VS. the West

an essay on Islamophobia by Waad Abdelsalam

The world around us keeps on changing, yet it seems that we’re still stuck at a standstill when it comes to profiling people based on stereotypes we hear in the media. In social psychology, a stereotype is defined as generalized opinions about a group of people. Like many things, the structural design of stereotypes is based upon upholding white supremacy and ‘othering’ groups that do not fall underneath the favored category. Unfortunately, Muslims and Arabs have not escaped from this phenomenon unscathed. The fear or exaggerated hate of Muslims, and more generally at those perceived as traditionally Arab, is called islamophobia. Like all stereotypes, islamophobia is based on pre-conceived ideas, which cause misinterpretation of Islam in Western media. As a result, those who openly follow the religion are constantly discriminated against in different social settings, harassed, and face unfair prejudicial ideals from their communities.

The natural origins of islamophobia are difficult to pinpoint however, the cultural clash between Muslims and the Western world has always existed. In his book Orientalism, Edward Said (1978) states that Western scholars coined the orient term to confine the whole East under biased perceptions that obstructed a thorough understanding of Middle Eastern sand East-Asian cultures. Since the cultures deviated from their own, the West saw itself as superior, while the ‘orients’ were painted as exotic and enigmatic. Said (1978) further elaborates, explaining that these perceptions soon developed into stereotypes and became objective in the eyes of Westerners. Soon enough, these negative portrayals of Muslims began reaching the masses.

In the post-modern world, harmful Muslim portrayals can be found across various Western media outlets. It particularly rose in frequency and notoriety after the 9/11 attacks and the initial years of the American Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Though not a new concept, the media’s unrelenting power of pushing narratives have often been used to promote islamophobia by depicting Muslims in a negative light. American media, in particular, relies on a propaganda model which side-lines ‘enemy’ countries and depicts them as a threat to national security. As a result, people who come from such countries are often ‘othered’ within the media.

It could be argued that in today’s age, the media is the most powerful tool used to influence public opinion and perpetuate ideas that often have a lasting impact on society's perception of people and cultures. Narrow representation brings about real harm to Muslims, through both alienation and religion-based aggression. In addition, it also leads to negative self-perception, as well as the internalization of islamophobia. Hereafter, media heads need to regulate the microaggressions published on the daily in the name of ‘the war on terror’, the poor disguise for islamophobia. The introduction of diverse and authentic representation is crucial. It will raise awareness about the origins of islamophobia, the different forms of negative portrayals of Muslims in Western media, and the impact of spreading these stereotypes. Muslims and Arabs should be able to feel validated as part of a larger society and others should view them as individuals with their own stories.