By KATY HABR
While many Americans pride themselves on being open minded and liberal, many of them (knowingly or not) still harbor many racist stereotypes of the Middle East. Liberals who would never use words such as “backwards” or “uncivilized” to describe a population out of a sense of political correctness, still often envisage the Middle East as a place rampant with bigotry and conservative prejudice. These stereotypes are, to an extent, not unfounded. Sexism and homophobia, the two favorite buzzwords surrounding Arabs, definitely exist. Racism within the Arab region is also a huge problem that affects not only daily interactions, but also economic issues such as labor abuse and income inequality, which are often tied to ethnicity, religion and nationality. However, the problem isn’t that we, as Arabs either in America or at home, are not aware of these issues. The problem is we don’t have the liberty of frankly approaching and trying to fix these issues without the discussion being manipulated and exploited to further a political agenda. Because discussions of problems in Arab communities are often fueled by racist stereotypes, it is difficult for members of these communities to address such problems without having the conversation hijacked by racist narratives that are used to justify Western violence and domination.
It is first important to recognize that the Middle East is not some sort of hive-mind singular entity. The Arab world comprises over twenty countries with different views and concerns that vary with different economic, social and political structures, and its common characterization as a homogenous area of equal intolerance is not only racist, but also completely incorrect. Yet, many justifications of drone strikes and attacks on Iraq and even places like Afghanistan, which isn’t even in the Middle East, imply that these countries are all the same and possess faults that somehow justify the mass murder of civilians. Stereotypical generalizations about Middle Eastern cultures being, for example, “woman hating” serve as justification for imperialistic invasions that take thousands of lives (and don’t help women, who are the most negatively impacted demographic in war zones). Of course these countries have problems that need addressing — but what country doesn’t?
Social injustice is in no way particular to the Middle East or any specific region, but is present in every country around the world — although in different ways. America runs rife with its race, gender and class issues. However, for some reason, these issues don’t seem to define the USA, and, despite these problems, many people still view America as the land of freedom and liberty. In the Middle East, we are not afforded this same leniency.
One reason for this is that some Americans, and other Westerners, only look at conditions from their own perspectives. It is easy to judge discrimination and inequality without taking into consideration that some countries’ situations are very different from that of America. While Arab countries are not the war torn, violent death traps they are often generalized to be, the aforementioned issues, although important and significant, may not be priorities in the same way in some countries. When, for example, some “liberal” Americans defend Israel’s violent occupation of Palestine and its numerous war crimes by bringing up trendy American social issues — such as LGBT and women’s rights. By doing this, they only prove how out of touch they are. Homophobia, for example, is a prevalent problem in all countries around the world, Palestine included, but when a population is blockaded from food, medical care and water and lives in constant fear of death or displacement, marriage equality probably isn’t the number one priority on the list (although Palestinian LGBT groups such as Al-Qaws, founded by a queer Palestinian woman, exist and are active). The same can be said for priorities in Syria, where populations are attacked and slaughtered by terrorist forces from one side, and by their own government from the other. Obviously, intolerance and bigotry cannot be justified in any way, but it is important to recognize the context in which these things occur and the reasons they are brought up.
In this context of Western imperialism and neocolonialism, it is important to explore the reasoning behind problematization of the Middle East. Although many justifications of attacks on Arab countries include liberation and protection of oppressed groups, these very groups often bear the brunt of conflicts which fuel increased traditionalism in face of Western attack. That LGBT Arabs as well as Arab women also seem to be victims of bombings and attacks led by Western or Western backed regimes, and seen as nothing more than collateral damage, makes the legitimacy of Western “concerns” for these people (which are often one of the reasons used to justify violent intervention) questionable.
The pressure of always being watched, judged and expected to screw up almost stops us from even trying to acknowledge or fix the problems we know we should. Although many organizations exist throughout the countries of the Middle East that deal with the multitude of economic, social and political problems, it can still be hard to begin addressing these issues because we can’t afford to make mistakes without validating Western stereotypes
As Arabs, we are put in uncomfortable positions when these stereotypes arise. While we know that prejudice should not be defended, it is hard not to push back against the racist undertones that color these accusations and demote Arabs to inferior and backwards people that need to be bombed into a new age of democracy and enlightenment. The conversation about problems within our own communities is definitely one that needs to be had, but this needs to occur in a context dedicated to actual improvement, as opposed to being co-opted by racist narratives that justify Western Imperialism at any cost.
Katy Habr is a sophomore at Cornell. Comments may be sent to [email protected] On the Margin runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.