More often than not, public perception of people in the Middle East is that they hate America and the West. This belief has been reinforced during the past few years by spectacles including radical rallies and the mobbing of Americans in the streets of Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and Egypt. But within these societies, such scenes are often attributed to thugs and radicals, elements outside the mainstream. I dare say that most people in these countries do not share the radical sentiments or anger at America expressed by mobs in the street. In fact, most people who view such agitation in their own countries often assume that it is staged by radicals who are eager to provoke a reaction, whether domestically, internationally or both.
It is true that that some people in the Middle East harbor feelings of disdain and mistrust of the Western world. But such sentiments are not straightforward feelings of hatred. Rather, they reflect a dynamic of love-hate, or love-resentment-anger. The true complexity of these feelings emerges in whispers during dinner-table conversations, through nuanced gestures or comments that people utter only in their native tongues and almost never in English or to Westerners. These comments reflect the “unspoken” feeling that is close to the nerve and too sensitive to acknowledge to the outside world.
Most Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa admire and aspire to the essence of Western life: freedom of opportunity, freedom of expression and creativity, and the diversity of options available in life. Hollywood plays a major role in promoting this life, in which people have decent homes and jobs, cars and nice clothes. On a daily basis, these aspirations are reflected not only in people’s love of Western popular movies and TV series, but also through the latest fashion that everyone seeks to obtain and replicate, the latest style of haircuts, an obsession with celebrities and what they are doing or saying. Music, too, is a key cultural influence, and what you hear in most restaurants in the region is Western music, mostly from the ’80s.
But such aspiration is followed by the crushing realization that the Western standard of success is out of reach for the majority of the societies in the MENA region. The resentment starts with the disparity between the ideals vaunted by the Western world and the economic constriction and lack of opportunity that are a day-to-day reality in people’s lives. Being in America, you may say: That is not my problem. And you may be right. But what people in the MENA region hear and believe is that America held out hope to all, came to Iraq, promised it liberation and prosperity, and ended up destroying the country. The Iraq invasion and the ensuing weakening of the country have perpetuated conspiracy theories about the Western world and America’s malignant intentions toward the Middle East. The experience is held up as proof that the West never cared about the Middle East. This has also given strength to the following stereotypes and feelings about American and Western society:
Inconsistent Values: Mainstream MENA populations believe that “all the Western world wants out of the Middle East is its oil, and that nothing the West says about democracy and freedom is genuine. If it were, the thinking goes, the West would not have supported regimes in the region that oppressed their own people and suppressed basic human rights, from Qaddafi in Libya to Mubarak in Egypt, among others.” This inconsistency between publically promoted values and actual actions by Western governments has led to a reinforcement of the idea that the West is concerned only with its own financial wellbeing at any cost, even if that entails the destruction of “our country.” Beyond conspiracy theories, this is leading to a lack of respect: “They are hypocrites.” One man recently told me at a nice dinner party. “They say something and they act with another thing. We cannot trust them at all.” This is perhaps the most common theme aired in every country I have visited lately. It is a sad reality, but one that must be faced.
Financial Corruption: These range from rumors of thefts by American soldiers of cash in duffel bags upon the invasion of Iraq, to corrupt actions of business executives offering bribes and doing deals under the table in Middle Eastern countries to avoid taxes or regulations. Such charges are discussed in a matter of fact way as evidence of the West’s inconsistent values. The West does not care about helping “us” in building our economy in a constructive way. “They” do not have an interest in helping us build factories, roads and schools. All “they” care about is taking “our” natural resources at any cost before they leave the country. One businessman in Iraq recently told me, “I used to think of America as the moral country of the world. Now I think it is China and Russia for they understand our reality so much more than Americans do.”
Moral corruption: This is based more on the images mainstream people see on Western TV and the Internet, nudity or near nudity on public billboards, explicit discussion of sexual acts and behaviors, and over-consumption of alcohol leading to drunkenness. The moral judgment runs both East to West and West to East. Just as the West stereotypes all Muslim women as being oppressed, the East’s stereotype of Western women is that they are all morally loose. Both are unfair to most women and both are based on a small minority being generalized to whole cultures and countries.
Racism and bigotry: This stems not only from images of police brutality and the killing of African-Americans, but also from the first hand experiences of Middle Easterners who have brown skin, an accent, and maybe a different wardrobe when traveling in America or the Western world—from checkpoints at airports to derogatory remarks thrown at them in random encounters. Yes, people still hear the terms “sand nigger” or “rag head” or get asked the most absurd questions about Muslim practices, with the undertone that all Muslims oppress their women and send their kids to be suicide bombers. Such perceptions are based on the behavior of the marginal minorities in the larger Muslim countries rather than on mainstream society. To ascribe such stereotypes to all Muslims is like thinking all Americans are members of the KKK, or that all Europeans are Nazis—neither fair nor true.
I gathered the perceptions and misperceptions listed here not from radicals or from ISIS, but from mainstream society in the MENA region, the middle class and the educated, the youth and the business community. Fortunately, these feelings are offset by admiration and aspiration toward the lifestyle and core values of Western societies.
This conversation is not a dead end but one that should be held publicly, leading to reflection in the East and the West rather than defensiveness. Many, if not the majority, of the Muslim societies in the Arab world are indeed hurt by what they believe are the West’s ill intentions. The path to a true conversation starts with both sides of the aisle knowing – truly knowing – what the others think of them and deciding for themselves what is the truth and what is not, what needs adjustment and change and what does not. As someone who lives in two worlds and thinks of America as my home as much as the Middle East and Iraq, I see the fault and the good in both sides and the hope for more authentic communication.
Zainab Salbi is a humanitarian, author, and media commentator who has dedicated herself to women’s rights and freedom. At the age of 23, she founded Women for Women International—a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. She is the author of several books including best selling memoir Between Two Worlds; Escape From Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World who travels around the Middle East and North Africa and files reports on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. She’s developing a new talk show that will deal with similar issues. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.