How prejudice has its roots in the West’s imperial past


How prejudice has its roots in the West’s imperial past

It is an unfortunate and sometimes dangerous reality of international relations that the perceptions of entire countries and their entire populations are often reduced to a set of entrenched stereotypes.

Thus, the English are reserved and emotionless, the Americans are impetuous and parochial, the Germans humorless and efficient, and the Arabs…

Of course, there is no such country as Arabia, but rather 22 Arab states, populated by around 400 million people with diverse histories and cultures. It is no more appropriate to group them together for the purpose of assigning a simplistic stereotype than it would be to assign a single trait to all Europeans. Yet, in the eyes of much of the Western world, “Arabs” are a unified ethnic group subject to broadly simplistic stereotypes, unconstrained by borders.

Over the past two decades, global events such as 9/11 have added an additional layer to more traditional perceptions of Arabs (in Western eyes, Arabs and Islam are generally confused, even though only 20% of Muslims in world are Arab).

But the image of the Arab as a fanatical terrorist, depressingly perpetuated in so many Hollywood films, has its roots in the crude portrayal of Arabs by mythmakers from Britain’s imperial past.

In 1994, Dr. Jamil Al-Asmar, a professor in the Department of English at the Islamic University of the Gaza Strip, pointed to the “remarkable number” of Victorian scholars and travelers “eager to explore the exotic and mysterious lands Arabs”. and did much to shape the way Arabs were seen in Victorian England…as tribes of “lawless freebooters,” stuck at a stage of civilization they themselves had passed.

Appreciating Rudyard Kipling’s portrayal of Muslims, a study published in Al-Jamiah: Journal of Islamic Studies indicates that “many English writers wrote novels, short stories, and poems about Orientals as backward, uneducated, and cruel…to justify the presence of the West in the East to accomplish the so-called white men’s mission to civilize the peoples of the East.

One such imperial myth-maker was Richard F. Burton, who, like many Victorian travelers and explorers who traveled the world during the height of British imperialism in search of sensationalist material for their books, helped to form perceptions of Arabs that endure to this day. .

For Burton, Charles Montagu Doughty, William Gifford Palgrave and others, there was no benefit in portraying the Arabs as anything other than savage, dangerous and generally untrustworthy “noble savages” – their editors and readers never did not yearn for everyday. , but for the exotic “other”.

One of the dubious classics of this genre was Burton’s “Pilgrimage to El-Medina and Mecca”, an account of his Hajj undertaking in 1853 not as a true Muslim, but as a Christian in disguise.

It is an unfortunate and sometimes dangerous reality of international relations that the perceptions of entire countries and their entire populations are often reduced to a set of entrenched stereotypes.

Jonathan Gornal

It is a measure of Burton’s contempt for the Islamic faith in which he professed an academic interest that he chose to abuse one of its core tenets. He did this, of course, purely for the thrill he could offer his readers, and in service of his own reputation as a great explorer who risked his life venturing into the heart of Islam.

Burton writes that on reaching the Kaaba, “of all the devotees who have clung weeping to the curtain, or who have pressed their beating hearts against the stone, none have yet felt a deeper emotion than the Hajji of far north”.

But, as the author concedes, this emotion was for him only “the ecstasy of a satisfied pride”.

In one of those curious twists of fate brought on by the ebb and flow of global fortunes, a rare first edition of Burton’s three-volume tale will go on sale for £12,000 this month at the World’s Fair. Abu Dhabi book, which begins May 23.

When it was printed almost 170 years ago, the book was peddled as an invaluable insight into the seemingly mysterious ways of “the East”. Today, the three volumes instead offer invaluable insight into the roots of the misconceptions and prejudices about Arabs that stubbornly persist in the West.

It is easy to see the straight line that connects the portraits of “the Arab”, painted so long ago by the likes of Burton and his fellow imperialist impressionists, and the constant questioning and even frequent vilification of the motives of the Arab governments and their leaders in the Western media today.

The narrow and simplistic portrayal of Arabs found in tales of Victorian adventurers is so ingrained in the Western psyche that when oil was discovered in the Gulf States, even as the sun was setting on imperialism British, many saw the reversal of fortunes. difficult to digest (“How did our oil end up under their sand?”).

Today, as the world grapples with the complexities of climate change and struggles to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, Western media is quick to blame Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates alone. crisis.

This, of course, conveniently overlooks the fact that, as the birthplace of the industrial revolution, it was Britain that first opened the world to the benefits of fossil fuels – and that if Saudi Arabia and the other OPEC members were simply to shut down deprived of gas and oil, the world would be instantly plunged into social and economic chaos and, most importantly, deprived of the financial means to responsibly develop sustainable energy solutions.

At the heart of this narrative is a deep Western resentment at the global rise of Arab states whose peoples were once seen as inferior to Western nations that claimed to control their destiny for generations.

And for that, we have Burton to thank.

  • Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly of The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the authors in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Arab News


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