A 21st Century Prolongation of Orientalism and Media Bias

Western Depictions of an Uncivil Arab Civilization Succeeds at Creating Prejudice and Division

Co-authored by Ziad M. Kurdi

Orientalism, as described by Edward Said, is a manner of depiction that exaggerates and distorts differences of Arab peoples and cultures when compared to that of Europe and the U.S. According to Said, Orientalism dates back to the 19th century during the European Enlightenment and served as the rationale for the colonization of the Eastern world.

Examples of Orientalism can be seen through artwork done by European artists painting the Middle East as a barbaric land of mystery and exoticism.

The propagation of the notion of white supremacy, albeit greatly toned down from the prime of the KKK in the early 1920’s, is still present, though hiding behind a thin veneer of normality. The portrayal of heroic acts, noble causes, and just ideals in Hollywood movies, TV series, and print (be it comic books, novels, or otherwise) as performed and upheld by—mainly—white US nationals can only aid in the adoption of belief in children that “white = the standard of perfection” and “non-white is inferior to white”.

Fast forward to the 21st century and Arabs are still portrayed as barbaric, radical and uncivil. American Sniper (2014), directed by Clint Eastwood, does just that. The film celebrates the life of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle and tells his story as he travels on a mission to Iraq and kills countless *savages*. The production succeeds at generating an emotional reaction with audience members as tweets following the film revealed evident prejudices and hate speech, with some calling for the “death of ragheads”. Raghead is a derogatory word used to describe a person who wears a turban or keffiyeh.

The idea that the majority of the world’s issues can be resolved by the likes of Rambo, Captain America, and Jason Bourne has its role in making America out to be the home of the free and the land of the brave—exclusively. Conversely, there have been black superheroes, though tasked only with the preservation of their immediate surroundings rather than “the world”, i.e., “the ghetto”. Even remakes of movies based on actual events that involved Asian or African American characters replaced the titular roles with corn-fed blonds and American-to-the-bone actors (21, The Wall). When you consider that a country like China is one of Hollywood’s major box office markets, it makes you wonder about the merits of “whitewashing” antics in Hollywood. It has been taken so far as to portray God as a white man, feeding into the idea of a “white savior”, rather than portraying Jesus as a (justifiably) brown man hailing from the Middle East.

Earlier this year, popular science outlet I Fucking Love Science released an article attempting to explain the manner in which deradicalization can occur.

The photograph chosen to accompany the article was that of a Middle Eastern looking man in a traditional headscarf. The decision to exclusively equate the Arab civilization with extremist ideologies falls in line with ancient orientalist tactics as comments on the post revealed a disturbing reality.

Recent events in Myanmar of radical Buddhists committing genocide against Rohingya people; rallies performed by neo-Nazis and the KKK, including the murder of  Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, US; or the presence of the neo-fascist Greek party Golden Dawn show us that extremist ideology persists in many areas of the world and is not exclusive to the Middle East.

Back in the Middle East, where the vast majority of today’s youth are avid followers of Hollywood movies and media, a form of internalized orientalist mindset takes over. According to cultivation theory, long exposure to media messages shapes conceptions of social reality. The constant barrage of the aggrandizement of whites, and the portrayal of Arabs (specifically Muslims) in villainous roles (Iron Man, 24, True Lies) and Arab culture as backwards (Coca Cola 2013 Super Bowl commercial, Aladdin’s original theme song, scantily clad belly-dancing women in Arabian Nights, to name a few examples), can only serve to normalize such stereotypes even in the eyes of Arabs themselves. Regardless of the fact that things like healthcare, security, development, urban planning, and education are not particularly ideal in the US, the constant portrayal of perfection and advancement, especially as compared to the “third world of the Middle East”, is sure to hinder any attempt at progress in the region, as it has been increasingly common to adopt a defeatist attitude and strive to reach the “Land of Opportunity”.

Middle Easterners, myself once included, viewed America as open roads, white sand beaches, high salaries; a place where you can grow on so many different levels, where services are near-perfect, where human rights are ideal, and where pretty much everything is in order. And why wouldn’t we? If we are to gather views and opinions based on movies and the media rather than dig deep into everything, would we form any other idea?

The United States ranks 92nd on the UNODC murder rate scale, as opposed to Bahrain at 141st, Iraq at 144th, and nine other Arab countries between 146th and 156th. In the 2017 Bloomberg Health Index, Lebanon ranks 32nd, as opposed to the United States’ entry at 34th. Arab countries are also ahead in categories such as Linguistic Diversity and Literacy Rate, and aren’t dramatically behind in the Human Development Index (US at 10, Qatar at 33).

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Joana Aziz is a Syrian Barcelona-based freelance writer. She was the Arts & Culture Editor for Time Out Magazine (Beirut) and has written for Home Magazine, Conatus New, Middle East Eye and Freethought Lebanon.

She has a BA in Communication Arts from the Lebanese American University, an MA in International Studies in Media, Power and Difference from the University of Pompeu Fabra and is currently pursuing her PhD in Communication at the same university.

Aside from having a writing career, her ambitions for the future include teaching, researching, and activism.