This piece was originally published in New Lines magazine’s Just Landed newsletter, which you can sign up for here.
There are two films that have unfortunately been etched in my brain since childhood. The first is “Independence Day,” the sci-fi flick starring Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum. Immediately after they destroy the invading alien spaceship, there is a scene depicting two groups of people celebrating — one portrays young Africans carrying poles and sporting body paint, and the other shows Arabs wearing turbans and cheering in front of curiously verdant pyramids. I remember thinking, “Whoa, these people think we are imbeciles.”
The second scene was from the early iteration of Disney’s “Aladdin.” A mysterious man intones in the opening lyrics of a song called “Arabian Nights,” “Oh, I come from a land / From a faraway place / Where the caravan camels roam / Where they cut off your ear / If they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” I remember thinking, “Whoa, these people think we are monsters.”
The Economist’s sister longform publication, 1843, has joined this hallowed company of racist stereotyping in a cover story about the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), which included multiple clever but supremely offensive illustrations. The cover illustration shows the back of a man wearing the traditional Saudi dress, with the agal, the black cord that surrounds the headdress, shaped to look like a stick of dynamite with a lit fuse. Another similarly shows the back profile of the full traditional gear but shaped like a missile, in case you didn’t get the message the first time. A third showed the headdress with an empty visage, inside of which is a hand holding a lit match curved to look like a stylized Arabic “Allah.”
Now it is difficult for any publication to report on MBS, because the faintest hint of nuance is likely to draw opprobrium. His social modernization efforts, the neutering of the harmful Wahhabist clerical establishment and grand economic plans coexist with the torture and arbitrary detention of activists, the savage assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the pointless war in Yemen that brought untold devastation and misery to the Arab world’s poorest country.
The illustration is offensive because it’s not about MBS as an individual but instead demeans an entire ethnic group and tars them with the brush of violence and terrorism. It is precisely the empty visage that makes it abhorrent — it is not about an ascendant, aggressive leader who is a ticking time bomb; it is about how an entire people, their customs and faith, are malign. Imagine if, in order to condemn the brutality of the Israeli occupation in Palestine, a mainstream publication had chosen art that portrays a man in a yarmulke to personify the abuse. (Several social media commentators have pointed out that the artist who penned the illustrations is Israeli, but I don’t see how that is relevant since the publication is British and racism is not the province of a specific nationality.)
Stereotypes exist everywhere. It is part of human nature to try to simplify the world around us into easy-to-understand categories that belie the great diversity of the world. They are almost always harmful, even if they have not led (yet) to direct violence and large-scale discrimination, partly because they dehumanize through robbing individuals of their agency and otherizing them. Arabs of course stereotype as well — Syrians and Egyptians still make jokes about Homsis and Sa’idis from the south that mock their intelligence, saying someone dresses like a Kurd is supposed to indicate that they have poor taste, anti-Black racism is rife, and abuse against workers from South Asia is common everywhere in the region.
There is something particularly poignant about media engaging in this sort of practice, however, given the high standards they set for themselves. Many idealistic young journalists say they joined the profession in order to make a difference, to expose crimes and corruption in order to enact change for the better in their societies. It is a laudable goal but one that misreads how the media effect change. In the vast majority of cases, media reporting or exposure of abuse does not lead directly to policy change (otherwise the war in Syria would have ended a decade ago).
In reality, media reporting leads to gradual change through the gradual accumulation of data, anecdotes and imagery that ultimately shapes how society perceives certain actors, whether they are people or nation states.
Think about your initial reaction to anything, be it a celebrity, a country, a political leader or a faraway conflict. And then contemplate how much of that reaction is based on firsthand experience and how much of it is based on the conditioning of the common, popular narrative about those people or causes. I’m not saying that your reaction is inherently wrong but that it is shaped for good or ill by the media you consume. It is the reason why the starting point of discussions about Iran is that it is a malign actor on the world stage, that Saudi Arabia is an incubator of extremism, that Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a tyrannical autocrat, that Iraq is a hopelessly corrupt sectarian cesspit or that conflicts in the Middle East are the product of ancient hatreds only and are doomed to repeat themselves (this was the belief of Barack Obama, a president you probably look back on fondly if your worldview is liberal — I just engaged in stereotyping myself). Again, I’m not saying that these views, while myopic, are necessarily wrong in and of themselves. But they do shape society’s overall worldview, and they sometimes lead to tragic and disastrous policy decisions.
One would hope that media outlets would avoid peddling racist stereotypes out of the goodness of their own hearts, if not for the established historical precedent that this kind of otherizing often leads to individual and state-sanctioned violence, ill-advised foreign wars of occupation and the general promulgation of intolerance. Please do better.