Oct. 17, 2003
A chance to lift the veil of ignorance about Arabs

A survey published last year by EKOS Poll and co-sponsored by the Star, revealed that 37 per cent of Canadians have negative feelings towards Muslims. As many as 48 per cent, nearly 1 in 2, believe it is acceptable that security officials give special attention to individuals of Arabic origin.

Yet, I am certain that the vast majority of Canadians are not consciously racist or deliberately prejudiced against Arabs and Muslims. So, why these alarming numbers? At the risk of decontextualizing and oversimplifying, the two main contributors to this attitude lie in the media's portrayal of Arabs and Muslims and in the mindset of the Arab and Muslim community itself.

For years, scores of pundits and analysts erroneously dissect and interpret Arab and Muslim culture to North American audiences.

Many of these "experts" have never lived or even travelled in the Arab world, cannot read or write Arabic, nor have they ever befriended an Arab, yet they have appointed themselves as authorities on the subject. The result has been a reductive analysis that has contributed to a climate of sustained misinformation and misrepresentation.

There is little positive knowledge of Arabs and Islam in the public domain. With minor exceptions, we are persistently being subjected to a barrage of negative images that portray us as extreme, vengeful, irrational, suicidal and fanatical people pathologically predisposed to violence with an incorrigible mindset.

In a survey conducted by the Canadian Arab Federation, 86 per cent of Canadian Arabs feel the Canadian media do not understand the Arab perspective. That is a huge percentage to be shrugged off or discounted.

Discussions of Arabs, the Middle East and the Muslim world are rarely of cultural, historical or intellectual nature. They are almost always an occasion for controversy and condemnation.

This is not to say that there aren't writers and journalists who speak intelligently with understanding about the culture and politics of Arabs, but the majority is drowning those voices.

A talent for wordsmithing or the ability to recycle archaic ideas does not qualify one as a representative of others. Arab and Islam bashing has become trendy. Negative profiling and presumption of guilt of Arabs and Muslims has become socially acceptable, raising little concern.

What many of these "experts" either choose to ignore or fail to recognize is that Arabs and Muslims are human beings, they share with their human brethren identical fundamental aspirations for dignity, freedom and justice and despise violence, inequality and corruption.

In discussing the Arab community, it should be acknowledged that there is an inescapable dual and parallel responsibility that needs to be shared by both the media and the Arab community (of which I am a member).

It is important to hold journalists accountable to their moral and professional responsibilities in searching for and reporting the facts and the differing perspectives.

And while the Arab community has legitimate reasons to be dissatisfied with its representation in the Canadian public, it, too, has responsibilities. Achieving change involves more than forwarding articles and indignant e-mails to friends and relatives.

It means that the community needs to become more engaged, not just with each other, but also with various structures in society.

This means operating, individually and collectively, as activists, advocates, lobbyists, and as grassroots organizations. The most pressing challenge facing the Arab community is the need to break out of its self-imposed prison walls.

The good news is that the community is increasingly realizing that overcoming many of the misguided stereotypes and prejudices can only be accomplished through long-term and concerted engagement.

The Arab community is not monolithic, nor should it be viewed as such. There will always be a diversity of opinions within the community and that is healthy.

As it matures, the community is truly appreciating its own diversity, the multiculturalism of Canada, and the contributions that Arab culture, and intellect bring to society. A clear illustration of this is this weekend's Annual Arab Heritage Day event that will be held at the Harbourfront Centre (Oct. 18 and 19), an event at which Arab Canadians tell their own stories, showcase their culture and invite other Canadians to share both their diversity and their uniqueness.

Consider this an invitation to come down to the Harbourfront Centre and enjoy Arab visual and performance arts, sample food flavoured with the distinct taste of the Middle East and North Africa, but most importantly, come down and meet fellow Canadians of Arab descent.

The late Edward Said, who spoke out tirelessly against the misguided and ideologically driven distortion of the Arab and Islamic cultures, said in a recent article entitled The Clash Of Ignorance, "It is better to think in terms of universal principles of justice and injustice, than to wander off in search of vast abstractions that may give momentary satisfaction but little self-knowledge or informed analysis."

This is an invitation to all Canadians to do just that.

Omar Alghabra is a member of the Star's community editorial board. [email protected]

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