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Arab Stereotypes: How One Academic Fights Them

ST. LOUIS–Imagine an animated movie, filled with belly dancers, camels and deserts, and brown-eyed, bearded terrorists with their fingers on the triggers of automatic weapons.  When it comes to understanding the Arab world, many Western university students are stuck in just such a cartoon, said a speaker at the annual meeting of Nafsa: Association for International Educators.

The Arab population in the United States has grown more than 75 percent since 1990, more than triple nation’s rate of overall growth, according to a Census Bureau report last March.  The rising proportion of Arabs who are living and studying in the United States is increasing the need to get rid of the stereotypes, said Greta Scharnweber, associate director of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University.  She led a session at the Nafsa meeting on “Overcoming Stereotypes of Muslims and Arabs: A Toolkit for Educators.”

“As educators, teaching our students how to read and understand the stereotypes presented by media is a task of enormous importance,” said Scharnweber.

About 8,300 people from around the world attended the meeting, the largest such global gathering of international educators. Attendance from Arab countries was thin, although the Nafsa president, Marlene Johnson, said she has made strong efforts to increase it.  But sessions about Arab issues, including the one on stereotypes, were well attended.

On the meeting room’s circular tables, Scharnweber distributed samples of the panels of the traveling exhibition “A is for Arab: Stereotypes in U.S. Popular Culture”  to help the audience understand the history and development of Arab and Muslim stereotypes in American popular culture.

The samples were taken from the Jack G. Shaheen Archive at New York University. Shaheen, a professor emeritus of mass communicatons at Southern Illinois University, dedicated his career to identify and contest the damaging stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in American media and popular culture.

The images range from film screenshots to comic books to editorial cartoons.

According to Scharnweber, negative images of Arabs outnumber positive portrayals across media types, including newspapers, television, movies, children’s literature, web animations and video games. Scharnweber said that most of Americans learn most of what they know about Arabs and Muslims from the media. Violence and terrorism are frequent themes, said Sharnweber.

Arabs and Muslims are also often portrayed as greedy, lecherous, and moneyed, living on oceans of oil.  But few Western media sources pay attention to the  international reports on unemployment and poverty in the region, said Scharnweber. In addition, few portrayals seem to grasp that only about 13-15 percent of all Muslims are Arabs, and more than 10 percent of Arabs are non-Muslim. Only about 2 percent of Arabs are traditional Bedouin, although cartoonish Bedouins often turn up in film and still images. Media ignores all these facts and create a stereotype that does not exist, said Scharnweber.

The lecturer explained that the situation became worse after 9/11 as Islam has been linked more to violence and intolerance and these stereotypical images have been repeated with an increased intensity. “This indicates an even greater need to build skills to critique and remake our images of Muslims and Arabs,” said Scharnweber

During the session, Scharnweber presented some clips of “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a people,” produced in 2006. Before making the film, Shaheen, the professor at Southern Illinois University, watched a thousand films over the span of almost a century, from obscure movies to blockbusters.  He found a “dangerously insistent pattern” of Arab villains and a stereotype of the Arab world that is like a theme park with oases, magic carpets, harems, and palaces with torture chambers in the basement, and, of course, the occasional abducted blonde.

“Arabs are the most maligned group in the history of Hollywood,” said Shaheen in the documentary. “They are portrayed basically as subhumans . . .  These images have been with us for more than a century.”

As absurd as film stereotypes may be, they haven’t changed, maintains Shaheen. Modern films, such as the popular children’s movie Aladdin, have kept those stereotypes alive. Shaheen praised some contemporary films, such as Syriana, A Perfect Murder, and Three Kings for more balanced images of Arabs.

Scharnweber supported Shaheen’s call to present Arabs and Muslims as human beings who, like other groups, engage in a range of good, bad, and simply ordinary activities. By drawing attention to what the stereotypes are, analyzing them logically, and getting students to discuss them, professors can help to lessen their power, Scharnweber says.

“Once we begin to humanize Arabs and Muslims, to project them as we project other people, no better, no worse, then the stereotype gradually diminishes,” said Shaheen.

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