Myths and Stereotypes about Arabs and Their Culture
By: Michael Warren/Arab America Contributing Writer
We often base our opinion about other people or phenomena on widely held stereotypes. Perhaps, you do, too?
The Arab region extends from North Africa to Asia all the way to the Persian Gulf. It is washed by the Atlantic Ocean in the west, the Mediterranean Sea in the north, the Persian Gulf in the east, and the Indian Ocean in the southeast. The Arab world consists of 23 countries which have a total population of 420 million people. They are all members of the League of Arab States and have Arabic as one of their official languages.
Arab culture sprang to life in the Arab Caliphate between the 7th and 10th centuries AD after the Arab conquests of the Middle and Near East, North Africa and South-Western Europe. It deeply impacted many nations, including those of medieval Europe, and left a lasting legacy that affects our world today. Its influence is still being felt in modern philosophy, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, geography, philosophy, and chemistry.
People very often fall prey to commonly held misconceptions. Take, for example, the five widespread stereotypes about Arabs and their culture that this article deals with. They have absolutely no basis in reality. As a matter of fact, it can be an interesting topic to explore. By the way, the essay you’re writing now may also have something to do with prejudices, stereotypes, and misconceptions.
Myth 1. All Arabs Are Muslims
The mass media often portray Arabs as singularly Muslim. Although Muslims constitute the majority of the population of Arab countries, many people living there belong to different religions, including Judaism and Christianity. In addition, Islam has two main denominations, Sunni and Shia, as well as a number of movements and congregations.
The Druze, a non-Arabic pagan socio-cultural group of people with strong ethnic and communal ties, actually live in Lebanon, Israel, and Syria. Long before religious wars and migrations, large groups of Jewish and Christians had come to the Middle East and settled there. At present, the largest Christian community in the Arab world exists in Egypt, although its members represent an ethnic minority of the country.
The largest Muslim country in the world is Indonesia. Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey are also Muslim states but they’re not ethnically Arab. Large groups of people in Africa, the Far East, and Eurasia practice Islam but do not belong to Arabs ethnically and culturally. Greeks represent one-half of Cyprus’s population, while Turks, who do not belong to the Arab ethnic group, form the other.
Myth 2. All Arab Women are Oppressed
Some Arab countries do ignore women’s rights in many ways but this does not mean that absolutely all Arab women are oppressed. A large number of women living in Arab countries can get an excellent education and play an important role in society. For example, Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, one of the most successful businesswomen in the UAE, holds a ministerial position in the country’s government. Tawakel Karman from Yemen, a journalist, and human rights activist, was the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Prize.
Although many Arab women are forced to wear hijabs, their number is gradually decreasing. Muslim females, for instance, can wear veils of their choice, even though many of them still consider it an obligatory practice. The hijab is also thought of as a symbol of a rejection of outward sexual allure. Therefore, in most cases, Arab women have the right to choose clothes they feel comfortable wearing. It should also be noted that Islamic culture protects the majority of women’s rights.
Myth 3. All Arab Men are Bad-Mannered and Rich
In Hollywood movies, Arab men are typically depicted as mean-looking, gun-wielding, and bearded individuals. However, that is not exactly the case these days. Contemporary Arab men are diverse in all aspects – many of them are artists, businessmen, and even athletes. In fact, they can choose any profession they like – from bartenders to accountants or farmers. Many Arab cities, such as Beirut, have always been cosmopolitan and look very much like major European capitals.
Also, it is erroneous to think that all Arabs look the same and have the same temper. The stereotype that all Arab men are wealthy oil magnates has no basis in reality, either. Not all Arabs are rich, and not all of them are poor. While there are some extremely wealthy people in the states of the Arabian Peninsula, most Arabs are ordinary individuals working 9 to 5 jobs and taking care of their families.
Myth 4. All Arabs Are Terrorists
Unfortunately, for many Western people, the word “Arab” is often associated with something radical, uncivilized, fanatical, and even terrorist. The movies we watch, novels we read, and rumors we hear compel us to perceive Arabs in such a manner. The stereotypical image of a terrorist haunts many modern Arab youngsters and adult men. Such an erroneous perception is the result of deeply implanted prejudices.
Arabs themselves believe that this perception is unfair, humiliating, and deeply offensive. In fact, all Arab countries condemn murder and other acts of violence. Of course, terrorist attacks do occur in some of them but they’re generally regarded as freak occurrences. According to the Qur’an, killing one person means killing all people (Sura 5 Al-Ma’ida, Ayat 32).
Myth 5. Arabs Have Neither Culture nor History
Unfortunately, many people in the West erroneously believe that Arabs are culturally backward. The first thing that comes to their mind when they hear the word ‘Arabs’ is sand, desert, camels, oil rigs, and crowds of people.
The Arabian Peninsula has a complex cultural, religious, and political history that dates back to as early as 10,000 BC. Taking into account the role this oriental civilization played in the ancient world, it is difficult to understand why the significance of Arab culture has been reduced to such an extent.
Indeed, the majority of Arabs continue to adhere to their traditions. The three forces affecting their mindset and behavior are the power of influence, the power of habit, and the power of genetics.
The power of influence is evidenced by the fact that an Arab can seem indifferent to modern European conventions. However, you should be ready for a fundamental change in their behavior once they return to their native environment. Also, an Arab will never leave a dispute with an opponent unresolved. And, if you are in Arab society, you should be prepared to follow their rules, not yours. In fact, Arabs can be extremely persistent and persuasive.
The power of habit is manifested in their behavioral patterns. You shouldn’t be surprised seeing Arabs take every opportunity to enjoy their traditional dishes. Most of them are real food connoisseurs. They are very hospitable and always ready to help people in distress.
The power of genetics is reflected in Arabs’ commitment to the values they have nurtured ed for centuries. They include but are not limited to family, respect for elders, and traditions. Being away from home, an Arab will always strive to visit their relatives and help them in whichever way possible.
The word “stereotype” was coined by American journalist Walter Lippmann who used it in his book Public Opinion published in 1922. According to him, we do not form our opinion after seeing something. Usually, we assess it first. Nowadays, people tend to perceive other cultures through stereotypes imposed on them by their respective societies. Therefore, it is vital not to make biased judgments but seek to explore matters in depth.