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Stereotyping and Popular Misconceptions of Arab Culture

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Stereotyping of Arab culture dates back to the times of the early crusades and western explorers, who brought back with them accounts of an oppressive and at the same time, highly eroticized environment, where men dominated and women were marginalized. These popular misconceptions have carried on to this present day, which is quite a feat, considering the spread of Arab people and the rise of global information. Mention Arab to some people, and their mind automatically conjures up images of belly-dancers and kaftan-clad oil sheiks on one end and oppressed women in burkhas at the opposite end. This paper attempts to understand some of the root causes of Arab stereotyping and possible ways of combating the same.

As Abu-Absi so succinctly put it, stereotyping occurs in every culture as a method of oversimplifying an unfamiliar culture and its practices. Often based only on observable behavior, stereotyping enables people to refer to a complex faction of people who become identifiable based solely on their stereotypes, which are very often severely limited in their scope. Stereotyping, then, emerges out of a lack of understanding and the spread of popular misconceptions of a few uninformed, and this misinformation then becomes the norm for describing a vastly diverse group of people. The majority of people tend to believe this spread of misinformation as truth, and their stubbornness and ignorance prevents them from believing things which point to the contrary. According to Abu-Absi, the innate tendency of people to view those unlike us as those against us breeds resentment and fear, and furthers the suspicion based on ignorance, allowing the highlighting of what we believe to be negative aspects of a different culture. In a vicious cycle, this stereotyping leads to prejudicial decisions about Arab culture and its people, and basically shuts the door on any debate on them, which furthers the lack of knowledge that brought about stereotyping in the first place. The examples of empowered women that Abu-Absi provides in "Stereotypical Images of Arab Women" are a good example of the extent of stereotyping - while the articles discussed a progressive society that was similar in construction to an American one, the cover pictures played on the popular western belief of the oppressed woman. As can be clearly seen, these stereotypes are furthered by the media, and unfortunately have found their way to educational material as well, leading to ignorance at the foundational level - how can someone shed such misconceptions when they are bombarded with reinforcements from such 'reliable' sources?

The portrayal of Arabs by the media as terrorists, despots, greedy oil sheiks and generally as supporters of all things anti-west is just the illustration of popular belief by a large number of people. Journalists tend to perpetuate the fallacy of the terrorists as solely Arab - as Shaheen pointed out in his essay, the New York Times columnist served to propagate this notion due to the mass circulation of the New York Times. Poor investigating and reports laden with personal opinions tend to further the stereotype of Arabs as terrorists and despots. The arrest of some Arabs for September 11 also made an already bad situation worse - Arabs and other 'brown' people were forced to prove their 'American-ness' by prominently displaying American flags and pro-America signs. Now, all visitors from Muslim lands have to properly register their presence in America at the time of arrival and departure, and such ill-crafted policies exacerbates the negative stereotypes even further and strengthens the case for discrimination based on misinformation.

Another popular misconception about Arabs is that they are oil-rich sheiks who marginalize and disrespect their women and want to destroy the western way of life. I recently read a book by James Patterson called 'Big Bad Wolf' about a Russian villain who kidnapped American women and sold some of them to Arab Sheiks for their harems. This book played on two other popular stereotypes of Arabs - women

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