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Scimitars and Sand Dunes - Rethinking the Middle East, Arabs and Islam

Posted by Eric Brightwell, June 6, 2009 10:41pm | Post a Comment
With President Obama's recent address at the University of Cairo, there has been a veritable sandstorm of media discussion about the Middle East, the Arab world and the Islamic world; three concepts lazily interchanged in the American mainstream media (including the supposedly smarter public radio). Despite some overlap, the indiscriminate use of the terms, both out of ignorance and deliberately,  minimizes substantial heterogeneity and differences -- to the detriment of our understanding of reality, and as a result contributing to the undermining and hindering of attempts at peace in the region. While I did find the president's speech fairly nuanced, intelligent and inspirational, until substantial actions reflect those attractive words, they offer nothing more than hope.


"Neighbour to the Moon," the legendary Christian Lebanese singer, فيروز.

Today Arabs, Muslims and Middle Easterners remain some of the last people in the west for whom racism is not only extremely common but also widely accepted, even governmentally endorsed. Merely advocating equality and human rights for Arabs and Muslims is often met with charges of racism and embracing hatred, probably the only people likely to ellicit that response besides Germans. Given this reality, centuries of negative stereotypes and repeated military and political actions that reflect undeniable double standards, it's no wonder that many view the frequent proclamations that "Islam is a beautiful religion" and hands extended in friendship with widespread suspicion at best.

Arab World Vasnetsov magic carpet

The Arab world
Arabs trace their ancestry back to the Semitic tribes of the Arabian peninsula and the Syrian desert. Like many immigrant populations, Arabs are often viewed as so indelibly tied to their ancestral homeland that they are seen as perpetual foreigners; their allegiances are often questioned entirely on the basis of their ancestry. Today, not surprsingly, many Arabs make their homes around the world beyond the Middle East. The widespread hostility they are treated with is obvious not only in hate crimes, but larger political action, after both the Oklahoma City bombing and the Anthrax scare prompted calls to military response against someone, anyone in the middle east. Let's just drop some bombs over there and be done with it.


The "Arabian Elvis"... عبدالحليم إسماعيل شبانة

Arab in the non-genetic sense
Furthering the confusion is the use of Arab to describe anyone who speaks Arabic (similar to the way Amish call non-Amish Americans "English" or American-based Spanish Language TV stations are referred to as "Mexican."). Although many Berbers, Lebanese and Palestinians have some Arabic ancestry, it makes up a small portion of their genetics, even though they often self-identify as Arabs based on culture and language.

Syrian-born, half-Lebanese, Druze musical genius فريد الأطرش

Arab n. Bad guys in the Middle East
Just as the definition of the Middle East seems to expand in an effort to encompass the Muslim world, the term Arab grows too, as with the Darfur War, which is usually characterized as a genocide perpetrated by Arabs, despite the fact that the attackers are themselves black Africans. Arab is, therefore, understood to mean "bad guy" and they're one of the few people in the world who're never allowed to be portrayed as victims. Even when occupied, oppressed and living as second class citizens under apartheid, there's an understanding that they had it coming, being Arabs. Another example is the media and American culture's disproportionate attention toward Buddhist Tibet and almost complete silence regarding its neighbor to the north, mostly Muslim East Turkestan, despite their parallel situations.

Islamic World

The Islamic world

The Islamic World is usually mischaracterized as being roughly synonymous with the Middle East. Although most Arabs practice Islam, there are large numbers of Christians and Druze. But, in the minds of most, Arabs and Muslims are synonyms. When I caught a local news story about the secular-Marxist Palestinian organization, the PFLP (founded by an atheist from a Christian background), the newscaster referred to them as "radical Islamists," apparently incapable of thinking that the motivation for self governance could be motivated by anything other than fanatical devotion to God.


Islam outside the Middle East
Even more notably, the countries with the largest populations of Muslims are almost all located outside the traditional middle east. In descending order of population size they are Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Turkey, Egypt, Nigeria, Iran, Morocco and Algeria... none of which are in the Arabian peninsula. Of the biggest Islamic populations, only Egypt and Algeria are Arabic to a substantial degree.

Middle East Map


The Middle East
The Middle East itself is a hazily defined region in Asia with no universally-agreed upon boundaries but always including Arabia, Egypt, the Levant and Mesopotamia... but sometimes including parts of Eastern Europe, Anatolia, North Africa, Central Asia and South Asia. It seems to grow the more people become aware of the dominance of Islam outside of regions traditionally thought of as the Middle East. Nonetheless, it's often discussed like it's its own continent, with static borders and completely exclusive from the rest of Asia. Yes, Jesus and Mohammed were Asian in that sense. Put that in your shisha and smoke it.

The Death of Sardanapalus Tusken Raider family

The Middle East exists in the collective Western consciousness as a vast, homogenous region full of harems full of belly dancers presided over by oil barons, insane suicide bombers, sneaky (but inept) sheiks and genies. Everyone (except Israelis) is both Arabic and Muslim. Of course, in reality, Middle Easterners practice just as many faiths as anyone else. Most Assyrians, Bilen, Georgians, Armenians and a large percentage of Lebanese are, in fact, Christian. (Yes, I know few people consider Georgia and Armenia to be in the Middle East, but there are large numbers of Armenians and Geogians living in countries that are.)

Non-Muslim/non-Jewish Middle Easterners

Druze Zoroastrians Samaritans
                    Druze                                                    Zoroastrians Samaritans

It's also worth pointing out that not only did Christianity, Islam and Judaism come out of the Middle East, so did Druze, Zoroastrianism, Bahá'í, Samaritanism, Yazdânism and Sikhism (if your personal definition of the Middle East includes Punjab).

Non-Arabic/non-Jewish Indigenous Middle Easterners

Afar woman Assyrian boy in traditional clothing Azeri boys
       Afar woman                        Assyrian boy                                                   Azeri boys

Beja Chaoui women Hederab woman
                                        Beja                                                         Chaoui women              Hederab woman


Berber Woman Nara woman Nubian woman
                                 Berber Woman                                               Nara woman                 Nubian woman

Pamiri woman Pashtuns Persian girls
    Pamiri woman                     Pashtun mother and child                                        Persian girls


rashaida couple Saho Woman Talysh girls
                Rashaida couple                                   Saho Woman                               Talysh girls

Tigre Woman Tigrinya tuareg
   Tigre Woman                             Tigrinya                                                               Tuareg homies

Turkish women Turkmen musicians
         Turkish women                                               Turkmen musicians

What's even less known is that there are large numbers of non-Arabic/non-Jewish people indigenous to the Middle East, each with their own traditions, music and culture including both the examples above and non-pictured people like the Abkhaz, Bakhtiaris, Baloch, Bilen, Danagla, Dom, Gilakis, Haratin, Hausa, Ja'Alin, Kabyle, Kurds, Laks, Lurs, Mazandaranis, Mozabites, Shaigiya, Teoubou and Zazas (to name a few).

Afghani Girls modeling
Young Afghans

Hollywood and the media's perpetuation of the faceless Middle East
With most of our impressions of the middle east coming from the media and Hollywood, it's not surprising how ignorant most westerners are about the Middle East. When Afghans (neither Arabic nor Middle Eastern by standard definitions) laughed at the idea of an Arabs like Osama bin Laden effortlessly blending into their population unnoticed, most American scratched their heads in confusion. How can they tell themselves apart? Of course, as part of the campaign to make our military opponents faceless, images of Afghans are extremely rare in the media. If we assume that all Middle Easterners are the same, we can just punish whichever ones we can get at most easily instead of pursuing the actual perps. When the World Trade Center came down due to the Afghan Taliban and al qaeda, the natural response was to shock and awe the Iraqi people, despite the fact that there were no Iraqis involved. It's the same kind of thinking that led people to deaths of Balbir Singh Sodhi, Adel Karas (neither of whom were even Muslims) and other brown skinned people in the days following the attack on 9/11.

Palestinian Children in Jenin
Palestinian Children

Sometimes it's even more overtly politically motivated, as with arguments that suggest that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people and that the word didn't even appear until the 1948 invasion. This despite the fact that the Greeks wrote of Palaistinê (Παλαιστίνη) several millenia ago... and demands for an independent Palestine issued by the Syrian-Palestinian congress in 1921. All of this negative stereotyping, even when conciously recognized and rejected, can end up poisoning our subconscious. Test yourself here to test your own biases toward Arabs, Muslims and other people. And if you want to watch some Hollywood depictions of Arabs, Middle Easterners and Muslims, check out any of the following:

The Sheik (1921), A Son of the Sahara (1924), A Song of Love (1923), The Son of the Sheik (1926), A Café in Cairo (1924), The Desert Bride (1928), The Wind and the Lion (1975), Arab Conspiracy (1976),  Black Sunday (1977), Raid on Entebbe (1977), Midnight Express (1978), The Black Stallion (1979), Back to the Future (1985), Iron Eagle (1986), Death Before Dishonor (1987), Wanted: Dead or Alive (1987), Dadah is Death (1988), Navy SEALs (1990), Not Without My Daughter (1990), The Delta Force (1991), True Lies (1994), Executive Decision (1996), Return to Paradise (1998), Rules of Engagement (2000), Black Hawk Down (2001).

 

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