Written by:
Joseph Willits

Hooked on Arab Stereotypes

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The UK’s Arab community isn’t as large as those communities from South Asia, and casual stereotypes about race have long been used about of all of these groups to caricature, demonise, and essentially justify a racist discourse. Whilst on many occasions there now appears to be a certain reluctance to single out British Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan communities, the same cannot always be said of the British Arab community. With standard stereotypical images of bombers, belly dancers, billionaires and burkas, the Arab male or female is continually fair game to either poke fun at, or more seriously, be confined to and judged by a representation that is either inherently bad, angry, irrational or stupid, misogynistic or repressed, exotic or lascivious.

In 2011, speaking about Islamophobia, Baroness Warsi said that it had become socially acceptable and “passed the dinner table test”. It is no wonder that as racist bullying is on the increase, Islamophobia is particularly heightened, with many children being called “bomber” or “terrorist”. Negative stereotypes of Arabs in the UK have long been socially acceptable at the dinner table, on the television (pre and post watershed), and throughout images in the media.

Last month, Caabu (Council for Arab-British Understanding) wrote to the Spectator to suggest that a cartoon portrayal of a Sunni-Shia war of “two bearded, large hooked-nosed, weapon-wielding men” on its front cover was ill advised. We argued that in publishing such a cartoon, it alienated British Arab and Iranian communities further. Of course, much of the response to that complaint was that we were pursuing a politically correct agenda, that we were humourless do-gooders, and that Arabs really were like that – large hooked-nosed, angry, weapon wielding and irrational, that despite this being a cartoon, that was the nature of the Arab “beast” so to speak. We should be alarmed about casual generalisations, in image form, or with flippant or deliberately derisory remarks. Such generalisations based on casual stereotyping can cement a view of a particular group of people, in this case Arabs, and whilst not always intentional, has detrimental consequences.

It is not the first time that casual ethnic slander of groups of people as “savages” has graced the Spectator. Melanie Phillips was investigated by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) for discussing the “moral depravity” of Arab “savages”, and Rod Liddle wrote:

“Two black savages hacked a man to death while shouting Allahu Akbar; that’s really all you need to know, isn’t it?"

Whilst a child may not come into contact with cartoons in the Spectator, many would be familiar with Disney’s Aladdin. A clean-shaven, fairer skinned, American accented Arab, battling against the sinister large hooked-nosed antagonist Jafar. A blatant reminder of the predatory Arab and his lack of a moral compass. For years, Hollywood has cemented the negative stereotypes of Arabs, and Aladdin, for which it’s lyricist and composer won a Oscar, was quite happy to allow the following lyrics for its opening song:

“Oh, I come from a land/From a faraway place/Where the caravan camels roam. Where they cut off your ear/If they don't like your face/It's barbaric, but hey, it's home.”

In his 2001 book, Reel Bad Arabs, (and in a documentary of the same  name in 2006)  Jack Shaheen discussed how stereotyping of Arabs in Hollywood had evolved from the rich, invariably fat, billionaire Gulf Arab in the 1970s, to portrayals of Arabs as terrorists in the 1980s.  After research of some 900 films (many of which have been honoured by Hollywood), Shaheen concluded that the Arab stereotyping was a "systematic, pervasive and unapologetic degradation and dehumanisation of a people". Shaheen noted that the number of positive portrayal of Arabs in these films could be counted on one hand. Perhaps more recent examples are Homeland’s depiction of Arabs and Muslims as violent fanatics and Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator largely based on Libya’s ousted leader Muammar Qaddafi, which Arab American comedian Dean Obeidallah described as a “modern day minstrel show.”

In the UK today, the image of the Arab takes the two forms that Shaheen highlights in Hollywood’s portrayal of Arabs. The wealthy, invariably fat Gulf Arab buying up huge chunks of London, and the existential threat terrorist Arab, particularly with the conflict in Syria, that is a direct threat to the UK. There is also the generic stereotype of a benefit cheating asylum seeker, who could be Afghan, Albanian, Kosovar, Iraqi, and may not be Arab at all, but a category that some Arabs would be lumped into. In all of these contexts, Arabs are portrayed as irrational.

The Arab community in the UK is often seen as more transitional, a temporary bloc of people, usually with significant financial capital to invest in London. The popular image of a twenty-something year old Gulf Arab driving a Lamborghini through Knightsbridge (and the schadenfreude at it being clamped and towed away), ignores the fact that there has been a British Yemeni community since the 19th century – Britain’s first mosque being built in 1860 in Cardiff for Yemeni sailors. Other well established Arab communities are ignored and under represented, both in the political and cultural life of the UK.

The crisis in Syria has reaffirmed a view that plenty of Arabs are terrorists. Like with many conflicts in the Middle East, Syria fatigue has set in, and with the largest humanitarian crisis being massively underfunded, negative perceptions of Arabs have played a part in this. Syria’s refugees, for example, would not be seen as innocent as those displaced by natural disaster. That although the majority of Syria’s refugees are women and children (69.6% of refugees are made up of women and those under 18 according to UNHCR), there is a perception that if the UK were to allow the most vulnerable into the country, it would be inclusive of hordes of angry bearded rebels, like the one who gained infamy for eating the heart of a Syrian government soldier. The image of the Syrian that existed in March 2011, somebody fighting for rights against a 40 year old dictatorship, has almost been erased in many elements of the media to be replaced by the armed rebel; bearded and conservative, potentially as nasty as the regime he’s trying to overthrow. This is despite the fact that so many innocents have been made destitute, detained, tortured, and sexually abused, these images often overlooked to promote the image of the angry, irrational Syrian rebel fighting against Assad, an image that the regime itself has also propagated. In many cases, it could be argued that the vulnerability of a refugee from the Arab world is taken away because of the stereotype “that’s what they do there, that’s what they’re like” in these “barbaric” Arab lands.

Arabs in many cases have not only been victims of brutal dictatorships, but also of the caricatures that such repressive regimes create. The barbarism of some of their leaders and those claiming to be representative of them has in turn assisted in cementing such stereotypes about Arabs, that in the UK, many elements of the media seems happy to keep them trapped there to justify the narrative, and abdicate the responsibility it has in engaging this community further rather than alienating it.

Joseph Willits works for Caabu (Council for Arab-British Understanding). He Tweets@JosephWillits.

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