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When Do Media Representations of Arabs Change?

The views and opinions expressed in this blog piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Musawah.

“What on earth did I say that had anything to do with his race?” This is what Julia Hartley-Brewer, the British journalist and TalkTV host, posted on her official account on X in response to torrents of angry comments from enraged viewers. This backlash was in response to racist and unprofessional comments she made on what became a famous interview with the Palestinian politician and activist Dr. Mustafa Barghouti in early January 2024. 

The interview went viral on social media platforms. It featured Dr. Barghouti answering Julia’s questions; including the redundant question that has been asked endlessly by Western media hosts: do you condemn Hamas? Dr. Barghouti’s response was a listing of a few historical incidents of the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. The host repeatedly interrupted him with a furious and frustrated tone. Toward the end of the interview, the presenter ‘apologised’ to her guest saying he is not used to women talking, alluding to his Arab and Muslim identities. The host’s discriminatory behaviour is historically rooted in a larger subconscious bias against Arab men in general, and Arab Muslim men in particular.

Western media outlets have been constructing and instilling stereotypes of Arab and Muslim men as oppressors of women since the European colonial project headed East to plunder foreign land in the 15th century. Arguing against ‘the non-Western man that beats his women and limits their roles to sexual satisfaction’ has been used as a moral justification for white colonisers (Europeans first, and then Americans) to “save” these oppressed women from their oppressive men. Unlike Arab and Muslim men, white men were portrayed as noble saviours of women. 

The host’s statements are only a variant and recent example of what Egyptian-American feminist Leila Ahmed calls “colonial feminism” which she defines as a manipulation of women’s rights to achieve imperialist gains. In the case of this TV interview, it is discrimination hiding behind claims of morality and human rights. When I watched the interview, I was reminded of an earlier and classic example of “colonial feminism.” On 17 November, 2001, Laura Bush, the then first lady of the United States of America, delivered a radio speech in which she addressed the “civilised” international communities, mobilising them to join the U.S-led coalition of the “war on terror.” She called upon them to “save the world from the brutality against women and children that is brought by al-Qaeda’s terrorism.” 

This statement became the basis on which the invasion of Afghanistan was popularised. Much like the statement made by the TV host,  Mrs. Bush’s speech is structured on the binary of civilised vs barbaric. When the West is seen as the saviour and the East as the oppressor, it paves the way to Islamophobic and Orientalist indoctrination. It also strengthens the myth of Arab and Muslim men as violent savages.  In a span of minutes, Mrs. Bush legitimised waging a disproportionate war against Afghanistan using an emotionally intelligible discourse to many ordinary Western people. This biassed intelligibility is similar to the TV host’s statement. Both are manifestations of historical Western colonialist representations of Arabs and Muslims. These representations are acts of racial profiling that explain why the figure of Dr. Barghouti was only viewed as a stereotypical Arab and Muslim man, and that even before he said anything, he was already defined as a man who is “not used to women talking,” erasing his activism and individual identity. This reflects the larger heavy burden Palestinians now face as they are Othered by colonialist and media discourses.

Scholar Ania Loomba argues that the depictions of masculinity and femininity of the colonised by the coloniser had to do with expanding the coloniser’s population. This is why the image of indigenous males must be deformed as “lusty villains,” or miniatures of horror that Western women must always avoid, and never have a relationship or off-spring with. The postcolonial feminist Gayatri Spivak summarises this historical discourse in her famous phrase “white men are saving brown women from brown men.” In Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, the cultural critic Jack G. Shaheen argues that representations of Arabs and Muslims fit into being “fabulously wealthy and vile oil sheikhs with an eye for Western blondes and arms deals and intent on world domination, or with crazed terrorists, aeroplane hijackers, or camel-riding Bedouins.” These stereotypes are all portrayed and popularised to be seen as sources of evil that repel and threaten Western women in particular. On the other hand, Arab and Muslim women are portrayed as voiceless victims. 

It is our responsibility to educate ourselves in how to discern and debunk  such stereotypical depictions and racist stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims men on our social media spaces and in our institutions in Western communities. As an educator, I highly suggest reading the Palestinian-American anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod’s Do Muslim Women Need Saving? The history of “colonial feminism” is also beautifully summarised on the YouTube channel of Professor Deepa Kumar. It is time we stand against these negative representations of Arabs and Muslims and to counter them effectively through becoming even more visible, and through centering the voices of Arabs and Muslims and their contributions in all fields of knowledge and walks of life. It is also time we build and promote and produce true images of ourselves instead of waiting for existing vehicles to produce different images of us, and I believe this can be done by building on the models that have been already drawn for us by Arab and Muslim scholars. 

Alia Wazzan is a PhD candidate in the Interdisciplinary Humanities Program at Brock University, Ontario, Canada. Her research focuses on the representation of Arab-Muslim women in contemporary digital platforms from a postcolonial feminist perspective.