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The Middle East as Seen Through Foreign Eyes

Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

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Examining Stereotypes

More Stereotypes

The Greedy Avaricious Enemy

This trope is usually based on the assumption that the antagonist possesses an insatiable appetite for domination over all natural resources and other forms of wealth, usurping the rights of its rightful owners, depriving legitimate consumers, and thereby undermining the economic well being of the rest of the world. As mentioned above, the “oil boycott” of the 1970s helped create the impression that Arabs and other Middle Easterners, through organizations like OPEC, were using major oil reserves and the enormous profits they generated to ruin and then to buy up the United States; rarely was it noted that countries like Great Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands held much larger shares in the American economy than any Middle Eastern or Islamic country. In addition to malicious manipulation of the oil market, “Arabs” were also thought to be attempting to “buy” American lawmakers and other officials. In this connection we need only recall Abscam, the 1978 FBI sting operation in which alleged officials of a fictitious Arab “sheik” offered selected public officials money in exchange for special favors. This operation eventually resulted in the indictment and conviction of one U.S. senator and four congressmen on charges of bribery and conspiracy. In more recent years, when oil prices soared to well over $100 a barrel, the idea of “petro-terrorism” gained new purchase as a means to vilify the Arab Middle East. In this scenario, Arabs, primarily from the Gulf Region, use excess wealth from oil profits to fund terrorist organizations which undermine American national security interests. In more recent discourse, oil-rich Arabs are portrayed as having contributed money to stake the 9/11 terrorists.

Demon and Devil

Demonization of the Other is the antithesis of the notion that “God is on our side.” As Keen notes, “The Devil, like the God of politics, is essentially created to allow us to deny responsibility for our actions… Both God and the Devil seem to testify to the abiding human experience of being possessed by alien forces, being out of control, being unable to achieve autonomy.” This trope, then, is a variation on the “Evil Empire” theme introduced earlier. A modern reprise of Dante’s placing of the Prophet Muhammad in the Eighth Circle of Hell appeared in the Twin Cities Newspapers when Jan Markell wrote a column entitled “Islam is a Religion from Hell.” Markell presents a brief, but distorted sketch of the rise of Islam and the career of the Prophet:

Muhammad knew his cause was worthless without converts. Here is where [the] modern-day Israel/Arab conflict began. The Jews refused to accept his new religion, so Mohammed resorted to what would become commonplace for the Moslems: eliminate the Jews by slaughter and banishment. He set a sordid example for his present disciples such as Gadhafi, Khomeini, Arafat, Assad, and more.

She then undertakes a comparison of Christianity and Islam: “Followers of Jesus are known, hopefully, by their love; the disciples of Allah and Mohammed are known for their cruelty and brutality. Islam gains followers through the edge of the sword. This has been true for centuries.” The crux of her argument, however, occurs in the next paragraph:

Islam is a religion conceived in hell. It was and is determined to destroy all Jews and Christians. Again I refer to fundamentalist extremists. They are the ones who proclaim “holy war” upon an “unbelieving” world. Their “holy war” is inspired by Satan himself. The flames of holy war lengthen [sic] and strengthen as Satan senses the imminent arrival of the Messiah.

Though Markell’s diatribe places her among the fundamentalist-dispensationalist Christians discussed above, hers is certainly not the only voice demonizing Islam in the media and American popular culture.

Apocalypse, Doom, and Death

The portrayal of the Other as death incarnate recalls the fact that conflicts are often seen in such Manichean terms as Life vs. Death, Black vs. White, and Light vs. Dark. In these cosmic struggles, the Other as doom or bringer of death represents the ultimate threat. Moreover, as Keen argues, “…propaganda must switch the blame for massive suffering and death from us to them.”

Beast, Reptile, and Insect

Imagining the Other as beast, reptile, insect, or microbe completes the course of dehumanization begun by constructing enemies as violent, irrational, and subhuman barbarians. Such images provide the ultimate sanction for the extermination of the Other by conditioning us to kill these non-humans without incurring guilt. It is often sufficient only to picture the enemy leader in this fashion, since, through reductionism everyone associated with him is similarly dehumanized.

Supporting Links:

“Ahmadinejad” political cartoon, Canada. Link to resourcenew window (accessed June 24, 2010).

“Hysterical Blindness” political cartoon, Israel. Link to resourcenew window (accessed June 24, 2010).

“Islam vs. Pope” political cartoon, USA. Link to resourcenew window (accessed June 24, 2010).

“Muslim Cleric Calls for Jihad Deaths” political cartoon, USA. Link to resourcenew window (accessed June 24, 2010).

“Terror Beast” political cartoon, Brazil. Link to resourcenew window (accessed June 24, 2010).

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