For much of U.S. history, many Americans viewed the Middle East with fascination and wonder. Americans viewed it as a faraway land of sultans and shahs, and it was once a very popular tourist destination. That all changed after the Iranian Hostage Crisis began on 4 November 1979. On that date, Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 American diplomats and citizens hostage for 444 days. As a result, the Middle East and Iran in particular became a de facto enemy of self-described “patriotic” Americans. They demonized the entire region for the actions of a group of Iranian students.
If the Iran Hostage Crisis was the turning point in American perception of the Middle East, then the attacks on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 permanently cemented anti-Middle East sentiment in the U.S. With the help of the media, the American public developed a strong anti-Middle East and anti-Islam stance. This has caused rampant misconceptions about the region within the American public.
Many Americans view the Middle East as a backwards region filled with anti-U.S. terrorists willing to sacrifice their lives to kill Americans. This perception is wrongheaded and ignorant. We must refute the common misconceptions about the Middle East and try and educate the American people about what is really going on in the region. Here are 5 things that Americans currently get wrong about the Middle East.
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1. Everyone in the Middle East Hates the United States
Many Americans believe that there are deep anti-American feelings in the Middle East. It is often said that Middle Eastern countries enjoy totalitarianism and “hate America for its Freedom.” Although there is some deep Anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, it is primarily concentrated among a small group of radicals. This is also true in the rest of the world. Anti-American feelings exist in certain groups in nearly every country.
Giacomo Chiozza, a political scientist currently teaching at Vanderbilt University has done extensive research on anti-American sentiment around the world and has found that it is no more prevalent in the Middle East than it is in other countries. Chiozza discovered that those in the Middle East that dislike America, do not “hate America for its freedom,” instead he writes,
Criticism of America’s policies does not obscure the aspirations that America symbolizes, even among Islamic public in the Middle East” – Giacomo Chiozza
Chiozza has found that many in the region actually like or even celebrate the principles of freedom and individual liberty that America represents. They just don’t care for America’s foreign policy, which is understandable given some of the catastrophic misadventures the U.S. has engaged in over the last 15 years. If the U.S. would change its interventionist policies in the region, it is safe to say that public perception of the U.S. in the Middle East would be quite a bit more positive than it is now. You can pick up a copy of Chiozza’s book “Anti-Americanism and the American World Order” at Amazon
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2. The Middle East is full of Dangerous Islamic Extremists
Since 11 September 2001, the people of the Middle East have taken on the role of boogeyman to the American public. It is the same role that the Soviets played in the second half of the twentieth century. Many Americans believe that the region is replete with young men willing to perpetrate suicide bombings to kill Americans. A recent Pew study revealed that this is entirely inaccurate.
The study took a survey of all Middle Eastern nations, and found that a large majority in each country believed that suicide bombings were never justifiable. For example, in Iraq, 91 percent of respondents disagreed with suicide bombings, and in Jordan, that number was 82 percent. The lowest percentage was found in Egypt, with 68 percent of the public disavowing suicide bombing, which is still a large majority. This shoots holes in the popular American theory that the region is filled with violent extremists
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3. All Women in the Middle East are Forced to Wear Veils and are Treated like Servants
Americans have been taught that the Middle East is a terrible place to be a woman. We have a perception that women are forced to cover every part of their bodies, including their faces, when in public and that they live a life of perpetual servitude to their husbands. In actuality, the majority of countries in the Middle East do not force their female citizens to wear veils. Many women choose to wear veils of their own volition for personal and religious beliefs.
The same Pew study referenced earlier found that a majority of Muslims in the Middle East believe that women should be allowed to choose whether or not to wear veils. Also, it’s important to realize that some Middle Eastern cultures have actually been more progressive concerning women’s rights than some nations in the West. For example, women did not get the right to vote in France until 1944, but women in Turkey were first allowed to vote ten years earlier in 1934.
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4. The Middle East is Just Desert and Oil
When most Americans think of the Middle East, they think of a barren desert landscape with vast reserves of oil and not much else. This isn’t true at all. The Middle East is quite ecologically diverse. Sure, it contains its fair share of deserts, but it also has lush river deltas, massive forests, and beautiful mountain ranges.
Take Lebanon for example. This Middle Eastern nation doesn’t actually have any deserts. In fact, forests cover over 13 percent of the nation’s land mass. The cedar tree, which is featured on Lebanon’s flag, is its national emblem. The rest of the country’s geography consists of lush coastal plains, two large mountain ranges, and the Beqaa Valley, which is one of the most fertile farming regions in the world.
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5. All Muslims in the Middle East Want to Bring Sharia Law to the West
Americans, especially those on the far right, fear Sharia law. People throughout West have used this as an excuse to prevent Middle Eastern refugees from entering their countries. They point to some conspiracy that says that Muslims want to spread Sharia beyond the Middle East and enforce it on populations outside the region. This claim is not only wrong, but it is irresponsible, dangerous and xenophobic.
To prove our point, let’s take a look at that Pew study one more time. Although it’s true that most Muslims in the Middle East approve of Sharia law, there is no evidence that suggests they want to force non-Muslims to adhere to the code. In fact, the study proves the exact opposite to be true. Muslims in the Middle East were asked, “Should Sharia apply to only Muslims?” And a majority responded in the affirmative. This disproves the irresponsible conspiracy theory.
Hopefully this article will help Americans better understand the Middle East and the people who live there. Educating people about the region is our best hope to combat the widespread Islamaphobia that has become so prevalent in the United States. The more Americans learn about this diverse and unique part of the world, the less they will fear it, and as a result, geopolitical tensions will ease.