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The Making of the Arab Menace

Rayan El-Amine
Date Published: 
May 01, 2005

Anti-Arabism and Islamophobia are so much a part of the political and cultural discourse on Arabs and Muslims in American society today that most do not even recognize it as racism. The fear mongering of the Bush administration and the right wing media pundits who make a living from demonizing Arabs and Muslims have inundated people with images of the violent Arabs bent on death and destruction. For media outlets like Fox Television, it is a way to sell their sensationalist news programs and for the current administration, a way to sell its wars.

The green menace has replaced the red menace, and the “evil empire” of the cold war has become the less eloquent, but just as deadly, “evil doers” of the Arab and Muslim world. People like Daniel Pipes and Bernard Lewis, who have a long history of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiments, have been elevated from their illegitimate positions of “Middle East experts” to foreign policy advisors.

Remarking on Muslim immigrants, Pipes said, “all immigrants bring exotic customs and attitudes, but Muslim customs are more troublesome than most.” On the Arab-Israeli conflict he said, the “Israelis must be encouraged to defeat the Palestinians” because the only way to peace is for Israel to militarily crush the will of the Palestinians to fight. Apparently these remarks seemed to be in line with the administration’s policies because last year President Bush nominated Pipes to the board of the United States Institute of Peace, a government-sponsored think tank dedicated to “peaceful resolution of international conflicts.”

New crusade

While the neo-cons and Bush embark on a new white man’s burden of remaking the Arab and Muslim world, the media has found a niche in being a mouthpiece to this new crusade. Fox Television, MSNBC, CNN and other networks saw their ratings go up after 9-11, as their production of the “war on terror” began. The strategy was to keep the story simple; the US is good and Arabs and Muslims are evil. The cast was already in place: neo-conservatives from the administration, generals, “terrorist experts” and retired military media advisors were all ready to be directed by right wing news show hosts, like Bill O’Reilly from Fox and the like. Here are some comments by O’Reilly and others in the news media since 9-11:

O’Reilly on killing Afghanis: “Life expectancy in Afghanistan is a little over 40; killing someone there is not like killing people here.”

Rush Limbaugh on the guards at Abu Ghraib: “I’m talking about people having a good time…you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of the need to blow some steam off.”

Don Imus from MSNBC on the death of Yasser Arafat: he is “stinky…. a rat….All Palestinians look like him” and people attending his funeral are a “bunch of animals.”

Jack Cafferty on CNN’s American Morning on Iraqi women prisoners: “Given the way these mutants treat women in their societies, the women are probably better off in US custody.”

Radio show host Mark Williams on Palestinians: “Yasser Arafat was a blood-soaked, sub-human, vile, reprehensible, murderous animal…If there is a crueler pile of camel manure than Palestine, and then it has got to be the total fiction of a Palestinian people.”

Desert dwellers

The potency and resilience of anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia today lies in the combination of three factors. First, its historical foundations are rooted in the imperialist view of the Arab/Muslim world as violent, backward and uncivilized. This was generated by early colonial Orientalist scholars who wrote about the Arab world’s inferiority as a way to justify colonization by the West.

Second, racism against Arabs in films and popular culture has gone on for years. Even before 9-11, Arabs were portrayed almost exclusively as terrorists, rich greedy sheikhs, belly dancers or backwards desert dwellers.

Last and probably most important, anti-Arabism and Islamophobia have been perpetuated by American foreign policy that has waged wars directly or indirectly on the Arab and Muslim world for decades for geopolitical reasons without any regard for its inhabitants. It is easier to justify control of a region when you demonize and dehumanize its people and culture.

This combination of factors has sustained a high level of insensitivity and racism towards Arabs and Muslims for many years. Unlike some other forms of racism where there have been some incremental improvements, for Arabs the same stereotypes used thirty years ago or even 100 years ago still find their way into newspapers, films, news analysis and even academic discourse.

A perfect example of this is nationally syndicated cartoonist Pat Oliphant, who has vilified Arabs in his political cartoons for decades. The Arabs in his cartoons are exclusively hook-nosed, obese, beady eyed, greedy sheikhs residing in tents or palaces. A cartoon published in 2005 showed his trademark greedy Arab sheikhs feasting in a tent and refusing to give money to Tsunami victims. An almost identical cartoon was published in the Denver Post 30 years ago showing the same greedy sheikhs throwing a bone to a starving African child. Thirty years went by and Pat Oliphant was drawing the Arab exactly the same way.

New Orientialism

The backward and seemingly static image of the Arab that Oliphant, Hollywood and the Bush administration have projected comes from classic colonial notions of Western superiority. The rhetoric by George Bush and Condoleezza Rice about bringing freedom and democracy to the Arab world is no different from the British and French in the 19th century talking about civilizing India and Africa. Neo-conservatives and right wing think tanks see the Arab world as a colonial project in which Arabs need to be subdued and civilized. Edward Said, in his definitive work of how the West sees the East, Orientalism, explains how the same system of analysis justifies control and superiority today.

The Orientalists of today, like Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes and Fouad Ajami have kept these ideas alive and administration advisors, like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and David Frum have helped turn these very same ideas into policy. The administration has used simplistic arguments, like Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations as a way to understand Arab resentment towards the west. The basis of these arguments is that hate is a part of Arab and Islamic culture. The unsophisticated language of this administration and the neo-conservatives comes directly from these cultural arguments, whether it is Bush’s “good versus evil” mantra or Rumsfeld’s analysis that “they hate us for who we are not what we do.”

Mahmoud Mamdani in his book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim points out how these culture arguments lead to racist conclusions. He says “culture talk after 9/11 qualified and explained the practice of ‘terrorism’ as ‘Islamic.’ Islamic terrorism is thus offered as both a description and explanation of the event of 9/11.” The Bush administration is filled with ideologues that follow this type of reasoning. People like Perle and Frum, who were part of the administration and still influence its policies, have published books like An End to Evil as a blueprint to foreign policy. An End to Evil or Lewis’s The Roots of Muslim Rage have titles that are as simplistic as their ideas. Edward Said described Lewis’s world as a Popeye cartoon where complex nations and cultures are pigeonholed and reduced to caricatures: Popeye, the good guy (the West), once strong enough can pummel stupid and eternally bad Bluto (Islam) into oblivion.

Angry Arabs

Hollywood films have played an important role in perpetuating and amplifying these racist caricatures. Arabs in films are portrayed as being terrorists, fanatics, dirty, irrational, violent and above all disposable. Hordes of angry Arabs and Muslims in movies have been summarily machine gunned by the likes of Chuck Norris and Arnold Schwarzenegger over the years. These images have a cumulative affect on people’s perceptions and psyche.

In early films, like Rudolph Valentino’s The Sheikh, the Arab was both backward and violent, but at times exotic. The exotic themes seemed to have faded and now most characters are just plain bad. Jack Shaheen’s book, Reel Bad Arab documents negative images of Arabs in over 900 Hollywood films. He says, “the distortions of Arab characters in Hollywood are systemic and unapologetic.” It is so pervasive that even in Disney cartoons Arab characters are stereotyped and predominately evil. The Disney film Aladdin has a wicked Arab singing the theme song with the lyrics “it’s barbaric, but hey it’s home.” The fictional world of Hollywood does not stop with films; even the news media uses the same stereotypes and images.

It can be said that when the US goes to war, so does the media. During the Iraq invasion embedded reporters took this to another level. In the lead up to both Iraq wars, the news became a thinly veiled advertisement for the war with emphasis on military technology and digital graphics, removing the viewer far from the human devastation that is caused by these wars. Even the titles of news programs were temporarily changed to things like, “Showdown with Saddam” or “The Hunt for Osama”.

Press conferences from US field generals became the news story of the day. Embedded reporters were heavily influenced by the views of the military—which protected them—while ordinary Iraqis become inconsequential. Some reporters, like Geraldo Rivera, behaved as if they were in the military. On several occasions Rivera referred to enemy Afghanis and Iraqis as “rats” and “mosquitoes” that needed to be obliterated.

There is a long history of US administrations using imagery from the media of demonized regional figures in order to justify their foreign policy; one only needs to think how the images of Ayatollah Khomeini, Muammar Ghadafi, Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein have been misused. In US media and in Hollywood, quoting Edward Said, “Muslims are uniformly represented as evil, violent and above all, eminently killable.”

The post 9-11 hysteria created an atmosphere of indifference to Arabs and Muslim’s civil liberties, human rights and basic dignity. This allowed the government to launch two wars abroad while conducting a dragnet against Arabs and Muslims inside the US on a scale not seen since the internment of the Japanese. Thousands of people, Arabs, South Asians, Iranians and others were swept up and had their civil liberties nullified. They were detained and interrogated by law enforcement agencies, like the newly formed Department of Homeland Security. Some were “disappeared” and not heard from for months, and over 13,000 were put in deportation proceedings for minor visa violations.

Despite ample evidence that racial profiling does not work, along with the inability of the government to net any terrorists connected to 9-11, the policies have continued. An Amnesty International report on racial profiling estimates that 32 million people—which by the way is the population of Canada—have been racially profiled in the US. Discrimination against Arabs or people who look Arab has become perfectly acceptable, and “flying while Arab” is the new type of racial profiling. In fact, after 9-11 dozens of planes were grounded because of suspicious “Middle Eastern-looking” passengers, no other reason needed to be given. Even an Arab-American Secret Service agent who was part of a security team for the President—with full security credentials and ID card—was ejected off a plane to clear himself. Apparently the classic book, The Crusaders Through Arab Eyes was in his bag.

Torture and abuse

There is no doubt that the inhuman treatment and physical torture of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prisons stem from a policy made acceptable to the public by the dehumanization of Arabs in the media and encouraged by bigots in this administration. Recent reports indicate at least 37 people were tortured to death by US interrogators, along with the participation of medical personnel; 23 inmates attempted suicide at Guantanamo Bay; sexual humiliation was used regularly; and some prisoners were put in solitary confinement for over 3 years. The message being sent out by the administration is that Arabs and Muslims are subhuman. Furthermore, the recent conviction of Lynn Stewart, a lawyer who was representing Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, sends another message: if you defend Arabs and Muslims, watch your back.

None of this would have happened if it was not the policy of the US. The White House Counsel at the time, Alberto Gonzales, in a memo to Bush on January 2002, said that the war on terror requires “flexibility and in my judgment renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitation on questioning of enemy prisoner.” Gonzales is now Attorney General of the United States. The person most directly involved in the racial profiling aspects of Department of Justice initiatives after 9-11, Judge Michael Chertoff, was also given a promotion to Homeland Security Secretary.

Because of his re-election, Bush and his new appointees will continue to use the politics of fear and hate and the mainstream media will cheerlead from the sidelines. But despite what seems to be an uphill battle, there is a lot that people can do to stop the anti-Arabism and Islamophobia that has been normalized and institutionalized in this country.

First and foremost, the immediate task is to stop the US war machine that uses racism and fear as a way to continue to attack, occupy and exploit, especially in the Arab and Muslim world. Many in the administration have shown, not just by their words but also by their actions, their absolute disregard for people of this region.

Second, supporting independent media is crucial in order to get accurate reports of what is happening in the Arab and Muslim world. We should also prioritize the voices of Arabs and Muslims in media, panels and discussions around these issues. But we also cannot ignore mainstream media where millions get their information. We should challenge mainstream media whenever possible and call them out on stereotypes, biases and inaccuracies. Recent media campaigns by groups like the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) responding to racism in the media have been very effective. In fact, earlier this year an anti-Arab ad by the San Francisco Examiner was pulled in just one day after an action alert went out to write emails to the publisher.

Finally, we need to support organizations that defend civil liberties and fight for human rights. Groups like the National Lawyers Guild, ACLU, ADC, Council for American Islamic Affairs (CAIR) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). Many of these groups have been on the front lines of this battle and need additional resources and support. CCR just won a case at the Supreme Court challenging the detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. These small victories are critical because they are slowly exposing the system behind the war.

The need to approach our work from many directions is essential since the other side uses its entire means to carry out its project. Arundahti Roy said it best in a speech in Porte Alegre a couple of years when she said: “Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness -- and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we're being brainwashed to believe.”