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The Middle East as Seen Through Foreign Eyes

Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

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Framing the Issues

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“Faces of the Enemy”

The aforementioned factors – 1) overseas oil; 2) the shortcomings of US foreign policy; 3) extremist religious ideologies; 4) a rapidly changing demography; and 5) the perception of economic inequality – are mutually reinforcing in creating a negative social atmosphere vis-à-vis Islam, Muslims, and the Middle East. Elements of this negative social atmosphere range from loss of civility through racism to the proliferations of hate crimes against minority, ethnic, religious, and cultural groups. It appears that alongside those threatening us from abroad, we have discovered a number of enemy “Others” within. In his exploration of the psychology of homo hostilis, Sam Keen observes, “In the beginning we create the enemy. Before the weapon comes the image.” He continues, “We think the other to death and then invent the battle-axe or the ballistic missiles with which to actually kill them. Propaganda precedes technology.” In other words, the construction of an enemy comes from within the human psyche and violence against a perceived enemy is predicated on an understanding of what that enemy constitutes or represents. Despite changing contexts and circumstances, Keen claims that a society or people have “a certain standard repertoire of images it uses to dehumanize the enemy. In matters of propaganda, we are all Platonists; we apply eternal archetypes to changing events.” If we accept Keen’s thesis, then images and stereotypes of the Islamic world are not only historically broad, but psychologically deep as well.

Through survey and analysis of written and visual materials related to many different conflicts and many different peoples, Keen constructed a universal typology of enemy-making consisting of several tropes and archetypes, which range from the enemy as brute force to the enemy as vermin. The application of Keen’s categories to materials pertaining to the Middle East and wider Islamic world reveals that American notions of a Middle Eastern or Muslim Other follow a preexistent and predictable pattern of vilification. It is clear that American popular imagination has, to a certain degree, been conditioned to view Muslims as “the enemy” and Islam as the political and moral equivalent of communism and European fascism. It is further apparent that this material is encountered in every segment of American culture: the press, journals of opinion, literature, electronic entertainment and news media, religious institutions, government, and education.

Through recent developments in telecommunications – the internet, 24-hour news channels – and through the fear and insecurity instilled by the terrorist attacks of September 11, new venues and new motivations have emerged for propagating negative stereotypes of Islam and the Middle East. However, electronic material now accessible on the World Wide Web or beamed in by satellite has remained consistent with the words and images disseminated prior to the appearance of these new technologies. On the Internet and in the 24-hour news cycle, Keen’s typology remains valid.

Supporting Links:

Keen, Sam. “Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination.” Link to resourcenew window (accessed June 24, 2010).

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