Teaching about the Middle East, Arabs, Muslims, or Islam in a contemporary high school or college classroom presents pedagogical challenges. Rather than accepting and internalizing new information imparted to them, it is apparent that negative perceptions, attitudes, and stereotypes could condition students to reject or deny the validity of truth-claims incongruent with their own. As Walter Lippmann keenly observed in Public Opinion (1922), “The only feeling that anyone can have about an event he does not experience is the feeling aroused by his mental image of that event.” Thus, in the context of education it is imperative of teachers to determine what their students think they know in order to understand their beliefs and build a basis for mutual understanding.
To understand the term “stereotype” in its current usage, it is instructive to turn again to Lippmann. He defined “stereotype” as a “distorted picture or image in a person’s mind, not based on personal experience, but derived culturally.” Lippmann reasoned that the formation of stereotypes is driven by social, political, and economic motivations, and as they are passed from one generation to the next, they can become quite pervasive and resistant to change. Historically, state actors have mobilized stereotypes in service of the social process that Lippmann calls “the manufacture of consent.” For instance, in times of war or economic hardship, governments have used stereotypes to reconfigure ethical landscapes and delineate new boundaries separating protagonists (the “in-group”) from antagonists (the “out-group” or “enemy”). Taken to a logical extreme, this sort of us-versus-them polarization ultimately enables members of the in-group to tolerate or even rationalize harming members of the perceived out-group.
Two other uses of stereotypes are worth noting, one psychological and the other epistemological. The psychological construction of a polar-opposite foil provides a scapegoat onto which members of an in-group project or transfer the qualities within their society they find unacceptable or intolerable. This mental endeavor has an epistemological payoff. By creating a foil and ascribing to it a set of determinable characteristics, a member of the in-group acquires “knowledge” of the out-group, which aids him or her in reducing a menacing, unpredictable, and unknown entity down to a more simple, predictable, and knowable adversary. Lippmann provides a helpful description of all three uses of stereotypes in the following passage:
The system of stereotypes may be the core of our personal tradition, the defenses of our position in society. They may not be a complete picture of the world, but they are a picture of a possible world to which we are adapted. In that world people and things have their well-known places, and do certain expected things. We feel at home there. No wonder, then, that any disturbance of the stereotypes seems like an attack upon the Foundations of the universe. [The pattern of stereotypes] is the projection upon the world of our own sense of our own value, our own position, and our own rights. The stereotypes are, therefore, highly charged with the feelings that are attached to them. They are the fortress of our tradition, and behind its defense we can continue to feel ourselves safe in positions we occupy.
Structurally, stereotyping takes the form of a “vicious regression.” Rooted in ignorance, misconceptions, and negative images and attitudes, the stereotype provides a distorted mental picture or set of images that develop through reductionism into prejudice, bias, and eventually racism. Two powerful, related rhetorical tropes, synecdoche and metonymy, are involved in this process. Synecdoche is a figure of speech where a part of something is taken to represent the whole, the specific to represent the general or vice versa. Examples include hand for sailor, law for policeman, and steel for sword. Metonymy involves a substitution, where a concept is replaced by something to which it is closely related. Examples of metonymy include the use of the word Washington to mean the federal government of the United States. Both of these terms are at work in fabrication of stereotypes of the Middle East, Islam, and Muslims. For instance, any individual Muslim can stand in and speak for all Muslims everywhere. Muslim and Arab are often collapsed into a single identity, suggesting that all Muslims are somehow Arab and vice versa. Similarly, the government of a Muslim majority nation-state is indistinguishable from other Muslim majority nation-states. Material objects associated with the Middle East – camels, palm tree oases, robes, tents, and sand – denote metonymically the entirety of Arabo-Islamic religion and civilization. Saddam Hussein represents all Iraqis, and Ayatollah Khomeini or Mahmud Ahmadinejad all Iranians. Finally, Islamic religion and culture are seen as monolithic, never differentiating between religious and secular, between sacred and profane.
“Beyond Stereotypes.” Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Link to resource (accessed June 24, 2010).
Lippmann, Walter. “Public Opinion.” Google Books. Link to resource (accessed June 24, 2010).
“Stereotype.” Wikipedia. Link to resource (accessed June 24, 2010).
Understanding Prejudice. Link to resource (accessed June 24, 2010).
Professor of Iranian and Central Asian History and of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, The University of Chicago
Outreach Coordinator, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Chicago
1. According to Lippman stereotypes can form the “fortress of our tradition.” Given these factors, and paragraph 4 from this section, explain why stereotypes regarding Islam, Arabs, and Muslims are so difficult to correct.
2. Using your answer from above, explain what stereotypes regarding Muslims, Arabs, and Islam are prevalent in your school or community, then identify what you believe can be done to counter the “vicious regression.”