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Distorting the Arab Image - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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A wise man once said “If you want to defeat a nation, strip them of their identity, sense of dignity, and self-confidence.” This description applies perfectly to the Arab world which is mired in disputes and is drowning in a sense of helplessness and frustration to the point that Arab individual have already begun to lose their pride, identity, and sense of belonging, and are close to losing hope of ever escaping from this vicious cycle.

This disquieting state of affairs is connected to the deliberate and ongoing distortion of the Arab image that occurs abroad. Even now, the term “Arab” is linked in the minds of many to the stereotype of a backward and greedy human being who dislikes all westerners and does not know how to respect women. As if this were not enough to distort the image of Arabs; the Arab and Muslim character is now being associated with terrorism to the point that many people at an airport worry if they hear someone speaking Arabic or see someone with a beard and dark skin. The 9/11 attacks have been used to establish this image and continue the character assassination of Arabs and Muslims.

Many books, articles and films have contributed to promoting this stereotype to the point that the terms “Arab” and “Muslim” are almost completely synonymous in the minds of many with terrorism and treachery. Sometimes when reading a book you might suddenly find an Arab character portrayed as coarse, cunning, and untrustworthy. Whilst in Hollywood films about modern warfare or terrorism, one only finds Arabs and Muslims portrayed as the “bad guys” and as being merciless killers or terrorists who wants to kill innocent people and destroy the West.

This process occurs in a systematic and pre-meditated manner, strengthening this negative image and ensuring that Arabs and Muslims are subject to ongoing humiliation and attack. This is something that is compounded by the reality of the situation in our region and the fragmentation, disputes, and wars that are taking place there which see [human] rights lost and dignity exhausted; all the while the Arab individual is surrendering to this reality.

This character assassination and stereotyping – which eliminates human dignity – was suffered by the Jews in the past, where books and stories in the west portrayed them as being mean, greedy, and duplicitous. The Jews were negatively stereotyped, causing them to be outcast in many western societies. However, the Jews worked, and continued to work, in an attempt to abolish this old stereotype and prevent it from reappearing. They did so by using the weapon “anti-Semitism” as well as by controlling the media and culture and gaining access to the political and economic decision-making centers in the West.

Likewise the African-American community suffered under slavery in the US, suffering a lack of dignity and character assassination with the propagation of a racist stereotype of African-Americans as being lazy and barbaric, fit only to work as manual labor. However the African-American community fought against slavery and racism to overcome a number of obstacles. They are still working to change this racist stereotype and develop a sense of pride in their identity. This may explain the cooperation and sympathy between the many African-American and Jewish organizations in America, as they have suffered in the past and have a common interest in combating racism. However there is also a view that the Jewish movements – by coordinating with African-American organizations – were seeking to address the phenomenon of radical African-American Islamic convert groups such as the “Nation of Islam.”

There can be no doubt that one of the by-products of the Arab-Israeli conflict is that Israel and its allies are behind campaigns to distort the Arab image abroad, in order to inflict a political and moral defeat [on the Arabs]. However we have also contributed to distorting our own image via some of our own actions, or by falling into the trap of frustration and submission. We have lost the ability to highlight what was positive, and we are now imprisoned by our focus on our negativities. Therefore we are preoccupied with defining people as being Sunni or Shiite, Christian or Muslim, northern or southern. We focus on the issues that divide us and cause conflict, rather than on what unites us and creates harmony.

There is undoubtedly a link between the human sense of pride, dignity, and pride in one’s identity and an ability to confront injustice or rise from misfortune. The Japanese and the Germans were able to recover from their defeat [in World War II] and rebuild themselves because they did not lose their pride in their identity. The Arab individual will not regain respect unless he shakes off the sense of defeatism and reclaims his pride in his identity. The dire situation that we are currently witnessing reflects the feeling of many Arabs who are not proud of their identity, and merely repeat that the situation is dire, and that there is no way out of this bottleneck in order to change the situation. Change must begin with a revival of pride and dignity, and then confronting the distortion of the image of Arabs and Muslims in the outside world. We must also address some of the actions that are being undertaken by a minority of Arabs but which harm the Arab majority and serves the interests of those who want to target us and distort our image.

This is a war that we must win in order to begin anew.

Osman Mirghani

Osman Mirghani

Osman Mirghani is Asharq Al-Awsat's former deputy editor and senior editor-at-large.

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