Still stereotyping the Arab and Muslim world

The Star Tribune’s role in manufacturing representations of the world relies on old stereotypes.

As our society grapples with issues of race, the role of journalists in the representations of people is a crucial one. Unfortunately, a series that was published Oct. 24 and Oct. 25 in the Star Tribune enraged many in the Twin Cities community who argue that the series was a one-dimensional depiction of the Arab and Muslim world.

What is this supposed “jihadist rage” that the story and its title claim? Was this rage really rooted in anger over the war in Iraq? It appears that if Muslims are the only ones who find themselves outraged, then we have a problem. There really should be “no relief over the anger in Iraq” since the unnecessary colonial project has destroyed an entire country and the lives of thousands. Are not many of our youths fed up with the policies of hate, capital and injustice carried on by our very own state, or is this something specific only to Muslim teens? More importantly, is this anger toward the United States particular to the Muslim world, or are we failing to examine that the entire world was opposed to this imperial war against Iraq.

This attempt by the Star Tribune at breaking down the “angry Arabs” is an example of the media fulfilling their desire to sensationalize. The reporter did an excellent job of trying to understand where frustrations come from, but the piece falls short of answering many questions.

In general, the role of the media in this supposed “age of terror” has been to explain these acts through furthering the stereotypical and racist representations that the intellectual community should be eluding from. Headlines such as “Why the Arabs hate us” only act to further the stereotype that all Arabs hate all Americans. The pictures, which all show people in Muslim attire, portray that dissent only comes from people who “dress Muslim.”

Thanks to the series, readers are perhaps now convinced that the streets of Cairo are raging with hijabis imbued with intense anger and hatred toward the United States and are waiting to unleash. Why is it that Muslim women without hijab are never pictured? Why is there never a man who is not in a thobe and a kofi (Islamic hat)? Clearly, anyone who has been to Cairo would know that, in fact, many women in the city do not wear hijab, and men do not walk around in thobes.

Interestingly enough, journalists are here to tell the truth and do so in a manner which minimizes harm while informing the public. This series does not tell the whole truth. The piece examines an aspect of the Arab world taken out of context, and this is problematic for a few reasons. The first, and perhaps most important, is that these representations are the only exposure to the Muslim and Arab world that many citizens have. Consequently, these representations become established as fact. When this happens, we are manufacturing an image of the world outside of the United States based on difference, tension, hatred and division. I use the word manufacturing because the journalist is selecting and filtering information through his or her perspective. It is not a direct, objective representation. So now people who read the paper seem to think they have an idea of what Egyptians look like and how they think.

Moreover, the phrase “new generation of Arabs and Muslims” implies many things associated with terror that the Muslim community wants to stay away from. I as a Muslim can attest that never in my entire existence have I encountered a Muslim who finds terror to be a just cause, nor have I encountered a Muslim who knows of a Muslim who believes that terrorism is the answer to the problems that many Muslims face. In this sense, there is no “struggle” within the Muslim community about whether terror is the answer. Rather, the discussions are focused on how the grotesque association of terror with Islam can be dismantled. Furthermore, the series naïvely attempts to place Muslims in labels such as “conservative” and “liberal.” Defining these labels is an impossible task. Does praying five times a day constitute conservatism, which is only a nicer word for extremism used by some journalists? On the contrary, does drinking alcohol, an act that Islam forbids, imply liberalism? If so, how do we come to grips with the fact that one of the 9/11 extremists was said to have been seen at a bar a few days before the attack?

In conclusion, the Star Tribune simply failed to go beyond the surface of what has sadly become conventional wisdom in our society. It failed to write an objective piece, which examines various situations, people, encounters and perspectives. It would be too easy to call the Star Tribune reporters lazy since they clearly worked hard. However, I will go as far as arguing that the reporter went in with a certain bias and sought to confirm that bias.

It now becomes important to ask ourselves how knowledge gets compartmentalized in our society, and what happens when we create lines such as “conservative and liberal Muslims.” How does this knowledge based on division and incomplete representations of people contribute to how we know the world? The media love disparity, but is the world only black and white, or are there ambiguities and entanglements that are left unaddressed? Journalists should perceive beyond stereotypes by examining what the world is actually made of, as opposed to how we know the world. To understand the world, it is necessary to step beyond manufactured projects and perceptions and find what people and places actually exist.

Ramla Bile is a member of the editorial board. Please send comments to [email protected]