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Oil, mean people, dark skin, terrorism
Mental images of the Middle East influence relationships

By Yahya R. Kamalipour
December 1, 1998
The Iranian

"What images come to your mind when you think of the Middle East, Muslims, Arabs, Iranians, and Israelis?" This was a question that I posed to nearly 500 high school students in five cities throughout northern Indiana, during a 1997 world affairs conference for which I was the principal speaker. Using an assessment method called "word-association," I asked them to write, without censoring themselves, whatever images came to their minds immediately after hearing certain terms. Although space limitation does not allow me to outline and discuss the disappointing results, the following responses, compiled in no particular order, should reveal their perceptions of the Middle East, Arabs, Muslims, Iranians, and Israelis:

The Middle East: Terrorism, war, dangerous, Muslims, oil, desert, hot, camels, sand, Saddam Hussein, the Gulf war, PLO, fanatics, radical, destruction, oppression, dark skin, dress funny, black veils, cab drivers, oppressed women, OPEC, always in the news

Arabs: Terrorists, Muslims, turbans, veils, highjackers, dark skins, wealth, poverty, tents, sand, sheiks, oil, robes, harems, religious, repression, Arabian horses, anti-American, Ali Baba, Aladdin, rebels, sandals, cab drivers, Mecca, Saddam Hussein, belly dancing

Muslims: Strict religion, mosques, Mohammad, long robes, veiled women, always praying, Mecca, holy war, Arabs, violence, terrorism, no women's rights, Allah, Koran, poverty, dark skin, harems, sacrifice, inequality, militant, war, anti-American, strong beliefs

Iranians: Ayatollahs, Khomeini, extremism, hostages, anti-American, war, oil, mean people, dark skin, terrorism, religious, poverty, Muslims, strict, fanatical, "Not Without My Daughter," sand, Arabs, death, hated, Saddam Hussein, Iran-Contra, missiles, oppression

Israelis: Jerusalem, Netanyahu, Yassir Arafat, PLO, Robin, war, American allies, Hate Arabs, Palestinians, Holy land, Jewish, religious, Star of David, Hebrews, Moses, Hanukah, West Bank, fighting, death, secrecy, peace process, powerful, Bible, terrorism, strict religion, bombings

Quite obviously, the students' overall perceptions of the Middle East, Arabs, Muslims, and Iranians were overwhelming negative, while their perceptions of the Israelis generally tended to be neutral to positive. For instance, while the respondents referred to Arabs, Muslims, and Iranians as "anti-American," they referred to Israelis as "American allies." Also, many stereotypical and prejudicial labels such as "dark skin," "turbans," "terrorists," or "dangerous" were used only to describe the non-Israelis.

Due to the strikingly similar responses given by students who live miles apart, I routinely had to point out the participants' overwhelmingly negative perception of the Middle East and ask whether there was anything positive that they could have ascribed to the Middle Easterners or Muslims. In every city, while only a few were surprised by the negative results, others admitted that they could not really think of anything positive. Also, some of the students commented that they could not even recall having seen anything positive about the Middle East in the media.

Subsequently, I distributed a map of the Middle East and asked the students to point out any distinction, in terms of culture, language, geography, history, or politics, between the countries of the Middle East. Once again, they generally appeared to think of the Middle East as a "big blob" devoid of any geographical variation or cultural diversity. Only Israel was mentioned as a country having a distinct religion, language, culture, and politics. They generally failed to mention, for instance, that Iran and Afghanistan are two Middle Eastern countries whose inhabitants are historically and culturally different from the Arabs and speak in Farsi or Persian not Arabic. Nor did they mention the distinct cultural, geographical, and political variations that exist between and within Arab nations such as Morocco, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, or the differences between the two main Muslim sects, Shi'a and Sunni.

The stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims dates to the Middle Ages, when the expansion of Islam into Europe pitted Arab against European, leading to Western cultural and political efforts to discredit Arab/Islam culture. In fact, from "The Sheik," in 1921, to "The Siege," 1998, Hollywood has continued its relentless attack, with a few minor exceptions, on the Middle East, Islam, and Arabs. The indoctrination process begins early. During the childhood period, anti-Islam and anti-Arab movies such as "Aladdin" and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" set the stage. In other words, a context is provided so that future movies and other entertainment materials can easily be built upon it. Gradually, the amount and intensity of such propaganda increases to the point that by adulthood, viewers are bombarded with sensational and harmful portrayals of the Middle East and Muslims in such Hollywood concoctions as "Executive Decision" and "The Siege." These media images then become public perceptions -- the very basis for human interaction.

Although stereotyping has existed, in one form or another, in practically every society, today it has become more pervasive than ever before--it has become global. We now live in a media-induced cultural environment that is inundated by mass-produced images, images intended to serve a commercial or political purpose--from selling cigarettes and political candidates to ideologies and cultures. Consequently, our world view, or our perception of other peoples, events, and places, is largely defined - often in an unrealistic and stereotypical manner - by the Western (read American) mass media that have blanketed the globe.

About the author

Dr. Yahya R. Kamalipour is professor of mass and international communications at Purdue University Calumet, Hammond, Indiana. His book, The U.S. Media and the Middle East: Image and Perception (1995, Greenwood Press; 1997, Praeger) won the 1996 Distinguished Scholarship Award from the National Communication Association. (Back to top)


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