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


May 20, 2022

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

So the English are reserved and unemotional, Americans are brash and parochial, Germans humorless and efficient, and Arabs …

Of course, there is no such country as Arabia, but rather 22 Arab states, populated by about 400 million people with diverse histories and cultures. It is no more appropriate to bundle them all together for the purpose of ascribing 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, “the Arabs” are a unified ethnic group subject to wholesale simplistic stereotyping, unconstrained by borders.

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

But the image of the Arab as fanatical terrorist, perpetuated depressingly in so many Hollywood movies, has its roots in the crude portrayal of Arabs by the myth-makers of Britain’s imperial past.

Writing in 1994, Dr Jamil Al-Asmar, a professor in the English department of the Islamic University in the Gaza Strip, highlighted the “remarkable number” of Victorian scholars and travellers “who were anxious to explore the exotic and mysterious lands of the Arabs and contributed much to the way in which the Arabs were perceived in Victorian England … as tribes of ‘lawless freebooters,’ arrested at a stage of civilization which they themselves had surpassed.”

Appraising Rudyard Kipling’s representation of Muslims, a study published in Al-Jamiah: Journal of Islamic Studies reflected that “many English writers wrote novels, short stories and poems about Eastern people as backward, uncultured and cruel … to justify the presence of the West in the East to accomplish the so-called White Men’s Mission to civilize Eastern people.”

One such imperial myth-maker was Richard F. Burton, who, like many of the Victorian travelers and explorers who prowled the world during Britain’s imperialist heyday in search of sensationalist material for their books, helped to form perceptions of Arabs that endure to this day.

For the likes of Burton, Charles Montagu Doughty, William Gifford Palgrave and others, there was no advantage to be had in describing Arabs as anything other than wild, dangerous and generally untrustworthy “noble savages” – their publishers and readers yearned not for the everyday, but for the exotic “other.”

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

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

Jonathan Gornall

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 basic tenets. He did so, of course, purely for the thrill he could offer his readers, and in the service of enhancing his own reputation as a great explorer who risked his life by venturing into the heart of Islam.

Burton writes that, upon reaching the Kaaba, “of all the worshippers who clung weeping to the curtain, or who pressed their beating hearts to the stone, none felt for the moment a deeper emotion than did the Hajji from the far north.”

But, as the author concedes, for him this emotion was nothing more than “the ecstasy of gratified pride.”

By one of those curious twists of fate brought about by the ebb and flow of global fortunes, a rare first edition of Burton’s three-volume narrative will be offered for sale for £12,000 this month at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which begins on May 23.

When it was printed almost 170 years ago, the book was peddled as an invaluable insight into the apparently mysterious ways of “the Orient.” Today, the three volumes offer instead an invaluable insight into the roots of the misconceptions and prejudices about Arabs that persist stubbornly 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 second-guessing and even frequent libeling of the motives of Arab governments and their leaders in the Western media today.

So ingrained in the Western psyche is the narrow, simplistic representation of Arabs to be found in the tales of Victorian adventurers, that when oil was discovered in the Gulf states, even as the sun was setting on British imperialism, many found the reversal of fortunes hard to stomach (“How did our oil get under their sand?”).

Today, as the world struggles with the complexities of climate change and battles to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, the Western media is quick to saddle the likes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE with sole responsibility for the crisis.

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

At the heart of that narrative can be found a deep-seated Western resentment at the rise to global significance of Arab states whose people were once seen as inferior to the Western nations that presumed to control their fate for generations.

And for that, we have the likes of Burton to thank.

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

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point of view


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