Ridding Arab Societies of Dangerous Stereotypes

Among supporters of the Assad regime a new stereotype is forming about the people of Homs, namely that they are terrorist sympathizers. The same was said of the people of Hama who–like the Homsis today–were subject to crimes against humanity at the hands of the military in 1982. Stereotyping the decimated populations of smaller Syrian cities is an ugly pattern endemic–perhaps–to old fashioned countries like Syria. In such countries wherein a number of Ottoman era families (the gentry) still monopolize property and prestige, the resistance of the poorer classes to the Status Quo is out of the question. The Assad regime, therefore, co-opts the gentry, minorities and business interests; and a gang mentality forms which further alienates the most oppressed and exploited classes of people through stereotyping (and other means!). Some stereotypes insist that Homsis are dumb, Hamwis are religous fundamentalists and the people of Dar’aa are just plain dirty–or something of that sort.

Of course stereotyping along the lines of social class–or race–is nothing new to the Arab world (consider the Sa’idis of Egypt or even the South Asian workers of the Arabian Peninsula). Stereotyping can be nothing more than a simple manifestation of racism and prejudice. However, it takes a developed political or social apparatus to transform stereotyping into a deluded justification for the extermination of a group of people. And this is a much greater problem!

Once the Arab elite were sold on the ideology of Natioanlism & Nasserism to save them from the servitude of colonialism, Arab societies became altogether militarized and intolerant of any dissent. Human rights, therefore, went out the window. So stereotyping the “other” in the Arab world cuts exceptionally deep and can demonstrate apathy towards crimes against humanity.

The Kurds of Iraq–who were similarly massacred by Saddam’s military in 1988–are often the object of ridicule by their more wealthy, cosmopolitan counterparts. The Algerian Civil War (1991-2002) did not elicit sufficient self reflection among the Arab masses concerning the criminality and corruption of their governance and society. It did, however, deepened rifts and produced all sorts of stereotypes about how savage Algerians were. As for the people of Sudan–often the subject of jokes among certain Arabs–who were massacred for about a decade in Darfur and the south, they–and their humanity–were all but ignored!

To the long list of such stereotyping may be added stereotypes against Palestinians (in several cases), the Shia of Bahrain and others. The meaning behind this kind of stereotyping–whether intended or not–is that if a people–whether Palestinian, Homsi, religious minorities, unemployed youth or whatever–are poor, dirty, squalid, or believe differently, then they “deserve” to suffer. And the government–which is rotten to the core–has the right to punish them mercilessly.

Stereotyping on the part of authoritarian regimes and society’s elites contributes to the dehumanization of the masses. This is precisely why–from the very start–the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions were framed as a reclamation of humanity, dignity and justice. In order to rid itself from such destructive stereotyping Arab societies will need to re-configure the overbearing role of the family, tribe or group and make a place for individual human and civil rights. Personal relationships in many Arab societies are dreadfully oppressive because they are are based on–according to them–“domination of the powerful over the weak” (hukm al-qawi ‘ala al-da’if), knowing your place as “master” or “slave” (al-sayyid wa al-kalb), your family name (Min bet meen inta?!) and the unquestioning subservience to parents, elders and officials. Every young man or woman’s honor and moral conduct belong–not to themselves–but the filial or social group which dominates over them. Once individuals reclaim their human rights in the Arab World, then the gang mentality that breeds dehumanizing stereotypes will crumble on its own. This, of course, will not happen overnight in a region that has long overdosed on ideology.

My point is this. Many Arabs continue to debate the legitimacy of this or that revolution. Fine. Debate is healthy. But stereotyping Homsis as terrorist sympathizers or attacking the sexual morality of the youth in Tahrir is not debate, but rather precisely the gang mentality that gave rise to these revolutions in the first place.


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