The Middle Eastern Image: Perceived Versus Reality

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In order to address the misconceptions that currently plague the Middle East, it is crucial to understand how significant these misconceptions can be. Because of its geographical location, the Middle East is a region that is extremely far away from the average citizen of the United States and other countries in the world. It is very likely that a vast majority of citizens of the United States have not visited any country within the Middle East, and therefore have no experience of the region that they can refer to in their own minds. This means that their knowledge of the Middle East depends entirely on the images and ideas that are given to them, and accurate portrayals are crucial to spreading awareness of what it is really like. Without accurate representation, industries within the region, such as tourism, small businesses, local markets, and more, are likely to suffer due to low interest in visiting or involvement from foreigners. 

Undoubtedly, the bulk of the information about the Middle East that most people in other countries rely on comes directly from established news media outlets in their respective countries. In the United States, for example, a large portion of the country’s population receives their information from daily news cycles across different media platforms, such as television, print newspapers, or online publications. While this widespread availability to information is very useful and important to informing the public, it is inherently problematic because the information that these outlets publish carry with them some form of bias. Media sources, such as the New York Times, Fox News, and MSNBC, each have their own agenda that they wish to accomplish, and they present information in a way that does so. This means that viewers or readers are, unavoidably, receiving information through a filter that distorts it in some significant way, usually to garner more interests for the media outlet.

The issue of media bias is largely significant because of the presentations and filters on information that naturally occur, however there are also broader issues with state media that can create misconceptions. Because media outlets are beholden to the interests of the country they are based in, and to the interests of their readers, the type of information that they seek out and publish is often extremely limited in scope. Television news programs, for example, often have limited windows to present their stories and information that have to fit within thirty to sixty-minute segments; newspaper articles are usually given word count limits that must be met for any particular story. These types of limitations force the media to prioritize certain information when researching a topic to report, and it most often has to be both informative and interesting in order to increase their viewership and engagement. While this formula works well for media outlets and people who want to remain somewhat informed on current issues, it does not serve to accurately portray something as vast as an entire region and can actually work to foster a negative idea of it instead.

Unfortunately, this negative portrayal by the media has been the primary source of misconceptions about the Middle East over several years, particularly within the United States. Certain countries within the Middle East have had longstanding tumultuous relationships with the United States, and this has generated a series of campaigns by the media who have sought to cover the issues; one of the most significant events included the terrorist attacks perpetrated by members of Al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001. These negative occurrences and relationships have dominated the media sphere and adversely affected the public perception of the Middle East as a whole, allowing for an unjustified idea of a single Middle Eastern culture to dominate. This is, in fact, entirely incorrect, and recognizing that there is immense diversity in the Middle East is important to ending negative stereotypes and misconceptions. 

In order to efficiently combat the idea that the Middle East is collectively unified in a negative relationship with the United States or other countries in the world, it is important to point out that the Middle East is extremely diverse. As a region, the Middle East is located primarily in Western Asia and includes in it some countries that expand into Northern Africa, with a total of sixteen unique and independent countries included within it. The most widely accepted idea in foreign countries is that the Middle East is comprised almost exclusively of Arabs, however this is nearly impossible when considering the vast differences in each country. While Arabs do comprise a large part of many country’s populations, a publication analyzing the different countries in the Middle East reveals that other ethnicities in these countries include Persian, Kurdish, Pakistani, Azeri, African, Asian, European, Iranian, Armenian, and even, in some places, American (PBS 1). This information entirely debunks the idea that the Middle East has a single ethnic or racial group that comprises it, and points of the ineffectiveness with which the region has been covered.

As the foreign portrayal of the Middle East has evolved, the topic of religion has come to the forefront of popular discussion. Many people have come to believe that the Middle East can be perfectly characterized by Muslim values, which have been equally distorted to represent ideas of social repression and inequality. Similar to the topic of ethnic diversity, the many countries within the Middle East each have their own religious divisions that divide them and make them entirely unique; while Muslims are a large majority across the region, they are not the sole religion that is practiced. Other religions include Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism, with varying degrees of representation depending on the country being analyzed (PBS 1). In addition, while it is abundantly clear that other religions are practiced in the Middle East, characterizing the region as Muslim is inaccurate because it fails to take into account the distinctions within Islam itself. Muslims can be divided into Sunni and Shi’a divisions, with each having its distinguishing elements that make devotees unique.

Understanding the differences in religion within the region has become increasingly important in recent years because of the misconceptions that are being drawn about the people there. The presence of radical terrorist groups and historically complicated relationships with foreign governments has put the people of the Middle East in a compromising situation within the global perspective. Not only are the unique differences within the country being diminished and downplayed by media outlets, but the region is now becoming synonymous with the inhumane acts of a minority of extremists. The problem of miscategorizations of the Middle East is quickly transitioning from an issue of devaluing diversity in cultures to demonizing sixteen unique countries. It is entirely unjustified and unfair, and it exemplifies why it is so necessary to explain to people that there are differences in the countries across the Middle East. Representation can mean the difference between humane and inhumane treatment, depending on the situation.

Currently, the issue of ongoing conflicts in the Middle East have dominated the conversation about the region and how it has developed in the current world. Though it has been previously established that conflict and controversial politics are not the sole factors that should dominate discussions about the region, it would be inaccurate to say that they are not significant. Conflict in the Middle East has, unfortunately, contributed to the way that the region is perceived today, and thus merits some attention. Instead of merely discussing the effects of this conflict, however, I believe that it is much more pertinent to dissect how the region entered into such a difficult era of conflict, and how the interference of countries across the world contributed to it. By pointing out the influence that these outside countries had on the people of the Middle East, it becomes much easier to understand why actively acknowledging Middle Eastern diversity is so necessary.

It is important to note that the Middle East has had a long relationship with many of the most developed countries in the world for decades before the modern era. Most notably, Great Britain was one of the most influential countries in the Middle East because it held certain Middle Eastern countries as colonies slightly before the beginning of the 20th century. During this time, Britain was able to develop a huge amount of influence within the region and take advantage of strategic positioning and resources, while simultaneously leaving behind changes in the people. The British were able to take advantage of their colonies for decades, having been particularly interested in the massive oil reserves that were being found in the early 1900’s, however this would not last. After World War II had ended, the British, and the French to some extent, pulled out of the region because holding onto their colonies there was deemed to be insufficiently important. This led to a widely-abandoned collection of countries looking for guidance and, “…Arab nationalism was the prerogative of ambitious ‘tyrants’ and foreign-educated intellectuals who believed that fractures in the unity would be another excuse for Western intervention in the region” (Kumar 9). It laid the foundation for people in the Middle East to be taken advantage of in the future.

After the decolonization period in the Middle East, the region faced a new threat that came in the form of Soviet Russia. The quickly developing country, which was locked in the infamous Cold War with the United States, had learned of a Soviet regime that they hoped to support in the country of Afghanistan. The USSR attempted to take control of Afghanistan in order to do so and quickly invaded it, forcing Afghan rebels to organize and defend themselves against the Soviet threat; they became rebels known as the Mujahedeen. Over the course of nine years, beginning in 1979 and ending in 1988, the Soviets and Afghan rebels, who were militarily supported by other foreign governments, were interlocked in a battle over control of Afghanistan. It left thousands of people dead, and after the Soviets withdrew and stopped their support, the country fell into deep, internal conflict over control (Katz 15). This conflict created a destabilization in the country, and by extension the entire region, which would only continue to grow and further divide the people there.

Fueled by this constant instability and fighting, during which time groups like Al-Qaeda were formed, Afghanistan sought new leadership promised to them by the group known as the Taliban. This group was entirely dedicated to the establishment of law and order, with the foundation for their laws being an extremist version of religious doctrine, namely extremist, fundamentalist Islam (Khalil 9). This led to the creation of policies that worked to discriminate and infringe upon the freedom of Afghan people, including the banning of women from schools and the imposing of extreme versions of religious doctrines. In a broad sense, the rise of fundamentalist Islam in the Middle East began in the concentrated conflicts of Afghanistan, and it was directly tied to the destabilization created as a result of foreign interference in the country. Because of the efforts of the Russians to invade Afghanistan, and countries like the United States who interfered but failed to help stabilize the country afterwards, a power vacuum was created in the region that needed to be filled. This allowed these fundamentalist groups to force their way into power and spread their doctrine, further pushing the region into a state of disarray.

Naturally, having entered into this state of conflict has made it extremely difficult for the region to be able to overcome its adverse effects. In the decades since extreme, fundamentalist Islam began to take prevalence in the region, there has been a constant battle to try and subdue their influence both within the region itself and from outside forces. While there have been concentrated efforts and successes in trying to eliminate these extremist groups, such as the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, the deeply rooted problem that exists has not been addressed. People in the Middle East still want political representation and control of their governments, and the Arab Spring demonstrations of 2010, in which protests across several Middle Eastern countries took place, personified that. Despite pushing their governments to head in a more democratic direction, the Arab Spring was largely unsuccessful in creating the widespread change it hoped to achieve, and in the years after there are still many difficulties.

One noteworthy post-Arab Spring conflict can be seen in Syria, where a Civil War is current underway and has been destroying a large portion of the population there. When the Arab Spring first began to take place, demonstrations in Syria were organized with the hopes of removing its decades-long President from office and moving the country in a more democratic direction. The Syrian government responded violently, and as a result directly engaged the protestors with brutal force, killing many. This has since spiraled into a conflict between forces of Syria’s President, Bashar Al-Assad, and the people who oppose him and want him to be removed from office. It has also expanded into a much more widespread conflict, with other rebel groups taking arms as well and contributing to the ongoing violence in the country. The result has been a horrifying civil war that has left thousands of people dead and displaced, and the city in total ruin.  

In Iraq, the country notoriously at the center-stage of the United States-led invasion in 2003, the Arab Spring has been particularly significant because it represented a huge opportunity for the country. After the Bush administration declared war on Iraq and invaded the country, there was a very significant impact on the people there, mostly due to the continued ruin that the invasion inevitably dealt; war brought with it death, destruction, and a crippled leadership. After the war ended, the U.S installed a regime in the country to lead it, however the protests and demonstrations of the Arab Spring exposed the weaknesses and instability of this regime. The government responded violently to the protestors and were quickly divided on a fundamental level, going beyond politics and entering the realm of religious ideologies; this helped to push the confrontations into an all-out civil war and plunge Iraq into another age of destruction. The conflict ended in 2014 with the toppling of the installed regime, and was replaced with a violent militant group, which will likely continue to breed extremist policies and create a foundation for future conflict. With the domestic and foreign failures in the country, largely the result of outside influences, the country’s leadership must be entirely redefined in order to prevent more conflict.

In Yemen, the Arab Spring had a particularly devastating effect that most people were not expecting and certainly wish they could have prevented. The protests that occurred in Yemen were among the most successful in terms of achieving their immediate goals; they set out with the objective of removing their President at the time, Ali Abdullah Saleh. After several months and many lives, Saleh conceded his position as President through a negotiated agreement, however he refused to give up his power completely. After being allowed to stay in the country, Saleh was able to put together a group of armed militants, who were religious extremists, and take over the country by force; it has led to an outright war within Yemen. This war brought in Saudi Arabian military intervention against Saleh, and has created extreme unrest and chaos in the country, much like in Iraq and Syria. As the war rages on, Yemen serves as another example of how political instability is deeply ingrained in parts of the Middle East and must be addressed in a new manner that creates long term solutions.

Unfortunately, the nature of conflict in the Middle East tends to be the dominating factor in conversations surrounding it. For many people who are unfamiliar or uninformed about the origins of this conflict, the Middle East can become almost synonymous with a warped perception of historical violence and instability. This perception, coupled with a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between extreme and moderate expressions of religious belief, creates the misconception of a wholly flawed region; this understanding must be outright abolished. Though it is true that conflict is a significant part of the current reality of the Middle East, the actions of foreign actors, including the United States, were hugely significant in creating this reality. By understanding this fact, it becomes much easier to see that there are active changes and actions people can take in order to help change ill-perceived versions of the Middle East into more favorable ones.

In order to implement these changes, the influence of foreign actors in the Middle East should be widely recognized and put at the forefront of conversations that look to analyze the current state of affairs there. By doing this, people are enabling the spread of necessary information, and allowing others to be well informed about realities rather than basing their opinions on distorted media reports or blanket judgements. There should also be more inclusion of Middle Eastern history in educational curriculums, with the aim of informing students about the impact of Middle Eastern societies, contributions, and thereby combatting unwarranted, negative perceptions. Travel should become facilitated to areas of the Middle East that are currently stable and safe for visitors, in order to show foreigners that the Middle East is both diverse and not beholden to any single ethnic, religious, or cultural ideology. The most important goal for anyone who is looking to help the Middle East is to work to celebrate its diversity and unique offerings that it brings to the world; only by helping to create a fully inclusive picture can it be cast in a new light.

Collectively, the Middle East is the epicenter for some of the greatest and most impressive sources of diversity and change in the world. It is composed of several individually unique countries that each offer their own type of social, political and cultural contributions to the world and those who choose to study it. Despite this reality, the Middle East has been largely portrayed as a hub for violence and instability, and invited the unwarranted hatred of people who are entirely misinformed about the realities of the region. Instead of dwelling on these inaccuracies, there should instead be an active effort on behalf of all people to bring to light the true landscape of the Middle East. This will require people to look beyond the glaring issues that plague parts of the region, and instead focus on the good. In this way, the world may be able to help guide the Middle East in its ongoing efforts to constantly better itself.

 Works Cited

Katz, Mark. Lessons of the Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan. Middle East Policy Council, 2017, www.mepc.org/articles-commentary/commentary/lessons-soviet-withdrawal-afghanistan?print. Accessed 15 Mar. 2017. 

Khalil, Ramy. “The Rise of the Taliban and Islamic Fundamentalism.” Socialist Alternative, Socialist Alternative, Nov. 2001, www.socialistalternative.org/right-wing-political-islam-taliban/rise-taliban-islamic-fundamentalism/. Accessed 15 Mar. 2017. 

Kumar, Plyush. Blowback: British Imperialism in the Middle East. International Policy Digest, 12 Aug. 2014, intpolicydigest.org/2014/08/12/blowback-british-imperialism-in-the-middle-east/. Accessed 15 Mar. 2017.

PBS. “Maps: Modern Socio-Political .” Global Connections the Middle East, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wgbh/globalconnections/mideast/maps/demotext.html. Accessed 15 Mar. 2017.