Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > The Myth of Arab (Or Is It Muslim?) Rage

Sep 18, 2012

The Myth of Arab (Or Is It Muslim?) Rage


Newsweek cashes in on Muslim rage.

I’m on a brief vacation, from writing this blog and from almost everything else -- traveling to both coasts, seeing friends, museums, and oceans -- which means I don’t get to know very much about the news: just brief snatches of headlines caught from newspaper racks, TVs in public places running CNN, and an occasional glance at the New York Times website.

That’s actually a very revealing way for a writer on mythic America to get the news, because that’s the way most Americans get their news. Headline writers don’t have time or space for details or, often, facts. They just need to grab attention with some emotionally punchy words, the kind of words that good myths are made of.

So I know that mobs are venting anti-American rage throughout the Arab world. Or is it the Muslim world? I’m not quite sure. And how many Arabs, or Muslims? What percentage of the population in predominantly Arab or Muslim nations? I have no idea. Like most Americans, I know only that “those Arabs” -- or maybe it’s “those Muslims” -- are raging against us. Oh, and I know that they’re creating a big new headache for the Obama and Romney campaigns.

For the headline writers, that’s a good enough story. And it’s a pretty satisfying story for a lot of Americans. Our prevailing national myth, the myth of homeland insecurity, requires that some foreigners be out to get us. At least since 9/11/01 Arabs (or is it Muslims?) have been the number one candidate for that role. The latest anti-American outbursts came on the anniversary of that tragic day, which is quite convenient, speaking in mythic terms. It allows the connections to be made so easily; the world seems to fit together, just as most myths aim to suggest.

And, as on 9/11/01, the story is about a new threat that we must all prepare to deal with for an indefinable, but surely lengthy, amount of time (or so we’re told). Even the Times, widely acclaimed as our most serious, in-depth, newspaper of record, is satisfied with the headline: “U.S. Is Preparing for a Long Siege of Arab Unrest.” The many readers who never get past that headline or the first few paragraphs of the story still won’t know how many Arab countries, or what percentage of population in those countries, we’re actually talking about here.

Imagine that a tiny group of Arabs made an movie critical of Jesus, which provoked anti-Muslim demonstrations among some right-wing Christians in the U.S. It’s easy enough to imagine a few thousand or even a few tens of thousands participating in those demonstrations. Some might even get out of hand for a while.

But if newspapers in Arab lands headlined that anti-Muslim “rage” now characterized the whole United States, most of us would laugh bemusedly at how badly those headline writers misunderstand us.

Yet so many Americans, and so many of our journalists, seem to be content with crude sweeping generalizations about “the Arabs” or even “the Muslims.” And many are not merely content but eager to purvey and consume these generalizations. They serve to confirm stereotypes that have been popular in American culture throughout the nation’s history, ever since the days of the Barbary pirates.

In fact these stereotypes are much older than the United States. The first Europeans who came to North America carried with them centuries-old pejorative images of Arabs and Muslims. Of course the Muslims were seen as “infidels”; literally, people without true faith (and Muslims repaid the compliment to Christians). At a deeper level, though, the Christian image of the Muslim could be traced back to the “civilized” Greek and Roman image of the “barbarian”: lazy, dirty, impulsive, unruly, unpredictable, and easily given to sudden outbursts of rage. It’s the same image, of course, that Americans of northern European descent have applied to a long list of other Americans who didn’t seem quite “civilized.”

What nearly all these pejorative images boil down to is a supposed lack of self-restraint. That’s the essence of the current Arab (or is it Muslim?) “unrest” that even the New York Times warns us we should be worrying about now.

So we’re caught, as a nation, in a conflict between our awareness that those age-old generalizations have become unacceptable form of prejudice and our unawareness (for the most part) that it can really feel good to give vent to prejudicial stereotypes every so often.

Ironically, there’s some evidence that a similar internal struggle between new and old cultural perspectives is playing out in the anti-U.S. demonstrations themselves. The anti-U.S. “rage” surely represents only a portion, and probably quite a small portion, of public sentiment in predominantly Arab and Muslim lands. It’s a pretty safe bet that this latest episode will pass and be forgotten in the U.S., just as the stir created by the Danish cartoons of Muhammad passed and were forgotten seven years ago.

But it’s an equally safe bet that in the future we will see other such episode blown out of proportion in the U.S. mass media, because they offer the perverse satisfaction of purveying the old mythic image of Arabs and Muslims as if they were fact. 

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