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'Islamophobia' and the Media
Exaggerated stereotypes of the 'other' on TV and in print only propagate fear and hatred
Fiza Fatima Asar (FizaPK)     Print Article 
Published 2007-02-12 11:21 (KST)   
Just last week I was watching a movie on cable called "House of Sand and Fog." It was centered on an abandoned wife who was forcibly evicted from her house by an Iranian family that had recently fled the Iranian revolution. The movie alluded to something being amiss with the revolution and to its being based on "strange" foundations.

The Iranian family was shown as having incomprehensible attitudes -- the "other" in the movie. The Iranian wife was subdued by her very stern husband. She spoke broken English and had an exaggerated accent that became a source of irritation for the white characters in the movie. Images like this in the media (outside the Islamic world and especially in the West) are playing a vital role in the propagation of the "Islamophobia" that seems to have overtaken the modern world.

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Zachary Karabell, as quoted by Edward Said in his book Covering Islam, talks about the menace of this kind of propaganda against Muslims, which has led to negative perceptions of Muslims and Islam. Karabell says, "Ask American college students, in the elite universities or elsewhere, what they think of when the word 'Muslim' is mentioned. The response is inevitably the same: gun-toting, bearded, fanatic terrorists hell-bent on destroying the great enemy, the United States."

This reminded me of a post-9/11 article written by Farah Kidwai (a contemporary Pakistani Muslim writer based in New York), which talks about images of Muslims. In one of her articles, Kidwai writes, "On MSNBC, a 'Mideast expert' said that the attack was the work of 'heathens, carpet baggers, a real bunch of wackos.' Hearing this, I remembered watching as a child a cartoon featuring Arabs with big noses and menacing swords." Imagine how these perceptions about Muslims have only exacerbated over the years given the state of "Islamophobia" we are living in today.

Karabell and Kidwai should not be the only ones reminding us of the media's responsibility in creating a negative picture of Islam and Muslims. We should have a critical enough eye to pick out the promotion of racism in media. It should not be surprising that in the much-loved Disney cartoon Aladdin, the "good" Arab guys speaks fluent English in American accents whereas the "bad" Arab guys have exaggerated Arab accents.

Under these circumstances and keeping in view the responsibility of the media in manipulating human thought, it is not surprising that 39 percent of American citizens believe that Muslims should carry special ID cards. This figure was the result of research conducted by the Gallup Organization. Further, research conducted by The Washington Post revealed that 50 percent of Americans perceived Muslims and Islam negatively.

It seems we are living in an age of hatred and fear. And what is life when one has to live in constant fear? Unfortunately, fear only breeds hatred and paranoia. When an American Muslim (Ahmed Farouk) is kicked off a plane for praying in his seat and Middle Eastern-looking passengers are prevented by other passengers from boarding a flight en route to England from Spain, we can easily conclude that we are faced with a serious psychological problem. This psychology is being constructed by the aide of the media and with the backing of politicians.

According to Said in Covering Islam, we must realize that "all knowledge that is about human society, and not about the natural world, is historical knowledge, and therefore rests upon judgment and interpretation." An important point Said raises is that "there is never interpretation, understanding and then knowledge where there is no interest." Our responsibility as scholars, students, thinkers and human beings is to seek knowledge in order to rise above the institutionalized racism, stereotypes and myths we hear around us. Before assuming that we are thinking "critically," there is a need to understand that which Said clearly points out: "the student must feel that he or she is answerable to and in uncoercive contact with the culture and the people being studied."

Back in college, in the United States, a bay-area activist and a well-regarded scholar, Sunaina Maira, explained Islamophobia and our responsibility to fight this new form. She paralleled Islamophobia to McCarthyism, which had engulfed the United States during the 1950s. It was one of the most almost-funny almost-ironic phases in U.S. history when every man on the street was feared to be a communist. It was an era in American history when people from every walk of life, whether entertainers, politicians, businessmen, journalists or activists, could be publicly embarrassed and might contemplate migrating out of the United States.

Today, the West is living under similar fear of Muslims -- an age of "Green McCarthyism" -- a fear uselessly created by politicians and aided by the media. Today, we can look back at the McCarthyism age and laugh and yet it appears that we have not learned from its lessons of exaggerated fear building and paranoia against a community or an ideology. The result is an unfortunate one -- where instead of living to our fullest before we die we are in fact just as afraid to live as we are to die. Worse still, we are living in an age of hatred, of ignorance regarding those around us, and of a lack of trust -- a life that can in no way be cherished when looked back upon.

"Fear makes strangers of people who should be friends."
-- Shirley MacLaine
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Fiza Fatima Asar

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