By Amira El Wattar
On July 18, 2005, fourteen year old Ragheb al-Masri sat in the back of a taxi with his parents at the Abo Holi checkpoint. An Israeli bullet penetrated his back and cracked open his chest. His mother screamed as his body lay lifeless. Have you heard his name? I wouldn't expect that you have because CNN, The New York Times, and the Washington Post didn't report the killing online. If they had quoted his parents, their readers would have been able to feel their tears and envision the heartbreak. Ultimately, no Israeli soldier was arrested or even reprimanded.
Every time a suicide bombing strikes Israel, mass coverage of the tragedy begins instantly. Whether landing on the front page of The Times or taking up the headline block on CNN.com, the pain Israeli people endure is shown endlessly. Israelis do suffer. Suicide bombings are horrific. Nevertheless, Palestinian pain occurs far more frequently, and yet often overlooked by the mainstream American media.
You open any news channel to find news about the war in the Middle East, whether Israel against Palestine, Israel against Lebanon or the war still going on in Iraq etc. If it is a western news channel you find them most of the time trying to portrait Israel as the victim and the "Arabs" as the enemy or the "fanatics" … the ones who just won't stop fighting!!!
This establishment of stereotypes encourages people to react and behave in a manner that is both judgmental and biased.
The word Arabs is used to describe an individual from the Middle East. Despite the fact that these individuals are from different countries, with diverse cultures, beliefs and a variety of religions, they are characterized by one term, "Arabs." The word Arabs reduces individuals and countries to a distinct target, open to stereotypes and bias.
The Western media has often projected individuals of Arab descent in a negative manner. Currently, Arabs are seen as terrorists and murderers due to how the media presents them. Newspapers use key words such as extremists, terrorists and fanatics to describe Arabs. These distortions of the Arab people have created a general mistrust and dislike for Arabs among Americans and Europeans.
To identify Arabs with terrorism is to classify them as enemies. In research conducted by L. John Martin (1985), results showed that the word "terrorism" was used by the press in describing events and individuals they disapproved of. Yet, when describing these same acts by individuals who are not Arabs, the media was careful to appear neutral and unbiased.
A good example of media coverage which presented facts of an actual event in a prejudicial manner was the Oklahoma City bombing. In 1995, within minutes of the event, news reporters were insinuating that the bombing was an act of terrorists. Raised with unpopular stereotypes of Arabs, the American public was quick to develop images of Arab terrorists destroying American property. These views were fueled by the fact that it was a state building containing several government agencies. For example, "Steven Emerson, a terrorism expert, told viewers not to believe Islamic groups when they denied involvement."
Furthermore, CNN, a major news channel, gave the actual names of Arab suspects being detained for questioning in connection with the bombing (Alter, 1995). This type of reporting was a departure from the normal objective stance CNN usually takes of protecting the identity of individuals involved in criminal activity until the facts have been confirmed. It was impossible for the American public to conceive of the word terrorist in application to citizens of their own country. The word terrorism is synonymous with Arabs. Yet, the arrest of an American citizen for the Oklahoma bombing forced them to look at mainstream America and its ideologies. It is the mass media's inability to handle a forced examination of their own people that forces them to look outward for scapegoats.
Moreover, this projection of views is further fueled by current events such as the Palestinian Arab - Israeli conflict. American media and also the European media for that matter coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict paint a distorted image between victim and aggressor. The unbalanced coverage in the mainstream media places the Arab states in the position of violence and power, while Israel is left as a nation attempting to protect its freedom and people! Similarly, bias is evident in a disproportionate number of favorable references to Israel. Such distorted representations of Arabs have a direct consequence upon Arabs living worldwide. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee reported a 250% increase in hate crimes against Arabs from the previous year (Bazzi, 1995).
The news media allows television journalism to play a major role in setting the political agenda. Portraying Arabs as fanatics or terrorists all these types of views allow the general public and public officials to dehumanize Arabs. And those negative stereotypes of Arab nations, societies, cultures and institutions regulate foreign policy and attitude.
This inability to separate stereotypes from reality governs not only political policy, but economic policy as well. Newspapers and television media are always ready to justify oil price hikes by depicting the Arab nations' persona as money hungry, seeking to control the world's natural resources. For example, the world perceives OPEC as synonymous with Arabs, however; only seven of the thirteen OPEC members are Arab nations. Furthermore, of the five largest oil-producing countries, only one is an Arab nation, Saudi Arabia. This is validated by statements such as "the world's supplies of oil and price levels are manipulated and controlled by greedy Arabs" made by an Editor of The Washington Post. Other themes which follow along the lines of the Arab nations' attempt to dominate the world through their massive oil reserves include "blackmailing" the United States, in order to accumulate arms.
In a variety of studies, the age of television viewers is examined and the results show that children and young adults watched the most hours of television. These results are crucial since this age group represents individuals who are still in the process of developing and forming their perceptions of the world. Thus, when television programs present shows which offer "an image that can best be described as 'The Instant TV-Arab Kit, the kit suitable for most TV Arabs consists of a belly dancer's outfit, headdress (which looks like tablecloths pinched from a restaurant), veils, sunglasses, flowing gowns and robes, oil wells, limousines and/or camels," they are creating stereotypes which will mold the viewer's perceptions of Arabs as a whole.
A stereotype or the reinforcement of a stereotype removes the need to examine individuals on the basis of their character. Television executives can take a stereotype and perpetuate that stereotype, instead of doing research or presenting images which might create controversy. When they perpetuate the stereotype, this unfortunately, causes children to adopt misconceptions such as "Arabs are rich and have oil. All Arabs are named Mohammed. All Arabs are nomads." (Morris International). While these may seem to be minor misconceptions, they are the foundations upon which stereotypes and judgments are based.
Take for example television cartoon shows which are popular with young children such as "Richie Rich, Scooby-Doo , Porky Pig, Popeye, Heckle and Jeckle, Woody Woodpecker and Superfriends. At one time or another, each of these cartoon shows has projected Arabs in a negative manner. In Richie Rich, the hero "outsmarts an outlandish sheik." On Scooby-Doo, they "outwit Uncle Abdullah and his slippery genie." On Porky Pig "Ali-Baba bound, dumps a blackhearted Arab into a barrel of syrup." Bugs Bunny "escapes from being boiled in oil by satisfying the whims of a sheik with an unnamed goat." Accordingly, these cartoons define the world in very narrow terms, good vs. evil, "to a child, the world is simple, not complex, superman versus Arabs."
A good example of cartoons depicting Arabs in a negative manner is Walt Disney's animated feature film, Aladdin (The Walt Disney Company, 1993), which is now also a Saturday morning cartoon show on CBS-TV. In its attempts to make the film more appealing to the Western world, Disney Americanized the names and appearances of the characters. The Sultan, for instance, did not look like he was from an Arab country, unlike the antagonist, Jafer. Jafer, the only character with exaggerated Arab features, was displayed as the epitome of evil throughout the film. This depiction of the evil, manipulating Jafer, is an example of the Western view toward Arab people.
The name of the Princess in Walt Disney's version of Aladdin was changed from the one in the original tale. "Buddir al Buddor" was renamed "Jasmine," to help children identify with the character. Additionally, Aladdin was an orphan in Disney's version; his parents were never mentioned throughout the film. In the original story, Aladdin has a father. When the current film presented him as an orphan, this gave the impression that a backward country did not have social programs to take care of its dejected. Moreover, Princess Jasmine's attire was not that of a Princess, but the traditional attire of a belly dancer, or someone of lower status, which gave her an air of sexuality instead of royalty.
Returning to the issue of television for a minute; when asserting the influence of television shows on the propagation of stereotypes, programs geared toward adults and mainstream America or Europe cannot be ignored. Television writers and executives have employed and still employ several myths about Arabs including themes such as--"Arabs are buying up America. OPEC is synonymous with Arabs. Iranians are Arabs. All Arabs are Muslims. Arabs are white-slavers and uncivilized rulers of kingdoms. All Palestinians are terrorists. And Arabs are the world's enemies. Some have no basis in truth or glimmer of reality.
Stereotypes extend beyond those of Arab people; they also encompass the Muslim religion. In an attempt to place Islam in a category that Americans can understand, the media portrays images of Muslims as "belonging to a faith of millions of people, consisting of strange, bearded men with burning eyes, hierarchic figures in robes and turbans, blood dripping from the striped backs of malefactors, and piles of stones barely concealing the battered bodies of adulterous couples," according to Godfrey H. Jansen, an expert on Muslims, in his book, Militant Islam.
Television programs and the mass media do not examine the fact that the Islamic religion preaches equality and peace. The distortion of Islam and ensuing misconceptions lead television viewers to believe that it is a mysterious religion prone to acts of terrorism, violence and fanaticism.
This type of stereotype exists and is allowed to continue to exist because of the continued acceptance of myths. A myth is a fabrication created from an analysis of half-truths. A good example is the myth that it is Arabs who belong to the Islamic faith. The truth is that half of the world's population belongs to the Islamic faith. Muslims come from nations well beyond the Arab region, places such as China, Indonesia, India and the United States.
It is the myths about Arabs which often inspire directors, producers and screenwriters to develop a product which is then based on stereotypes. While producers, executives and others in entertainment industry deny playing a role in current stereotypes, a negative attitude toward Arabs persists due to fact, "a conspiracy is not necessary to continue the cycle of stereotyping, complacency is enough". Until the creators of films and television programs establish guidelines which include the depiction of both positive and negative aspects of Islam, of Arab Nations, and of their peoples, stereotypes will continue to exist.
As for the news media, there are five major reasons why it fails to cover and portray Arabs fairly: "cultural bias, the think-alike atmosphere within the impact media, the Arab-Israeli conflict, media ignorance of the origin and history of the conflict and a determined and sophisticated pro-Israel lobby (Morris International).
Israel commands larger media coverage than all Arab countries combined. Furthermore, the press regards Israelis as the "good guys" and Arabs as the "bad guys," due to the fact that "Israel is viewed as an extension of Western Civilization and culture (Morris International). The terms used in the press to describe Israelis tend to be positive, versus the negative terms used to describe Arab nations. Research analyzing accounts of the Israeli-Lebanese border conflict found that the Israelis were described as "troops, commandos, security forces, all neutral terms, while references to the Palestinians included terms such as guerrillas, infiltrators, raiders, all negative to pejorative terms"(Morris International). Political cartoons also distort and exaggerate facts to promote a particular editorial position about Arabs. This type of stereotype-formation will last as long as imbalanced and biased news reporting proceeds, since "the drawing of cartoons encourages the people of one country to support hostility against or friendship toward another group" (Morris International).
As seen by all of the mass media, Arabs are a menace to society, degenerates from an uncivilized culture. It is a continuous bombardment of negative images and falsehoods, creating myths and stereotypes. All of this negativity and disregard for the formation of stereotypes of Arabs encourages a multitude of judgments and perceptions by individuals. The media must accept responsibility for being a major force in the creation of such discriminatory views. One way to accept such responsibility is to dispel the current myths by presenting a more balanced image of Arabs. Writers should focus on providing images that depict Arabs as individuals, rather than as a homogenized group.
Arabs must demand change also, especially when stereotypes are presented in the entertainment arena. The NAACP, an African-American association, played a great role in securing diverse and unbiased portrayals of Blacks in films. Arab-Americans must demand the same respect and dignity.
Television can change perceptions by presenting the heritage of Arab-Americans, focusing on children's programming. According to Franklin Trout, a producer of documentaries, "you cannot ever understand a people or a country, or their subsequent actions unless you understand their history". It is necessary to humanize and individualize the inhabitants of the different Arab Nations. It is also essential to come to an understanding of a people's religion, in this case, the fundamentals of the Islamic religion. Contrary to the myths, for example, Islam is not a religion founded on secrecy and mystery.
In conclusion, the continued existence of a myth or a stereotype diminishes an individual's worth and character. It is the responsibility of all individuals to assure that not only they, themselves, are perceived fairly, but that all individuals are judged without bias. The media is a large factor in the formation of stereotypes and ideologies. Therefore, it is their responsibility to allow their audience to form opinions that are free from the influence of bias and negative stereotypes.
The mass media must accept this fact: they are the oracles of our time. An analysis of how Arabs are portrayed in the media has shown the existence of myths and negative stereotypes, perpetuations, projections, a vicious cycle, a cycle created by the media, allowed to continue by the media. It will all have to be countered by the mass media's destruction of fallacies.
*ARABS AND THE MEDIA By Narmeen El-Farra
Journal of Media Psychology
By Remi KanaziNew York, NYMarch 30, 2006