Hints & Tips

Chapter 1

  1. If students in the Middle East were asked to repeat the exercise that opens this chapter and name five words they associate with the United States or Great Britain, what do you think those words would be? Why?

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I think that students in the Middle East probably have a deeply conflicted view of the US based on their exposure through the media and current events. On the one hand the US is associated with money, wealth, capitalism, pop music, Hollywood stars and fashion. On the other, its current policies in the region create the view that it is anti-Muslim, pro-Israel, supportive of repressive regimes and hypocritical in its dealings with the rest of the world.

  1. What is the role of stereotype? Does it have an impact on government policies? How?

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Stereotype is a powerful political tool as the stereotype can be used in the place of real information or knowledge to sway public opinion. Once people are conditioned to have a particular response to a group of people (i.e. all Muslims are terrorists, all Jews control financial institutions), they will fit available facts to support the stereotype and not question if the stereotype is accurate or challenge government policies that build on their fears. In the US during World War 2 the American public allowed the internment of Japanese Americans because they believed the propaganda that they would send signals to the enemy, though no evidence supported this contention. Similarly, the unfounded contention that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that posed an imminent threat to the US relied on post-9/11 fear of Muslims. In the case of Saddam and WMD not even the US Congress put up significant resistance to this idea, it is no wonder the US public believed in this threat.

  1. What role do the media play in shaping the view of the Middle East and the Islamic world?

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It is important to note that our understanding of any region in the world is based not only on what is portrayed in the media but what is not portrayed. Sensational images, and those that suggest danger, will always take precedence in a ratings-driven media environment. Coverage of people in the Middle East tends to focus on sensational images that show violence, protests and death. Coverage of these events is not ‘balanced’ by coverage of everyday life, of people just trying to make a living and send their children to school, as a result the region's occupants are dehumanized and seen as very different from us.

Students must question the process by which news is created. Who controls that process? What factors determine what types of stories get on the air? Often students have not critically analyzed news as a ‘product’ and the factors that go into its production. I often ask students to read articles by English language newspapers in the Middle East; they are often surprised by the difference in coverage between these papers and US outlets.

  1. What evidence is there to support the civilization clash between the Christian West and Muslim East? What evidence is there to refute this argument?

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The very idea of a ‘Christian’ West and a ‘Muslim’ East is so oversimplified as to be worthless. Who is included in the ‘Christian’ West? What are the characteristics of its civilization? How does it differ from the ‘East’?

In the West it is easy for us to recognize how diverse the ‘Christian’ experience, hence Christian civilization, is. There are Christians who only go to church at Christmas and those who want to see it play a larger role in government life and support actions like posting the Ten Commandments in courthouses. And yet we are willing to believe that Islam is a monolithic faith and its followers hold a single perspective. For some in the West the root of this belief can be traced to the Crusades, a conflict that was started by the Christian West and only involved a very small portion of the Middle East. Indeed European states fought each other much more often over interpretations of Christianity than they fought the Muslims but the mythology of the Crusades lingers on as evidence of Christian success and strength.

Ironically, many of the ideals that supporters of this dichotomy associate with Christian civilization, such as freedom and democracy, have their roots in the very idea of separation of church and state, and the tolerance of other religious views, including the non-religious view of secularism. While it is true that many governmental systems in the Middle East are deeply infused with religion, and certainly there are militant and non-militant political groups that desire a larger role for religion in society, there is nothing in Islam that is inherently anti-Christian. Indeed, Islam reveres many of the same historical figures found in Christianity, such as Abraham and Moses. Nor is there anything in Islam's history or its ideology to suggest it is against freedom, indeed Muhammad had to fight against the existing socio-political order in Mecca in order to establish his new faith.

  1. What kinds of issues are currently being debated within the Muslim world? Are they different from debates in other parts of the world?

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Perhaps the most significant debate in the Muslim world can broadly be described as the debate over the role of Islam in society and the relationship between Islam and governing structures. This debate plays out every day as Muslims make decisions about their lives. One question is the extent to which sharia or Islamic law, be followed by the government? Should the decision to take a bank loan that charges interest be a personal choice or should governmental banks follow Islamic prohibitions that ban interest? What role should women play in society and politics? In Saudi Arabia they have no political participation and are forbidden to drive, while women in Turkey were given the right to vote in 1930, before some Western countries. Is a feminist interpretation of the Koran possible? Who has the authority to interpret the Koran and determine what practices are correct? Under what conditions is violence against fellow Muslims, if ever, allowable? What is the relationship between Islam and democracy?

One of the major factors in this debate is the perception that other approaches, such as socialism and capitalism, have failed to bring progress to the Muslim world. Islam is increasingly put forward as the only available alternative to continued subjugation by the West. In the most radical perspective, attacks on the West are necessary to bring about an alternative Islam based future for the Muslim world. To others the debate centers on finding a ‘Muslim way’ to bring economic success and greater civil society participation to their countries.

The West, and especially the United States, is also engaged in a debate over the role of religion in society. Issues such as gay marriage and abortion expose the fault lines between various religious and non-religious perspectives in society. For the most part these debates are carried out on the airwaves of talk radio, in the media and through the ballot box. On occasion, violent acts have been committed, such as attacks on abortion clinics and homosexuals, in the name of a particular religious interpretation. While such acts are nowhere near the magnitude of Al Qaeda's attacks on the US, these attacks, and conflicts such as the long-running war between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, are important reminders that religion based violence and intolerance are not limited to the Muslim world.