Evelyn Alsultany is associate professor in the Department of American Culture and director of Arab and Muslim American Studies at the University of Michigan.
Sut Jhally of the Media Education Foundation likens Orientalism to a pair of glasses that distort our perception of other cultures. Through these lenses, Arabs, Muslims and the Middle East come into view as backwards, threatening, unfree and undemocratic — polar opposites of the United States and American values.
Edward Said, who coined the term, claimed that Orientalism is more than simply skewed perception or stereotypical imagery. He argued that how we view “the other” impacts policy and subsequently the lives of Arab and Muslim peoples. Orientalism may seem like an anachronism today, a relic of 18th and 19th century Europe. But distorted views of diverse peoples are still very much alive, right here in the United States.
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Before 9/11, it was common to encounter one-dimensional Arab or Muslim characters on television and film (think of the terrorist chieftain in the Schwarzenegger vehicle “True Lies”). Men were rich sheikhs or terrorists, women were harem girls or oppressed by the veil.
There appeared to be progress after 9/11: more sympathetic portrayals appeared, usually in the form of a patriotic Arab or Muslim American character, as did more complex characters and story lines about terrorism (consider the Muslim CIA analyst, Fara Sherazi on the show “Homeland”). Yet these weren’t enough to erase years of anti-Arab sentiment.
Even as representations of Arab and Muslim Americans appeared to be improving, their real lives told a different story. Hate crimes, workplace discrimination, airline discrimination and mosque vandalism have all increased exponentially. According to the FBI, Muslim Americans are five times more likely to be the victim of a hate crime today than before 9/11. A 2012 survey by the Arab American Institute found that 55 percent of Arab American Muslims have experienced discrimination and 71 percent fear future discrimination.
There is an indisputable link between media representations and events in the real world. Karin Gwinn Wilkins demonstrates that narratives of terrorism in American media shape viewers’ perceptions of terrorism in real life. By reinforcing stereotypes of the Middle East as a place of extremism and Muslims as terrorists , these representations produce support for policies that have dire consequences for Arabs in the U.S. and abroad. Domestic policies such as the USA Patriot Act have led to the detention and deportation of thousands of Arabs and Muslims without due process. Military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to the deaths of over 100,000 civilians.
More than a decade after 9/11, despite a few sympathetic portrayals, underlying narratives in television and film continue to portray Muslims and Arabs as potential threats to U.S national security. Arab and Muslim identities are politicized, racialized and criminalized. Arab and Muslim Americans face bigotry from presidential candidates, profiling by law enforcement and heated public debates on the extent to which their entire religion should be demonized. Even if inadvertent, these narratives make it easier to justify discrimination against Arab and Muslim communities in the United States and divide us as a country even as we seek to understand religious and cultural difference.
Some insist Islam must be understood as the enemy of the United States and that Orientalism is a fabricated term used to shut down important conversation about threats to national security. But others recognize that such frameworks dangerously justify exclusion and inequality. Instituting punitive national policy based on negative stereotypes of an entire racial, ethnic or religious group should be understood as a modern form of Orientalism. The word may sound antiquated, but the distorting lenses and their impacts remain all too present today.
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