ARABS AND THE MEDIA
HEADby Narmeen El-Farra
Journal of Media Psychology
Volume I, Number 2, Spring 1996
A stereotype is the creation of a biased opinion or view -- an individual will take the behavior of one person and state that all people belonging to that particular group, be it an ethnic, religious or social group, behave in the same manner. The establishment of stereotypes encourages people to react and behave in a manner that is both judgmental and biased.
The word Arabs is used to describe an individual from the Middle East. Despite the fact that these individuals are from different countries, with diverse cultures, beliefs and a variety of religions, they are characterized by one term, "Arabs." The word Arabs reduces individuals and countries to a distinct target, open to stereotypes and bias.
The Western media has often projected individuals of Arab descent in a negative manner. Currently, Arabs are seen as terrorists and murderers due to how the media presents them. Newspapers use key words such as extremists, terrorists and fanatics to describe Arabs. According to Shaheen (1984), "The present day Arab stereotype parallels the image of Jews in pre-Nazi Germany, where Jews were painted as dark, shifty-eyed, venal and threateningly different people." These distortions of the Arab people have created a general mistrust and dislike for Arabs among Americans.
To identify Arabs with terrorism is to classify them as enemies. In research conducted by L. John Martin (1985), results showed that the word "terrorism" was used by the press in describing events and individuals they disapproved of. Yet, when describing these same acts by individuals who are not Arabs, the media was careful to appear neutral and unbiased.
A good example of media coverage which presented facts of an actual event in a prejudicial manner was the Oklahoma City bombing. In 1995, within minutes of the event, news reporters were insinuating that the bombing was an act of terrorists. Raised with unpopular stereotypes of Arabs, the American public was quick to develop images of Arab terrorists destroying American property. These views were fueled by the fact that it was a state building containing several government agencies. For example, "Steven Emerson, a terrorism expert, told viewers not to believe Islamic groups when they denied involvement." Furthermore, CNN, a major news channel, gave the actual names of Arab suspects being detained for questioning in connection with the bombing (Alter, 1995). This type of reporting was a departure from the normal objective stance CNN usually takes of protecting the identity of individuals involved in criminal activity until the facts have been confirmed. It was impossible for the American public to conceive of the word terrorist in application to citizens of their own country. The word terrorism is synonymous with Arabs. Yet, the arrest of an American citizen for the Oklahoma bombing forced them to look at mainstream America and its ideologies. It is the mass media's inability to handle a forced examination of their own people that forces them to look outward for scapegoats.
Moreover, this projection of views is further fueled by current events such as the Palestinian Arab - Israeli conflict. American media coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict paints a distorted image between victim and aggressor. The unbalanced coverage in the mainstream media places the Arab states in the position of violence and power, while Israel is left as a nation attempting to protect its freedom and people. This is evident in the "disproportionate number of unfavorable references to Arab states, their leaders and their actions. Similarly, bias is evident in a disproportionate number of favorable references to Israel." (Kressel, 1987) Such distorted representations of Arabs have a direct consequence upon Arab-Americans nationwide. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee reported a 250% increase in hate crimes against Arabs from the previous year (Bazzi, 1995).
According to Dobkin (1992), the news media allows television journalism to play a major role in setting the political agenda. This explains why Americans fear terrorism from Arab nations, though there has been little evidence to support the justification of these fears. Such fears led the majority of the American public to view an air raid against Libya in 1986 as justified. "It was judged an appropriate response to terrorism by 71% of the population despite the recognition by many that the bombing might lead to more terrorism." (Dobkin, 1992) These types of views allow the general public and public officials to dehumanize Arabs. And those negative stereotypes of Arab nations, societies, cultures and institutions regulate foreign policy and attitude.
The few exceptions in regards to public impressions of Arabs are the nations which are viewed as pro-Western. According to Ghareeb (1983), these positive images only exist as long as these countries remained positively affiliated with the United States on foreign policy issues. In a study that measured American perceptions of Arabs, it was found that "Arabs were so dehumanized that Americans were inured against the miseries and concerns of the Arabs or any segment of the Arab world; it is as if the fear of Islam and Muslims were justification for the negative Arab image in the West" (Gahreeb, 1983). In 1980 the conflicts between Iran and Iraq were viewed as an aggression against the United States, as anti-Americanism, rather than a development due to complex and existing hostility.
Establishing foreign policy which eradicates the similarity between nations gives us the notion that Arab nations are "politically, culturally and economically unlike the rest of the developing world" (Boyd, 1987). This type of political stand reduces the image of Arab people to that of religious fanatics set on destroying the world. This stereotype is so well enforced that one can not conceive the notion of Arabs coexisting peacefully with Israel or other nations. According to David Shipler (1986), the perception of fueding Arabs has created a system in which "prejudices and stereotypes worked their way so thoroughly into literature, education, history, language and social mores that they seem to govern the conflict as much as they are created by it, disease and systems intertwine."
This inability to separate stereotypes from reality governs not only political policy, but economic policy as well. Newspapers and television media are always ready to justify oil price hikes by depicting the Arab nations' personna as money hungry, seeking to control the world's natural resources. For example, the world perceives OPEC as synonymous with Arabs, however, only seven of the thirteen OPEC members are Arab nations. Furthermore, of the five largest oil-producing countries, only one is an Arab nation, Saudia Arabia. This is validated by statements such as "the world's supplies of oil and price levels are manipulated and controlled by greedy Arabs" made by an Editor of The Washington Post (Ghareeb, 1983). Other themes which follow along the lines of the Arab nations' attempt to dominate the world through their massive oil reserves include "blackmailing" the United States, in order to accumulate arms.
While newspapers and television news play a major role in the way we perceive individuals, it is often the characterization of these individuals in the entertainment arena -- movies, books and sitcoms, that shape our stereotypes. As a favorite pastime, the average American watches anywhere from three to five hours of television per day. Television has the ability to enlighten and enrich the lives of all the people it touches, however, it also has the ability to perpetuate and create stereotypes. In an analysis of television shows, Shaheen (1984) has formulated the four basic myths pertaining to stereotypes of Arabs. "They are all fabulously wealthy, they are barbarians and uncultured, they are sex maniacs with a penchant for white slavery, and they revel in acts of terrorism."
In a variety of studies, the age of television viewers is examined and the results show that children and young adults watched the most hours of television. These results are crucial since this age group represents individuals who are still in the process of developing and forming their perceptions of the world. Thus, when television programs present shows which offer "an image that can best be described as 'The Instant TV-Arab Kit, the kit suitable for most TV Arabs consists of a belly dancer's outfit, headdress (which looks like tablecloths pinched from a restaurant), veils, sunglasses, flowing gowns and robes, oil wells, limosines and/or camels," they are creating stereotypes which will mold the viewer's perceptions of Arabs as a whole. (Shaheen, 1984).
A stereotype or the reinforcement of a stereotype removes the need to examine individuals on the basis of their character. Television executives can take a stereotype and perpetuate that stereotype, instead of doing research or presenting images which might create controversy. When they perpetuate the stereotype, this unfortunately, causes children to adopt misconceptions such as "Arabs are rich and have oil. All Arabs are named Mohammed. All Arabs are nomads." (Morris International, 1980). While these may seem to be minor misconceptions, they are the foundations upon which stereotypes and judgments are based. Take for example television cartoon shows which are popular with young children such as "Richie Rich, Scooby-Doo , Porky Pig, Popeye, Heckle and Jeckle, Woody Woodpecker and Superfriends. At one time or another, each of these cartoon shows has projected Arabs in a negative manner. In Richie Rich, the hero "outsmarts an outlandish sheik." On Scooby-Doo, they "outwit Uncle Abdullah and his slippery genie." On Porky Pig "Ali-Baba bound, dumps a blackhearted Arab into a barrel of syrup." Bugs Bunny "escapes from being boiled in oil by satisfying the whims of a sheik with an unnamed goat." (Shaheen, 1984) According to Shaheen (1984), these cartoons define the world in very narrow terms, good vs. evil, "to a child, the world is simple, not complex, superman versus Arabs."
A good example of cartoons depicting Arabs in a negative manner is Walt Disney's animated feature film, Aladdin (The Walt Disney Company, 1993), which is now also a Saturday morning cartoon show on CBS-TV. In its attempts to make the film more appealing to the Western world, Disney Americanized the names and appearances of the characters. The Sultan, for instance, did not look like he was from an Arab country, unlike the antagonist, Jafer. Jafer, the only character with exaggerated Arab features, was displayed as the epitome of evil throughout the film. This depiction of the evil, manipulating Jafer, is an example of the Western view toward Arab people.
The name of the Princess in Walt Disney's version of Aladdin was changed from the one in the original tale. "Buddir al Buddor" was renamed "Jasmine," to help children identify with the character (Leipod, 1973). Additionally, Aladdin was an orphan in Disney's version, his parents were never mentioned throughout the film. In the original story, Aladdin has a father. When the current film presented him as an orphan, this gave the impression that a backward country did not have social programs to take care of its dejected. Moreover, Princess Jasmine's attire was not that of a Princess, but the traditional attire of a belly dancer, or someone of lower status, which gave her an air of sexuality instead of royalty.
Returning to the issue of television for a minute: When asserting the influence of television shows on the propagation of stereotypes, programs geared toward adults and mainstream America cannot be ignored. Television writers and executives have employed and still employ several myths about Arabs including themes such as--"Arabs are buying up America. OPEC is synonymous with Arabs. Iranians are Arabs. All Arabs are Muslims. Arabs are white-slavers and uncivilized rulers of kingdoms. All Palestinians are terrorists. And Arabs are the world's enemies. (Shaheen, 1984). Some have no basis in truth or glimmer of reality.
Iranians, for instance, are Persians, not Arabs. They do not speak Arabic, nor do they have Semitic origins. As stated earlier, a majority of OPEC members are non-Arabs. And Arab nations outlawed slavery long before many countries in the Western world abolished the slave trade. As for the fallacy about the wealth of all Arabs, as in any culture Arab nations contain wide and diverse economic groups, but the average per capita income for some Arab nations was slightly more than twelve thousand dollars; while for other Arab cultures, most people have a per capita income of less than eight hundred and fifty dollars (Shipler, 1986).
In the early 1980's, a popular sitcom, Alice (CBS-TV, 1976-1983), featured a famous actor of Arab descent, Vic Tayback. He played Mel Sharples, the proprietor of a truck stop restaurant called Mel's Diner. Instead of using this show as a vehicle to inhibit the spread of prejudices and using it to convey a fair portrayal of Arabs, it was used to perpetuate familiar stereotypes. During one episode, Flo, a waitress in Mel's Diner, was approached by a multimillionaire sheik who wanted to marry her and attempted to persuade Flo to join his harem. While Vic Tayback's character, Mel, was a gentle, fun-loving man, his Arab roots were ignored and never discussed. When Shaheen (1984) approached the producers of Alice, he was told that "stereotypes take a long time to wither away, and they did not want Mel to have a particular heritage."
Stereotypes extend beyond those of Arab people, they also encompass the Muslim religion. In an attempt to place Islam in a category that Americans can understand, the media portrays images of Muslims as "belonging to a faith of 800 million people, consisting of strange, bearded men with burning eyes, hierarchic figures in robes and turbans, blood dripping from the striped backs of malefactors, and piles of stones barely concealing the battered bodies of adulterous couples," according to Godfrey H. Jansen, an expert on Muslims, in his book, Militant Islam (Shaheen, 1984).
Television programs and the mass media do not examine the fact that the Islamic religion preaches equality and peace. The distortion of Islam and ensuing misconceptions lead television viewers to believe that it is a mysterious religion prone to acts of terrorism, violence and fanaticism. These themes are also visualized and maintained by the film industry. Recent examples are the films Not Without My Daughter (Pathe Entertainment/MGM-UA, 1991) and True Lies, (Twentieth Century Fox, 1994) which presented stereotypes of Arabs as violent and religious fanatics.
Not Without My Daughter begins with a couple's visit to relatives in Iran. The wife (played by Sally Field), an American citizen, takes her daughter on this trip, despite much of her own trepidation about visiting her husband's homeland and despite warnings from her friends. Once in Iran, she is subject to humiliating situations which demean her role as a wife, a mother and a female. Shunned by her husband's family, she continues to struggle to accept the harsh conditions in an Islamic family. However, when her husband abandons her for his "religious and family ties," she is determined to leave. Throughout the movie, women belonging to Sally Field's Islamic circle are portrayed as subjects, and submissive slaves. Her husband is portrayed as a man corrupted by his religion and by his country, a man who turns into a wild, fanatic religious zealot.
True Lies was an action-packed comedy, starring major box-office actors, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis. When it was released, this movie created anger among Arab-Americans. The Arab community felt that the negative portrayal of Arabs, namely as terrorists, encouraged existing stereotypical views. Not only were the Arabs in the film religious fanatics bent on destroying the world, they were also sexist, racist and idiotic. Truly, they were unable to complete their mission because of errors which even a five year-old could have avoided.
This type of stereotype exists and is allowed to continue to exist because of the continued acceptance of myths. A myth is a fabrication created from an analysis of half-truths. A good example is the myth that it is Arabs who belong to the Islamic faith. The truth is that half of the world's population belongs to the Islamic faith. Muslims come from nations well beyond the Arab region, places such as China, Indonesia, India and the United States.
It is the myths about Arabs which often inspire directors, producers and screenwriters to develop a product which is then based on stereotypes. While producers, executives and others in entertainment industry deny playing a role in current stereotypes, a negative attitude toward Arabs persists due to fact, "a conspiracy is not necessary to continue the cycle of stereotyping, a complacency is enough" (Shaheen, 1984). Until the creators of films and television programs establish guidelines which include the depiction of both positive and negative aspects of Islam, of Arab Nations, and of their peoples, stereotypes will continue to exist.
As for the news media, there are five major reasons why it fails to cover and portray Arabs fairly: "cultural bias, the think-alike atmosphere within the impact media, the Arab-Israeli conflict, media ignorance of the origin and history of the conflict and a determined and sophisticated pro-Israel lobby (Morris International, 1980).
Israel commands larger media coverage than all Arab countries combined. Furthermore, the press regards Israelis as the "good guys" and Arabs as the "bad guys," due to the fact that "Israel is viewed as an extension of Western Civilization and culture (Morris International, 1980). The terms used in the press to describe Israelis tend to be positive, versus the negative terms used to describe Arab nations. Research analyzing accounts of the Israeli-Lebanese border conflict found that the Israelis were described as "troops, commandos, security forces, all neutral terms, while references to the Palestinians included terms such as guerrillas, infiltrators, raiders, all negative to pejorative terms"(Morris International, 1980). Political cartoons also distort and exaggerate facts to promote a particular editorial position about Arabs (Ghareeb, 1983). Gahreeb states that this type of stereotype-formation will last as long as imbalanced and biased news reporting proceeds, since "the drawing of cartoons encourages the people of one country to support hostility against or friendship toward another group" (Morris International, 1980).
A prevalent theme in political cartoons is the portrayal of Arabs using oil to hold the United States and European nations hostage. Other cartoons depict Arabs as foolish idiots, unable to accomplish simple goals.
One which was published just after the 1967 War showed a very tired-looking Arab in ragged Bedouin dress, holding a sign saying "Arabs Onward, Fight to the Death! Exterminate Israel! Smash the Infidel Aggressors!" He is dragging behind him, a war-torn, skinny-to-the-bone camel, labeled Egypt. In a corner along with Punk the Penguin, is an Arab running and saying, "Everyone back to the Oasis!" Punk comments, "It's occupied."(Morris International, 1980) In such satires, the viewer is not presented with a balanced viewpoint, consequently, such cartoons can influence readers to make decisions or form opinions on political events without examining the actual circumstances or evidence.
The negative stereotypes about Arabs which are presented by the media spill over into the textbooks used in American schools and are taught in the education system, as research has shown. A study conducted on social science and world history textbooks which were published after 1975 revealed that stated aspects of Arab life and Islam were incorrect or misleading. Noteworthy was this example describing Arabs as "belonging to the Islamic faith, a warlike religion, in which women occupy a position of servitude" (Ghareeb, 1984).
Novels, on the other hand, have often romanticized Arabs as dressed in flowing robes, living against desert hardships, surrounded by submissive females. Others have offered a portrait of Arabs as shifty, evil and corrupt. Notably, popular novels which are currently circulated in Israel and the United States depict Arabs as warlike and predatory. The Gideonites, a novel by Deovrah Omer targets teenagers, is based on events that actually took place and establishes a negative Arab stereotype. The misrepresentations result from Arabs portrayed as "primitive, brutal, violent and unfeeling, Arabs and Turks are mixed together into a dark, sinister force, no Arab individuals emerge at all." (Shipler, 1986).
As seen by all of the mass media, Arabs are a menace to society, degenerates from an uncivilized culture. It is a continuous bombardment of negative images and falsehoods, creating myths and stereotypes. All of this negativity and disregard for the formation of stereotypes of Arabs encourages a multitude of judgments and perceptions by individuals. The media must accept responsibility for being a major force in the creation of such discriminatory views. One way to accept such responsibility is to dispel the current myths by presenting a more balanced image of Arabs. Writers should focus on providing images that depict Arabs as individuals, rather than as a homogenized group.
Arabs must demand change also, especially when stereotypes are presented in the entertainment arena. The NAACP, an African-American association, played a great role in securing diverse and unbiased portrayals of Blacks in films. Arab-Americans must demand the same respect and dignity.
Television can change perceptions by presenting the heritage of Arab-Americans, focusing on children's programming. According to Franklin Trout, a producer of documentaries, "you cannot ever understand a people or a country, or their subsequent actions unless you understand their history" (Shaheen, 1984). It is necessary to humanize and individualize the inhabitants of the different Arab Nations. It is also essential to come to an understanding of a people's religion, in this case, the fundamentals of the Islamic religion. Contrary to the myths, for example, Islam is not a religion founded on secrecy and mystery.
In conclusion, the continued existence of a myth or a stereotype diminishes an individual's worth and character. It is the responsibility of all individuals to assure that not only they, themselves, are perceived fairly, but that all individuals are judged without bias. The media is a large factor in the formation of stereotypes and ideologies. Therefore, it is their responsiblity to allow their audience to form opinions that are free from the influence of bias and negative stereotypes.
The mass media must accept this fact: they are the oracles of our time. An analysis of how Arabs are portrayed in the media has shown the existence of myths and negative stereotypes, perpetuations, projections, a vicious cycle, a cycle created by the media, allowed to continue by the media. It will all have to be countered by the mass media's destruction of fallacies.
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A longer version of this paper was written for Media Psychology 402, CSULA, in March, 1996.
NARMEEN EL-FARRA was born in Hollywood, California. She graduated California State University, Los Angeles, in 1997, majoring in Psychology. After receiving her doctorate, she plans to do clinical work and to quote her, "work with her colleagues to change stereotypes seen in the media all over the world."
The December 1992 issue of the magazine, Premier (Vol. 6, No. 4), includes a feature article entitled, "Aladdin Sane" by Mimi Avins, which is a detailed account of the difficulties encountered by Disney in the making of the animated feature, Aladdin. Avins wrote: "But the songwriter's Middle East emphasis didn't sit too well with Disney executives. "We all sat in a room in the old animation shorts building, and Howard played the six songs," Schneider (Disney animation chief) recalls. "Some of them we liked, some we didn't. We were nervous because his version was much more Arabian."
*Later in the article, Avins quotes Glen Keane, one of the head animators, "With Aladdin and Jasmine, we had a lot of discussions about the arc of the nose..."
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