The Student News Site of University of Arizona

The Daily Wildcat

95° Tucson, AZ

The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’

    Ahmad, a 19-year-old foreign exchange student from a Persian Gulf country, recounted to me the reactions of his friends and family when he told them he was going to America to study English. Almost everyone told him, “”Watch out for those American women.”” His friends harbor anxiety about the notorious American woman, not because she wears tank tops or has a college degree, but because she is “”morally loose.””

    What would make reasonable, good-intentioned people fear another group of people? Before his trip to America, Ahmad’s only view of American women was supplied by a TV screen.

    We Americans know that not every woman in our country is a Jenna Jameson who commits lewd acts on videotape for money, but to many, this image of the American woman is one of the only available ones.

    What an inaccurate – even offensive – stereotype!

    But wait. Before we launch into a diatribe about the evils of closed societies and their fear of foreigners, let’s exercise a little self-examination. Who? Us? No, we’re different. Our society is open-minded. We have free access to a lot of information. We are not like them.

    But that kind of thinking is the problem. “”They”” are not a homogenous mass with one mind, soul and will. If it is irksome that many in the Middle East and Asia view Americans as morally loose, how much more problematic is it that many Americans view Middle Easterners as dogmatic, regressive, irrational, violent or ignorant?

    As I packed my bags and said my goodbyes this week in preparation for my trip to Nazareth, I sensed a growing anxiety: What will “”they”” be like? How will “”they”” react to me? I had to remind myself that “”they,”” like people anywhere, would hold diverse beliefs and behave in diverse ways.

    While the U.S. has numerous ethnicities and religious groups, the Middle East is composed not only of diverse subcultures, but also of many nations. “”We”” cannot view Middle Easterners as a simple “”they”” when there are so many layers of complexity: nations with different allies, tribal and family ties that cross national borders, religious affiliations that unite or divide allegiances. How could “”they”” be all the same?

    One of the most common misconceptions about the Middle East is that it is a vast swath of uniform Islam. But the Middle East is the birthplace of Judaism and Christianity as well. Before Israel was established in 1948, small Jewish populations existed in North Africa and the Levant (Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Syria).

    And Christianity has a rich history there as well. Until the civil war forced many Lebanese to emigrate, Lebanon had a majority Christian population. Even today, about 25 percent of Lebanese are Christian, and Jordan, Syria and the Palestinian territories have significant Christian minorities, according to the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. The Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt is one of the oldest groups of Christians in the world.

    Diversity in Islamic beliefs is also widespread. Sunni and Shia Islam are the two major sects, but Morocco’s mystical Sufis also draw many pilgrims. The Druze in the Levant hold beliefs distinct from both Christianity and Islam. Given the rich religious diversity of the Middle East, it is a mistake to think of “”them”” as uniform in religious beliefs.

    Also, many people, Americans especially, think of the entire Middle East as a place of oppression, both in culture and government. In reality, Middle Easterners differ in their views of society and the role of women, the individual and the government. In the Levant, for example, even non-Muslim women can enter mosques, but in North Africa, non-Muslims often cannot even enter the compound. According to the BBC, 6.5 percent of Parliamentary seats in countries such as Jordan and Tunisia are held by women, while Saudi women cannot legally drive a car or even a golf cart.

    It’s not a solely American problem that we see “”us”” and “”them”” in black and white. It’s a human problem. But it’s important to address, because it produces a paradoxical combination of arrogance and fear. When we think we know all about “”them”” because we see “”them”” rioting on CNN, we tend to project our darkest fears onto them. “”They”” are the violent ones, the irrational ones, the intolerant ones. “”They”” are a threat to “”us.””

    This attitude does not just affect how we see people but also how we view conflicts – conflicts in which we often interfere. For example, during Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon this summer, there was not just an Arab side and an Israeli side. Hezbollah and the Lebanese government, though both comprised of Arabs, were definitely not on the same side. But I still hear people, in the media and in conversation, approach this conflict as if it were a simple ethnic or religious conflict between Arabs and Jews.

    As this column goes to press, I will be arriving in Nazareth. I hope, with my astounding wit and incisiveness, to illustrate the Middle East and its people. More likely, though, the cluelessness, cultural bias and black-and-white thinking that I share with most humans will illuminate our common plight to co-exist in a paradigm of “”us”” and “”them.””

    Marian Lacy is a senior majoring in Near Eastern studies, English and molecular and cellular biology. She is spending this semester working in a hospital in Nazareth and can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

    More to Discover
    Activate Search