Changing An Image

The Negative Perception of Arabs in America Must Be Aligned With Reality

In the eyes of many people in the United States, the Arab World remains synonymous with conflict, fanaticism and terror. At best Arabs are seen as "noble savages' who live in a primitive mystical orient, stuck in the romanticism of the Middle Ages. Such perceptions create an unnecessary rift between the Arabs and Americans. While some attribute this negative image to the various bombings, riots and wars in the region, these isolated events still do not justify sweeping generalizations about a nation of 22 countries and 278 million people.

If full understanding is to achieved in the future, it is important to investigate the possible roots of this seemingly confrontational relation between all that is Arab and all that is American.

The bias of American foreign policy in the Middle East remains the primary cause of the often exaggerated anti-American sentiments in the region. For instance, the Clinton Administration shocked many Arabs by its refusal to condemn Israel's recent settlements in Arab East Jerusalem. America does not need to choose between Arabs and Israelis. All it needs is a balanced foreign policy.

In addition to a misguided foreign policy, theories of cultural incompatability create thorny fault-lines between Arabs and Americans. Such ideas are intellectually questionable and politically dangerous and are likely to become self-fulfilling prophesies when an influential scholar such as Albert J. Weatherhead University Professor Samuel P. Huntington declares that 'Islam has bloody borders' and suggests that the next enemy of the West is the Arab and Islamic World. Such a paranoid search for new enemies after the demise of the Soviet Union will result in new enemies.

Instead of preparing for the next battle with the Arab World, America stands to benefit much more from cultivating healthy relations with Arab countries and fostering a less-distorted image of Arab culture. Not only are the economic potentialities underutilized, but more importantly, valuable opportunities of cross-cultural learning remain to be exploited. Traveling across Egypt as a researcher for Let's Go in 1995, I had a chance to meet many American tourists who were surprised to see a thriving culture that is both proud of its past and anxious to enter the 21st century. Many visitors have an image that Arab society is still trapped in nostalgia, when in fact Arab countries have embraced a unique mixture of traditionalism and modernity.


In this age of information technology, one does not need to travel to the others side of the globe to learn about the Arab World. All that is needed is a willingness to learn and an ability to overcome prejudice.

Until recently, the excuse for the lack of understanding between Arabs and Americans has been that Arabs are not doing enough to present their culture. This is no longer true. Arabs and Arab-Americans have made a genuine effort to provide the American public with a more representative image of the Arab World.

This week (April 21-26), the Society of Arab Students has launched its first annual Arab Awareness Week, which seeks to introduce the Harvard community to a side of the Arab World that is rarely exposed. Perhaps this week's poster exhibitions, distribution of information sheets and dance and cooking work-shops will show that there is more common ground between Arabs and Americans than many suspect. It is high time to build mutual respect through enriching cultural exchange.

Ahmed T. el-Gaili '98 is co-president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Arab Students.