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Opinion ‘Othering’ and the Middle East: A primer

President Obama talks with 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed at the White House. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

According to many, the Western world is pitted against a dangerous and radical Islam, one characterized by events of terrorism: the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the public slayings of Americans like James Foley by the Islamic State. The characterization is so broadly applied that even a 14-year-old Muslim youth in the United States could be easily suspected of bringing a homemade bomb to a public school.

These fears are the latest manifestations of long-held tropes that characterize our understanding of the Middle East — that it is a mysterious place and potential threat to Western democracies. Many academics in the social sciences see in this view a contemporary instance of “othering,” the process in which any group of people — such as a race or religious group — is characterized as outside of the mainstream. The result is systemic prejudice: The group is judged and treated unfairly based on negative stereotypes.

Ahmed Mohamed’s story became the latest moment in a contentious discussion about racism and the “othering” of Islam. The viral movement to support the teen — with the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed — highlighted the growing frustration with stereotypes connected to Muslims.

The term “Othering” has spread in usage, and today is often used in the context of other social justice movements. But the concept has a long history, especially in terms of our understanding of non-Western cultures. For decades, academics have studied how Americans see the Middle East, a research area in large part originating from Edward Said’s 1978 book, “Orientalism.”

Said, a Palestinian American academic and comparative literature professor at Columbia University, characterized the West’s dominant cultural understanding of the East — especially the Islamic world — as a patronizing one, in which people from “the Orient” were portrayed as less civilized than Europeans. He argued that this was evident in the scholarly work of early European writers, who presented false and stereotyped representations of the people of Asia, North Africa and the Middle East as exotic, irrational and essentially childlike “others” — a different people in need of better government.

Said’s theories have provided grounds to criticize the portrayal of the Middle East in art and the media. They have also become fundamental to the discipline of post-colonialism, offering an explanation of the rise of imperialism.

The concept has persisted and evolved as Said’s “Orientalism” has become an anchor in the field of cultural studies. Today, “othering” continues to enter the discussion in foreign policy issues regarding the Middle East — from the conflicts in Iraq to the flood of Syrian refugees in Europe. Does an “us vs. them” mind-set influence our willingness to intervene militarily or deny aid to those who are struggling? Where does our desire for personal security begin and our fear of another culture end?

While misguided cultural perceptions may not be the root causes of policy decisions, these misunderstandings feed into and perhaps cause some of the friction between Western governments and the Islamic world.

How can the academic legacy of Said’s “othering” be useful for today’s geopolitical context? How has it evolved over the past century during the democratic revolution and globalization of the world economy? And most important, how do societies overcome the psychological pitfalls that cause them to fall back on false and unfair characterizations of unfamiliar groups?

Over the next few days, well hear from:

Derek Gregory, historical geographer at the University of British Columbia,

Evelyn Alsultany, American culture professor at the University of Michigan,

Joshua Keating, international affairs reporter at Slate,

Salman Sayyid, sociology and social policy professor at the University of Leeds,

Stephen Szabo, executive director of the Transatlantic Academy.