Stereotypes of certain nationalities and ethnic groups have been present in film, anecdotes and other mediums of popular culture since time immemorial. “Americans are obese”, “Brits have bad teeth”, “Germans are very serious” and so on. Some stereotypes, such as these, are comical or innocent in nature, but what of those malicious stereotypes that present a negative, or even hateful image of a particular culture or people?
Thanks to the efforts of campaigners and the prevalence of education and international communication, many popular stereotypes have been dispelled. Yet negative preconceptions of the Arab world remain subtly imbedded in the popular imagination as well as in the media. Much intentional attention has been directed on the Middle East in recent years. Because of its strategic political, economic importance, the region often occupies a prevalent position in the media. Yet negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims routinely fill our television screens and newspapers.
The images that come to mind when we think about different ethnic groups are significant as they will affect how we treat them, or at the very least, out attitude towards them. Ultimately they will influence important decisions including foreign policy.
According to a study commissioned by the Kuwaiti government, western media coverage of the Middle East is overly preoccupied with, and dominated by negative stories typified by terrorism, anti-Americanism and the occupation of Iraq.
“The terms Islamic or Muslim are linked to extremism, militant, jihads, as if they belonged together inextricably and naturally (Muslim extremist, Islamic terror, Islamic war, Muslim time bomb).
"In many cases, the press talks and writes about Muslims in ways that would not be acceptable if the reference were to Jewish, black or fundamentalist Christians”, the report claims.
An important finding of the report is that television news and documentaries are the most influential sources for peoples’ general perceptions of Islam, followed by newspapers.
About 37% of those surveyed said they had very limited exposure to news and information about Islam, with almost 75% saying the media depicts Arab Muslims and Islam accurately only half the time.
In another revealing study, Jack Shaheen, a Lebanese-American professor, undertook a study of some 900 Hollywood films featuring Arab characters, which he rather wittily entitled ‘Reel Bad Arabs’. He accused the film-makers of "systematic, pervasive and unapologetic degradation and dehumanisation of a people".
Judith Brown, the director of Arab Media Watch, an independent media monitor in the United Kingdom, notes that the Lebanese writer Edward Said exposed how ‘19th-century Orientalist discourses created ideas about the Orient; its sensuality, its tendency to despotism, its aberrant mentality, its habits of inaccuracy, its backwardness’. She believes that ‘in the same manner, Arabs are displayed as inherently inferior to Westerners and benefiting from Western intervention.’
According to Mrs Brown, such notions of the eastern mind are ingrained in the westerner’s psyche, and are confirmed when he looks at the Middle East. Hence the average westerner does not look at the Arab world with impartiality, but becomes victim to the cynical images he already bears. The extent to which this affects the media varies on the aims and objectives of the media giants and their political agendas.
The images beamed from the Arab world to our tv screens will invariably show what is happening in the troubled region, and much of it is unpleasant. Yet, at the same time, it is imperative that western news consumers are exposed to images of highly educated Arab professionals, aspiring young people, cultural delightss, impressive development schemes and the national ambitions of the Arab world. Such a balance in the media coverage of the region would go a long way in dispelling stereotypes and in the minds of many.
Conversely, Arabs must take the initiative in fighting adverse ethnic presentations of themselves in the media. Since 9/11 and the ensuing ‘war on terror’, many Arabs have begun to question the treatment they receive in the media. They must showcase the increasing pool of talented, highly articulate Arab individuals to the wider world, and strive to occupy positions of influence in the media. Some media organisations including Aljazeera have adopted this stance, with high quality English language news and documentaries now broadcast globally.
Such efforts will go a long way in dispelling negative stereotypes of the Arab world and increasing objective, nonpartisan coverage that other ethnic groups already enjoy.