An Arab American Perspective on the Recent Attacks
BY: Adrian Tafesh/Contributing Writer
I’ll address this immediately, as I know that there has been an overload of content generated in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks. A tragedy is a tragedy and the people must have license to grieve. I seek only to ask people to turn the phrase “having a deeper conversation” from cliché to reality.
The Arab American community is rightly upset over the disparity in media coverage and lack of sympathy for the plight of Arabs versus westerners. However, since the French flag has become ubiquitous across Facebook newsfeeds, many have taken the opportunity to point out other recent terrorist attacks in the Middle East and Africa. Too frequently this has devolved into simple shaming of people expressing grief and self-serving tragedy exploitation. Doubtless many of the non-Arabs shouting about Beirut had no intention of mentioning what happened there until it became socially serviceable.
There are, of course, legitimate reasons to question the sincerity and bias of the millions who have changed their profile pictures, but this must be done compassionately and it must lead to the next rational questions. Why has the response been such as it has? And why are these kinds of attacks happening in the first place? How can we avoid a xenophobic backlash? The impulses to either express grief, or point out disparities are both natural and understandable, and now we must follow these impulses to their logical conclusion.
In reality, the western public is convinced that mass violence is a regular part of life in the Middle East generally. Media, government, and popular entertainment reproduce these images and ideas, whether in the form of purposely inaccurate television such as Homeland or Tyrant, or politicians peddling the idea that sectarianism is and always has been the way of life there.
By contrast, a place like Paris is perceived as being typically safe from such violence, a place where this isn’t “supposed” to happen. Thus, the disparity in reaction. This is the problem, not that people feel the need to express grief for those in France. If the west continues to believe that violence is ordinary and palatable to various Middle Eastern peoples, then they will continue to unwittingly sanction their government’s actions in the region. Actions that have destabilized civil life, undermined secular non-sectarian movements, and bombed the hell out of civilian populations. In turn, extremist groups arise and thrive in the absence of harmonious social life between communities.
People in the west are operating largely on their understanding of media tropes that arose after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. That was a time before social media in which the average person had little access to alternative, non-corporate, and foreign media outlets. By now, people can largely effect what the mainstream media covers by learning about it and talking about it themselves because of the power afforded by social media. Non-Arab westerners must take the opportunity now to educate themselves and gain a nuanced understanding of the region.
As for the Arab American community, we cannot rely on the mainstream news media to accurately represent the Middle East, as it has never done us any favors. We know our pain, we own it, and we will always proclaim it.