A is for Arab

How is it that the Arab people have come to be so pointedly stereotyped in the United States? Jack Shaheen’s exhibit entitled A is for Arab: Stereotypes in U.S. Popular Culture explores this question, displaying examples from books, cartoons, movies, and other elements of popular culture that highlight the distorted and yet widely accepted categories that we have come to sort Arabs into. Far from viewing Arabs in the light of their rich cultural history and traditions, our society sorts them into harshly defined categories connoting negativity and fear. Most often these categories take the form of the deranged villain, the enslaved harem dancer, and the greedy, powerful Sheikh.

What is perhaps most disturbing is how young we are when we first begin to consume media that promotes Arab stereotypes and anti-Arab prejudice. When we first watch a movie such as Disney’s Aladdin, we are not simply gazing upon a beloved childhood film, but absorbing twisted representations of the Arab race. All three of the major categorical stereotypes are present; Jasmine and her exotic beauty are confined to her wealthy father’s luxurious palace, with the insidious Jafar lurking just around the corner to put his evil plot into motion. Just as the movie itself has come to be acknowledged as a family classic, so too have the stereotypes portrayed in it become accepted household notions of who Arabs are.

Even though anti-Arab sentiment rose sharply in the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which perpetuated the image of the Arab terrorist, the negative representation of Arabs has roots that extend much farther back in history. Even as many Arab countries in the Middle East were fighting for freedom and the implementation of democracy during the mid and late 20th century, the portrayal of Arabs in American media remained highly stigmatized. Rather than identifying with the peoples’ struggle for liberty, United States media instead depicted the Middle East as a war-torn and backwards region, whose citizens were either crazed fanatics that committed heinous acts of violence, or were weak and powerless civilians.

In recent years, universities and other academic institutions have expanded studies and programs related to the Middle East and Arab culture, and have begun to cultivate outreach programs aimed at shattering prejudice and redefining how Americans think about the Arab people. As Shaheen claims, it is up to the next generation to write the fresh stories that will ultimately help to re-shape our thinking and understanding not only of Arabs, but of the incredible diversity of colors and cultures throughout the world. Perhaps with these new narratives, we will finally begin to see our neighbors not as threats, but as a diverse part of our community.

Turkish Politics

As a part of Oklahoma’s 2017 Teach-In, speaker Soner Cagapty, of the Turkish Research program at the Washington Institute, presented a lecture on the current crisis facing Turkey’s political system. It was striking to learn how deep the roots of Turkey’s democracy go. Turkey has has had free and fair elections for seven decades; for reference, that’s longer than Spain has had free elections. The accusations that the last elections in the country were rigged therefore do not come lightly. There is a growing trend of authoritarianism throughout the country, and more and more opponents of the government are being jailed and silenced. Cagapty emphasized that this trend was not due to a fundamental breakdown in Turkey’s vibrant democratic institutions or civil society, but rather the leadership of its current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Despite major accomplishments in stimulating economic growth and transforming Turkish infrastructure and living standards in the early years of his presidency, Erdogan has become corrupt in his attempts to mold Turkey into his own image.

Most fascinating was Cagapty’s discussion of Turkish youth and their role in the future of the country. Erdogan lost the recent referendum in the 18-32-year-old age group by a huge margin, indicating widespread disapproval of Erdogan and his policies among youth. Were a charismatic leader to emerge to represent this generation and fight for the return of fundamental democracy, Cagapty believes the direction of the future could be rerouted to heal the fractures within Turkey’s government and give the power back to the people. The fact that youth have the potential to create such important change goes to show that we should never doubt our individual role in politics, even if we are young.

Cagapty’s passion for Turkey was very apparent; he spoke of how he has been writing books on the country for more than 20 years, and that he truly loves this work. His charisma shone through when he quickly added that he “also loves yoga.” The combination of the wealth of knowledge Cagapty had to offer and his engaging speaking style made this lecture both educational and extremely enjoyable to listen to.