include movies and cartoons. Let’s take the example of Disney’s Aladdin. Intended for the audience of children aged about three to thirteen, Aladdin takes place in a fictional Arabian city, Agrabah. Automatically, viewers program themselves into thinking of the people in Agrabah as Arabs and therefore, every Arab viewers see will be colored by their perceptions of Arabs in the movie. In the movie, Princess Jasmine, the female protagonist, dresses in clothes that are overly sexualized—hence, Jasmine depicts Arab men’s lust. She perfects the portrayal of a “harem woman.” Driss Ridouani, a professor of Moulay Ismail University in Morocco interested in gender studies, writes, “The depiction of Badr Al-Buddur (the renamed Jasmine) matches the preconceived view of the Western artists about Muslim harem, focusing chiefly on her sexual fascination to appeal to the male’s lasciviousness.” 1 He goes on to write that with Jasmine’s complexion and belly-dancer-like qualities, Jasmine presents herself as a sexual product. Instead of giving Jasmine the princess-like qualities every other Disney princess possesses, Jasmine lacks royal chastity and nobility.
Another TEDTalk embedded below that I watched recently epitomizes the points I have made.
Ali Baba, a cartoon about an Arab man, provides another example of the negative depictions of Arabs and Muslims in Western media. Ali Baba wears the turban, which therefore makes him an Arab. The main character of this cartoon, Ali Baba earns a reputation as “the mad dog of the desert.” Immediately, people picture a wild dog and equate it with Ali Baba, who follows Islam. Ridouani writes that “there is not a part of his [Ali Baba’s] body that may show that he is a decent being…he is famous for his mean, deceptive, spiteful, gluttonous inclination.” Once again, the Arab depicts the negative character. Because Ali Baba commits thievery, his heart only has room for greed. The productions of blockbuster cartoons such as these show everyone that Arab men commit these negative acts, which continues the negative stereotype about Arabs.
The lack of respect Muslims garner has even more drastic effects. One of these effects was observed when the bombing in Oklahoma City happened. On April 19, 1995, downtown Oklahoma City experienced a domestic terrorist attack. In a scramble to pin this bomb on someone, the media decided to pick—you got it—the Arabs. The media immediately pointed fingers at a Middle Eastern group without any proof or evidence to support their claims and even “Steven Emerson, a terrorism expert, told viewers not to believe Islamic groups when they denied involvement.” An early report also cited rumors of “three men of Middle Eastern origin” fleeing the scene and invoked comparisons to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1994 bombing of the Jewish Center in Buenos Aires and the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, among other attacks launched by Arabs. When it was later proven that this group did not do the attack, the media retracted their claims and filled the news with stories of an “insane white man” that committed the heinous crime. News stations conveniently forgot that just a day ago, they had claimed “Middle Eastern terrorists” bombed Oklahoma City. Right then and there, the effects the single story of Arabs showed themselves.
The single story has made all Arabs and Muslim alike terrorists, whether they actually are or not. A terrorist crime that anyone could have done was pinned on no one else but the Arabs. The resultant effects show that Arabs and Muslims also feel bitterly wronged because of these accusations. A New York Times article mentions that when Middle Eastern writers wrote about the bombing, they were relieved that it had no connection to Arabs or Muslims, they were miffed because fingers were pointed without evidence in the first place. This started debates among the writers on who exactly has anti-Arab sentiments.
All of these effects contribute to how Muslims and Arabs are seen. Another problem exists: how younger Muslims are reacting to these causes. In a case study conducted in the United Kingdom, Muslim students were asked about the media representation of the Arabs and Muslims. The study showed that “international Muslim students share the view that the British media present a distorted view of Islam and Muslim countries…According to participants in this study, such misrepresentations have led to Muslims being treated with suspicion by the non-Muslim community, and to occasional acts of physical and verbal abuse.” 2 Because of these factors, the Muslim students either have low self-esteem or let go of their cultural identities to “fit in.” The students in the study realized that sometimes they were put in the difficult position of having to protect their faith from slander and repeatedly correcting misunderstandings. The students realized the problem exists and because of the drastic effects of having to lose their identities and having to exhaustively redeem themselves, their efforts as students are sometimes begotten in the effort to protect their identities.
A big part of everyone’s life consists of the media. There are always news and stories about various groups of people. From the media, single stories and, therefore, stereotypes are construed. Different movies and shows are also produced to further these stereotypes. The group in question often loses a lot because of these factors and it affects the way they act and are perceived. In the long term, the stereotypes affect their self-esteem—a big problem for the youth—and their standards of living. All in all, they would live happier and better if the stereotypes did not exist, but since they do, groups like the Arabs and Muslims have to adjust their lives and try to find a balance between defending their religion and trying to fit in with the Westerners. The sad fact is that as long as the single story exists and until people decide to research to get to the bottom of its prolonged lie, Arab and Muslim lives will continue to deteriorate.
*All images are either created by me, taken from Flickr (Creative Commons), or from Google Images (labeled for modification).
- “Ridouani, Driss. “The Representation of Arabs and Muslims in Western Media.” RUTA: Revista Universitària De Treballs Acadèmics 3 (2011): Web.” ↩
- “Brown, Lorraine, Joanne Brown, and Barry Richards. “Media Representations Of Islam And International Muslim Student Well-Being.” International Journal Of Educational Research 69. (2015): 50-58. Academic Search Complete. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.” ↩