Arabs through the Lens of Western Media A Case of Thorough Misrepresentation

In this digital age, media is the one of the most potent forces of formulating perceptions. From USA to the West, and Pakistan in the East, media is playing a central role in creating awareness amongst the masses and striving for positive change.  With the ability to instantly tap into the lives of millions of people all over the world, the media industry carries a heavy burden of responsibility. What the media projects can instantly make people happy, emotional, angry etc. At times it can make people come out on the streets and demand positive change, while at other times it can incite people to burn cars, buses, and harm others and their property. It can influence the viewers beliefs not just about particular events it can also shape their opinion about religion, caste and creed.  It has been in this domain where the media has inadvertently incited prejudice and stereotyping that has led to discrimination, categorization and ultimately violence against communities. The prevalent negative perception of the Arab community in the West is a case in point.  Ever since the tragic attacks of 911, the way Arabs are represented in Hollywood movies and the news media has created a very dark image of the Arab world. Thus the fact that hate crimes against Arabs and arson attacks on their religious sites have risen considerably during the same period is not surprising.

The degree to which the Western society has been influenced by stereotypical images of Arabs propagated by the media is reflected in the immediate aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995. The dust had barely settled when the media started speculating on the possible perpetrators of this deadly attack and rumors were spread by the media about suspects of Arab origin taken into custody. This was highly irresponsible reporting because the ethics of journalism require concrete evidence before anyones name can be attached with an event. The event was tragic, but what happened in its aftermath was highly traumatic for the Arab-American community. People who were enraged by the attacks didnt bother to investigate the matter before forming their views, rather, they took the most simplistic explanation propagated by experts on the media that implied that Arab terrorists were behind the attack. Unwarranted media reporting of Mosques and other Islamic centers within the area further fuelled the belief that Arabs were responsible. The backlash of this motivated reporting resulted in many cases of hate crimes against Arabs. The absurdness of the way the media conducted itself in this affair was confirmed when just days after the attack, an American citizen Timothy McVeigh was arrested in connection with the attack. Timothy was neither a Muslim, nor an Arab, yet the biased media reporting created a very insecure atmosphere for the Arab community. Consistent portrayal of Arabs as wild, destruction loving, anti-American people led everyone to instantly jump to conclusions.

The negative portrayal of Arabs also has a political dimension to it the Palestinian-Israeli and more broadly the Arab-Israeli conflict occupy significant media space in the West. The Western world has its own strategic interests in the Middle-East and it sees Israel as a guardian of those strategic interests. The media reports on these conflicts using neutral terms for Israel and harsh terms for those on the Arab side of the conflict. Palestinians who cross the Gaza border into Israeli territory are described as infiltrators and terrorists. When the Israeli Army launches an operation in Gaza, it is termed as an operation against terrorists. The terms used have a significant impact on the viewer. Who would oppose an operation against terrorists However, the term guerilla or infiltrator has a negative connotation and its use paints a negative image of the Arabs. While referring to the positive portrayal of some Arab countries, Ghareeb, said that these positive images only exist as long as these countries remained positively affiliated with the United States on foreign policy issues (cited in Farra, 1996). 

Hollywood movies are an excellent source of entertainment for viewers all over the world. These movies are based on what their viewers can relate to. In these war-plagued times, terrorism is a major concern for the people and Hollywood has come up with numerous movies to exploit viewer interest in this subject. However, it should strike as intriguing that almost all of them cast the terrorist as an Arab What is the purpose of implying this co-relation between Arabs and terrorism Such movies definitely influence peoples views about other Arabs around them and thus a negative perception about the Arab community resonates in the society. Similarly, one of the most popular TV shows ever made is a series called 24. This TV series was inspired by the counter terrorist efforts of national security organizations after the deadly 911 terrorist attacks. The show revolves around the activities of a tough federal agent who uses questionable techniques to prevent terrorist attacks. The terrorists in each season are Arab Muslims, and the heroic agent prevents terrorist attacks by torturing suspects. The message that this sends to the millions of viewers of this show is that ArabsMuslims are terrorists

Agencies are always working in supreme national interest
Torturing  Arab terrorist suspects to get information to prevent terrorist attacks is acceptable
Contact Federal Agencies about activities of Arabs around you which make you suspicious
Perhaps the producers of this show dont realize that they are jeopardizing the lives of Arabs all over the Western world by implicating their entire community in terrorist activities.
Similarly, the news media has also indulged in gross misrepresentation of Arabs, their culture, their values and specially their religion. The Arab world is holistically casted as a part of the world where there is no respect for human rights, rightist dictatorships are flourishing, women are subjugated and religious extremism is promoted. It cant be denied that to some extent, this is true however, it shouldnt be represented in a way that every Arab gets classified in the same, obscurantist category because that is far from the truth. Especially Arabs who have emigrated to the West, have been settled there for several generations, and have embraced Western culture are as western as anyone else. They are surprised however when they are targeted because of their Arab heritage. When a crime is committed, it should be reported as an individual act. This is done in most cases, however when an Arab commits a crime, hisher Arab heritage is also mentioned. The implied meaning in such reports is that Arabs are dangerous and the viewers either consciously or subconsciously reach the implied conclusion. According to the Canadian Council of Refugees

Some Canadian media contribute to dangerous stereotyping. The serve a diet of distorted images which promote the false notion that Islam as a religion condones violence, and associate Muslims and Arabs with terrorism. When the media prominently identify individuals who are suspected of wrong-doing as being Muslim or Arab, they unfairly imply that all Arabs and Muslims are collectively responsible for the actions of certain individuals.

However, not all media is portraying a negative picture of the Arab world. Rather than stifling the voice of Arabs, some news channels are attempting to give Arabs a chance to represent themselves on air, and inform the world about their perspectives on issues. The British Broadcasting Company airs a show called the Doha Debates, hosted by reputed journalist Tim Sebastian and it addresses Arab issues from an Arab perspective. As almost everyone is an Arab, the possibility of misrepresentation is eliminated. The show presents a side of the Arab world, about which most dont know. The audience of this program consists of young, literate Arab men and women. While many of the women might be wearing scarves, they are sitting along with men and actively debating issues such as terrorism, women rights, education, poverty, democracy etc in context of the Arab world. For people in the West who view Arab women as a downtrodden bunch, it comes as a pleasant surprise when Arab women come on air, sit with men, and engage in healthy debate about complex cultural, regional and global issues.  This is a very good attempt at positively influencing views about the Arab community. Such bold initiatives should be supported and replicated to counter the wave of anti-Arab programs.

At a time when major conflicts are raging in the Muslim world, the media should attempt to appease some of the harsh feeling amongst Arabs. However by consistently misrepresenting Arabs in mass media, an intolerant environment is brewing, where Arabs are feeling more and more insecure and crimes against them are increasing. Ethical and professional reporting demands that factual information and not societal stereotypes should be used as the basis of filing reports. Crimes should be reported as individual actions and information about the criminals heritage is un-important and shouldnt be reported as it would negatively influence societal views. To offset some of the negative portrayal of the Arab community, the media should project the positive impact the Arab community has had on the West, what they have added to Western culture and the role of Arab charities in the West. Similarly, the producers of movies and other entertainment programs related to terrorism should be more responsible and they should depict terrorism not as the forte of one particular community or religion. Thus a sustained effort is required on part of the media to de-link the popular stereotypical co-relation between Arabs and terrorism.


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