By: Reem Sheikh Qasem
Islam, Muslims, Arabs, Middle East and ‘Arab world’ are common words used in the western media to deal with issues regarding specific people who mainly live in a specific place, namely, the ‘Islamic World’ and the ‘Arab World’. While listening to the news or watching a movie, some western people may get confused with the distinction between these two concepts and groups of people; thus, before dealing with the issue of the misrepresentation of Muslims and Arabs by the western media, it is important to make clear the distinction between the ‘Arab World’ and the ‘Islamic World’.
What is meant by the term ‘Arab World’? The Arab World is the land that has a geographical connection and which extends from the Gulf States in the east to the Maghreb Countries in the west. The people that live on this land are called Arabs, speak the same language (Arabic) and have many links that should unite them, including; sharing common customs and traditions; sharing the unity of pain and hope; and, most significantly, having the same official religion, Islam.
Reem Sheikh Qasem
Lecturer, Faculty of Law
An-Najah National University
What is meant by the term ‘Islamic World’? The Islamic World is a group of countries where people practice the rituals of Islam. Islam is the most widespread religion in these countries, which are mainly concentrated in the continents of Asia and Africa. It therefore follows that the Islamic World, unlike the Arab World, has no geographical connection and does not have one official language; each country of the Islamic World has its own language, traditions, customs and culture (with the exception of countries in the Arab World that are also regarded as part of the Islamic World). This leads to the absence of the factors of unity that are found in the Arab World.
With regard to the representation of Muslims and Arabs by the western media, the reality and specific studies have shown that the majority of western media has played a dangerous role in establishing inaccurate stereotypes about Muslims and Arabs in the sub-conscience of Western societies. The main reasons behind these stereotypes are; the distorted image of Muslims and Arabs portrayed by the western media; the fabricated views and news about them; and the excessive use of the principle of overgeneralization by the western media (1) . The principle of overgeneralization is the most dangerous tool that destroys and distorts the image of Muslims and Arabs among western societies. For example, the existence of an extremist and terrorist organisation such as Isis, which uses the name of Allah and Islam to justify its violent and terrorist actions, does not mean that all Muslims are terrorists and blood-thirsty. In fact, by way of contrast, the word ‘Islam’ is an Arabic word derived from the word ‘salam’, which means peace. However, unfortunately, some western media associate the word ‘Islam’ with the words, ‘terrorism’, ‘extremist’ and ‘blood-thirsty’. The situation is no better regarding the representation of Arabs by the western media; they are often described as, ‘ignorant’, ‘primitive’ and ‘slave traders’ (2). In order to illustrate the inaccurate perception of Muslims and Arabs by the western media, I will provide some examples of the usual stereotypes associated with both Muslims and Arabs respectively:
• Common stereotypes about Muslims by Western societies:
1. The scarf and the veil
Muslim women who wear a scarf that covers their hair, or a veil that covers their whole head, are highly misrepresented by the western media. Within the western media the hijab is a sign of enslavement and a method used by women to cover their ugly faces(3) . In fact, the hijab is a religious symbol of chastity and is not a tool to hide the ugly truth of evil and terrorist people. According to the international human rights standards, particularly the provision set out in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, Muslim women must enjoy their freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to manifest their religion in teaching, practice, worship and observance .(4)
Consequently, any country that prohibits Muslim women from wearing the hijab in schools, universities or workplaces is committing a clear violation of the international human rights’ standards.
2. Bearded Muslim Men
Western media portrays the bearded Muslim man as a symbol of terrorism and irrational behavior(5) . Many of the scenes of bombing and violence are accompanied by images of bearded Muslim men with extremist views and radical thinking. However, the strange thing is that the bearded men who are portrayed as blood-thirsty terrorists are only bearded Muslim men, not bearded men of any other religion. This emphasises the error of the western stereotype of bearded Muslim men and the bias of the western media, both through exhibiting double standards and through judging people on their external appearance, based entirely on religion.
3. Islam and Jihad
Jihad is a word with Arabic roots that is used extensively in the Western media as a means of insulting Islam and establishing a stereotypical image that is linked to Islam. This stereotype portrays Islam as a religion of force, violence and murder, based on the fact that a radical terrorist organisation may call for ‘jihad’ in order to justify their violence and crimes under this name. In fact, the meaning of ‘jihad’ in Islam is not related to terrorism or aggression towards others in any way. In Islam ‘jihad’ is an alternative and final measure to manage the relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims. The primary message to be used in maintaining relations with non-Muslims is peace. However, if all peaceful means have been unsuccessful in maintaining these relations, jihad becomes a second alternative to solving the problem. This concept is not strange for the current or previous generation as the provision of international law has been influenced by the Islamic system in helping to maintain relations and deal with others. In other words, international law prohibits the use of force in international relations; the only exception to this is where all recommended peaceful measures in solving the situation have failed and alternative measures are needed to prevent a state from continuing aggression against human rights and peace (6). This is clearly stated in Chapter VII of the United Nations’ Charter.
• Some stereotypes about Arabs within Western societies
1. Oppressed women
Unfortunately, a large amount of Western and Arabic media portrays Arabic women as women living under the authority, violence and oppression of males within their family. In addition, the media portrays that Arabic women like this way of living under oppression(7) . What is strange is that there is some Arabic media that plays a large role in proving this stereotypical image of oppressed Arab women. For example, some Arabic television series’ show the domination of women by men and emphasise that there is no equality between men and women in Arabic societies. Thus, the image of Arab women is portrayed as weak, uneducated and oppressed. However, reality illustrates the opposite, as there are many Arab women who have shown creativity and excellence in many areas and who have become well known worldwide as role models to be followed by other women. These include: Queen Rania al Hussein (the Queen of Jordan), Zaha Hadeed (the famous Iraqi-British architect), Jamila Bouhaird (the well-known Algerian fighter against French colonialism), etc.
2. Primitive society with tents and camels
Arabs are represented in several Western media as Bedouin people who live in deserts with a primitive way of life. This is because many scenes in western movies show the Arab as an uneducated, phantom man living in a tent, drinking from the water trap and earning money from raising sheep and camels(8) . This stereotype is totally incorrect and does not reflect reality. Arab countries are countries with very ancient civilizations and diverse geographical terrains, not limited to the desert. Moreover, Arab countries have witnessed a great urban revival in past decades, especially the Arab Gulf States.
3. Billionaire Men and Belly Dancing Women
A common method used in Western media when portraying an Arab man, is to depict him as a very wealthy individual, living in a palace and surrounded by servants. Arab women are often portrayed in western movies as belly dancers who are sexually available(9) . This distorts the image of Arab women and devalues their status to being a tool for sexual enjoyment, rather than respecting the status of Arab women who have proven throughout history that they have the ability to succeed, overcome many social obstacles and access many different prestigious areas within society, while standing side by side with men in various fields of life.
After this presentation of some of the incorrect stereotypes about Muslims and Arabs in the Western media, it is important to note that the impact of these stereotypical images does not stop at merely distorting the image of Muslims and Arabs in the eyes of Western societies. More seriously, it extends to violating their human rights, one of the most important violations against Muslims and Arabs. Misrepresentation by the Western media has a major role in the existence of the violation of the human rights of Muslims and Arabs; it helps to promote the unjustified hatred which has led to a rise in hate crimes against Muslims and Arabs in the West. A hate crime survey was undertaken in 2008 which showed that, in France, the percentage of hate crimes against Muslims had increased. In the UK the situation was even worse as Muslims living in the UK increasingly suffered as a result of hate crimes, including attacks against mosques and Islamic schools. In the USA, the statistics show that there was a marked increase in hate crimes against Muslims and Arabs (middle-eastern people generally), especially after the terrorist attacks of 11th September(10).
In addition to the problem of increasing hate crimes against Muslims and Arabs in Western societies, the misrepresentation of Muslims and Arabs also creates a huge difficulty in integrating Arab and Muslim refugees into Western societies. Because of the unpleasantness and unjustified hatred that may be felt from local citizens, there is less effective integration of refugees and more tension and instability within the country of asylum.
In conclusion, I would like to emphasise that the continued and systematic distortion of the image of Muslims and Arabs in the Western media will have negative consequences for Arabs, Muslims and Western countries, most of whom have an Arab and Muslim presence on their lands, creating chaos and insecurity in these countries. It is the responsibility of Western countries and the Western media to make every effort to combat this continuous distortion of the image of Arabs and Muslims and to distinguish between Islam as a religion of tolerance, love and mercy, and the actions of some Muslims that are not linked to the religion of Islam. Finally, it is more efficient for the Western media, while representing the history of Arabs and Muslims, to be assisted by specialist people in Islamic law and Arab history who would then be able to convey the true picture of Arabs and Muslims and put an end to the continuing distortion by the Western media.
1. Driss Ridouani, the Representation of Arabs and Muslims in Western Media, 2011.
3. Afnan Qutub, Harem Girls and Terrorist Men: Media Misrepresentations of Middle Eastern Cultures, P. 145, 146 and 146, http://www.calstatela.edu/sites/default/files/users/u2276/qutub_essay8.pdf.
4. See Article 18 of the UDHR.
5. W. Shadid & P.S. van Koningsveld, The Negative Image of Islam and Muslims in the West: Causes and Solutions, P. 189, 2002.
6. See Articles 40, 41, 42 and 43, Chapter VII, UN Charter.
7. Ibrahim Nawar, Portraying Women in the Western and Arab Media, General Remarks, P. 98, 2007.
8. Padgett, Kenneth. Arabface! - The History of Racist Arab Stereotypes. Web. 12 Sept. 2014
9. Driss Ridouani, the Representation of Arabs and Muslims in Western Media, 2011.
10. Human Rights First, 2008 Hate Crime Survey, Violence Against Muslims, 2008.
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