Students Against Othering

Mission Statement

Students Against Othering’s (SAO) mission is to educate the public about the dangers and consequences of othering, specifically in relation to Muslims and Arabs. We here at SAO hope to educate the general public about the existence of othering, and how it effects many minority groups. We hope to raise awareness through showing identifiable examples of othering, and how this is a part of everyday life for targeted minorities such as Muslims and Arabs. Our goal is to show that our differences as human beings should be celebrated, and that we as a people should work toward understanding rather than assimilation. Respect, awareness, and understanding of different cultures are vital aspects to the solution to othering. Unfortunately, othering is one of the many results of unequal power dynamics, but we hope to convince people with and without power to treat one another with respect and understanding, and therefore diminish othering worldwide.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Najee Mondalek & Guilia Loli

It’s obvious that since September 11, 2001 Muslim Americans have been under the spotlight in many arenas of society.  At times critiqued by their own neighbors and targeted under national law, it’s safe to say that they have been living differently the past nine years.  Yet this is not to say that Arab Americans and Muslim Americans haven’t gone to great lengths to try to clear the air around the way they are perceived in modern American society.

Najee Mondalek, a Lebanese immigrant living in Dearborn, Michigan, has taken an interesting approach to the situation as a whole.  While many go out and campaign for their cause, Najee writes plays.  One of his latest plays is entitled “Me No Terrorist” and, though a comedy, depicts a Middle Eastern tourist’s experience in the US.  When he is asked at customs what his purpose is in the US he is misunderstood: instead of hearing “I’m a tourist from the Middle East” officers hear “I’m a terrorist from the Middle East”.  Guilia Loli, a Middle Eastern DJ in New York, makes music.  But it’s not just any music: she gathers traditional music from her hometown in southern Egypt and splices it with Western hip hop and dancehall.

Both of these people are working in unique ways to creatively combat the established government and media take on Middle Easterners in a western society.   The first thing they do is debunk the idea of the Muslim or Arab as un-American.  Her East-meets-West style is what makes Loli’s music so popular with such a wide crowd.  For Loli, it’s important that the American majority stop taking action making it easier to discriminate against Arabs and Muslims in the US, but rather embrace the fact that the US is about the blend of cultures.  From the very beginning, there was no essential American identity.  All that exists today is an identity that has been crafted in the past few hundred years and is largely one of symbols, values, and documents.
Najee works to try to expose xenophobia present in current US government and politics.  “[I just want to] teach that not all Arabs are bad guys” Najee said to the Detroit News in May of 2004.  Through his comedy he is able to deconstruct the idea of an official Middle Eastern culture and replace it with one that is very similar to that of the United States.  Even though a Lebanese immigrant, Najee is now producing very accessible comedy that has gained traction among Arab and non-Arab communities.  Though he confronts themes pertinent to the Arab world, his style has often compared to that of Jerry Seinfeld.
Edward Said has famously analyzed the ways in which Orientalist discourse has been created in an attempt to preserve Arab/Islamic society as exotic and outside the influence of modernity.  When the Middle East is represented as an undeveloped region of the world where human rights are treated with complete disregard it only further reinforces the Western tendency towards the colonialist mentality.  The mentality that large groups of people exist that “need saving” is not only in many cases inaccurate, but often insulting to the targeted groups.  It’s my belief that the use of soft power is the most substantial way of combating the illusion of “the Orient” as an Other.  Najee Mondalek and Guilia Loli are both important examples of the real-world effect of  soft power.  By producing high quality music, plays, and other artwork that can be easily consumed by the Western public, Mondalek and Loli have become some of the most successful players in disassembling the incorrect construct of the Middle Eastern Other.  By exposing the ways in which official cultures never reflect actual diversity within countries, competing perspectives can be better exposed in a public light and eventually (hopefully) understood.

by Grayson Smith

Works Cited:
"NPR : Arab-American Artists Respond, Voices of Reflection." NPR : National Public Radio : News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts : NPR. 8 Sept. 2002. Web. 04 Dec. 2010. <>.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Are We Really So Different?

“It is my hypothesis that the fundamentals source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic.  The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source conflict will be cultural.”  (Huntington 22)  This bold statement made by Samuel Huntington is a view that is shared by other scholars such as Bernard Lewis.  According to these scholars, the Clash of Civilizations theory suggests that there are cultures that are modern, and others that are pre-modern.  Conflict and violence are caused by a lack of modernity in certain cultures, and these cultures need to be restrained by the modern cultures for the good of overall civilization (Huntington).  This theory very distinctly ‘others’ many people, specifically Muslims.  According to Huntington, the West and Islam are ideologies that will clash, because they are so different.  While the West is modern, democratic, and free, Islam is not, giving the West an edge and sense of power over Islam (Huntington 31-33). 

However, there are others that are not so quick to accept this ideology., an international organization dedicated to the mission of organizing citizens of all nations to close the gap between the world that exists and the world most people everywhere want, is a strong advocate against the clash of civilizations.  Their YouTube video ‘Stop the Clash of Civilizations’, calls people to stop ‘othering’ not only Muslims, but also Americans.  The video shows a series of images of American stereotypes, including shallow, fat, hypocritical, monsters, and sex mad.  Then appear a series of Muslim stereotypes, such as zealot, violent, tyrannical, repressed, self destructive, and blood thirsty.  The video constantly asks, “Is this how you see me?”  After seeing negative images of how both groups can be viewed, Avaaz challenges the idea that there are so many differences.  The next images include Muslim and American pictures, side by side, of parents holding their children, kids playing soccer, the universal love that parents have for their children, and also universal suffering that people go through due to the war.  Aavaz argues that we are not so different after all, but governments are playing off of our fears, and making this ‘clash of civilizations’ a reality.  The video challenges people to not let others, especially governments have power over people and speak for them. Aavaz argues that majorities from many countries, whether it be the United States or Middle Eastern countries truly want peace talks.  However, in order to change the world, it is vital that these different cultures work together and realize their similarities, instead of overly exaggerating their differences.  A new and changed world cannot take place while people still believe that a clash of civilizations exists.

Unfortunately, it seems clear that at least some version of a clash of civilizations does indeed exist; otherwise there would be no need for a video such as this. However, separating cultures into ‘modern’ and ‘premodern’ is not the way to encourage change, peace, and democracy.  By ‘othering’ different cultures, it only reinforces the extent that they are different from the US, or American culture, highlights the power that the US and western governments have in the world, and that truly making a difference is near impossible.  A change can only come about if these differences are set aside, common goals are set and put in place, and there is a realization that diversity within the global civilization does not weaken us as a human race, it only strengthens.

By Falina Lothamer

Works Cited
Course Terms List, AC 498/CICS 401.  Dec 3 2010.

Huntington, Samuel P., “the Clash of Civilizations?”  Foreign Affairs (Vol. 72, No. 3, Summer 1993), 22-41 and 48-49.

“Stop the Clash of Civilizations.”  22 November 2010.  (Youtube)

When Stereotypes Crash

The movie Crash takes a raw and provocative look at the stereotypes that exist in American society.  The plot revolves around people of many different backgrounds, whose individual stories all intertwine with each other’s at some point in the film.  The film exposes stereotypes that all different ethnicities- not only Caucasians- believe.  Judging, or misjudging, in most cases, someone by their appearance or their accent is the core theme of the story.  This misjudgment of people solely based on physical characteristics ‘others’ every person who doesn’t fit the standard ‘American’ stereotype, and creates binary oppositions.  Binary opposition is a cultural logic that constructs meaning through categories that are opposite and hierarchical, which in this case, is an ‘us vs. them’ opposition.  This causes many negative implications throughout the plot, sending the message to the public no not judge people solely on appearance.  All the characters portrayed in the film, while definitely flawed and quick to judge others, are inherently good people, just trying to get by.  However, their preconceived notions about people different from themselves affect not only their actions, but also the actions of the people they ‘other’.            

Some of the ethnicities portrayed in Crash include Hispanics, African-Americans, Caucasians, and Persians.  Of particular interest is the portrayal of the Persian family, who is Muslim.  The family includes a husband and wife, who wears a hijab, and their grown daughter who works as a professional in a morgue.  The husband is convinced that other people are always cheating him in business, because he does not speak fluent English.  To him, fluent or native English speakers have a certain power over him, which he does not like, and actively struggles against.  When he decides to buy a gun for protection, and is asking his daughter in Arabic about his best options, the owner of the store gets agitated, and tells him “if you want to plan the jihad, do it on your own time.”  Just because he is speaking Arabic, the shop owner assumes that he is a terrorist.  Unsurprisingly, he storms out of the store, leaving his very Americanized daughter to deal with the situation.  Although the husband angers quickly, and can be aggressive, all he wants to do is provide for his family.  He and his wife run a convenience store, and he was buying a gun to protect them. 

Later on in the film, the family’s shop is broken into, and completely ransacked.  The wife finds Arab slurs spray-painted on the walls, and questions, “Since when did Persian become Arab?”  The disparity of the family due to the destruction of their business is extremely evident, especially when the insurance company informs them that they are citing negligence, and are not covering any of the cost of the damages.  The daughter wants to help her parents, but there is only so much she can do, because she has to work as well.

The portrayal of the Muslim Persian family in Crash embodies a few strategies employed by Hollywood directors and producers that Evelyn Alsultany explores in her article ‘Representing the War on Terror in TV Dramas’.  One strategy is the challenge of the Arab/Muslim conflation.  This family, while Muslim, is not Arab, a common misconception that is even seen in the film.  Another strategy used is the sympathizing of Muslims post 9/11.  Even though the husband is aggressive man, when the family’s store is almost completely destroyed, the audience feels bad for this family that has lost everything.  They are not terrorists, they are innocent citizens participating in American society, and embody what Mahmood Mamdani calls ‘good’ Muslims- Muslims who have proven to have the American spirit within them.  This gives them a sense of power, however unseen, over 'bad' Muslims.  However, as Alsultany argues, there is a very narrow idea of what constitutes a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ Muslim post 9/11, and the view of a ‘good’ Muslim is only given when they have proven themselves not as terrorists, but as people just trying to live the American dream. 

By Falina Lothamer

Works Cited
Alsultany, Evelyn, “Representing the War on Terror in TV Dramas,” International Connections, Center for International and Comparative Studies, University of Michigan, Fall 2009, 1-9.

Course Terms List, AC 498/CICS 401.  Dec. 3, 2010.

Crash.  Dir. Paul Haggis.  Perf. Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito.  Lions Gate Films, 2004.  DVD.

The Dangers of Orientalism

Edward Said’s interview ‘On Orientalism’, is an enlightening addition to his research and writings on the topic.  According to Said, Orientalism is a term that refers to the ways that the Western cultures view Eastern, or ‘Oriental’ cultures.  Middle Eastern cultures are seen as ‘Other’, and are viewed as exotic, static, placid, and un-developing, unlike the West.  In the interview, Said says that Orientalism is a lens that distorts the realities of the cultures of the Middle East.  He decided to write the book Orientalism, after the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, and the continual representations of Muslims and Arabs in art and the media that were very different from the experience that Said had as an Arab. 
 In his book, Said argues that the ‘Orient’, and to be Oriental, was conceived by Europe and the West.  People from this region were not asked their opinion, and westerners represent the ‘Orient’ and its people for them.   Said remarks on this situation during the nineteenth century.  “The Orient was Orientalized not only because it was discovered to be ‘Oriental’ in all those ways considered commonplace by an average nineteenth-century European, but also because it could be- that is, submitted to being- made Oriental.” (Said 72)  In essence, the West very visibly asserted its power over the Orient by making them Oriental, or different, without taking into account the true culture of the region.  This appears to be the same case as to what he describes in his interview.  There are countless works of art and other artistic/media representations of the Middle East that are just untrue.  Yet somehow, the West’s perception on the Orient has not changed, for the same pictures and photographs from the nineteenth century are still being used in the twentieth and twenty-first century. 
Another topic Said talks about in his interview is the concept of American Orientalism.  Unlike Europe, especially Britain and France, the United States has not had a full occupation in the Middle East (at the time of this interview).  Therefore, the American perception of Orientalism is much less direct, based on abstractions power dynamics, and is also very politicized.  Many of the images that people see on the Middle East from what the news is reporting, which is based on many of the US government’s actions and policies, specifically pertaining to Israel.  Because Israel is an American ally and therefore viewed as Western, Said explains, many of the images seen in the US of the region are Arabs, specifically Hamas, resisting against the Israeli occupation.  Immediately, these people are seen as terrorists, without giving an explanation of the Israeli occupation, why people are resisting it, and what it has done to Palestinians and other Arabs.  Said argues that viewing the Middle East in such a narrow way, without learning the whole story, takes away from the complexity of the culture and the people, and is a very dangerous way of viewing people.  In order for the US to have a true understanding of the Middle East, or the Orient, the binary oppositions, perceived power of the West over the Orient, and ‘Othering’ constructed by Orientalism need to be erased.  Said’s final message in his interview addresses learning how to coexist peacefully with people who are different from one another with regard to race, religion, and culture.  It is one of the biggest challenges facing not only the US, but the world as well.  Unless we as a people learn how to coexist and accept other peoples’ differences, violence across nations, cultures, and religions will only continue.

By Falina Lothamer

Works Cited

Said, Edward W., “Orientalism,” in Moustafa Bayoumi and Andrew Rubin, eds.  The Edward Said Reader (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 63-75.

“Said on Orientalism.”  Web.  24 November 2010.  (Ctools).

Aladdin: Looking Deeper

Aladdin is a Disney film for the ages.  With an instantly recognizable main character, heavy hitting voice actors, unique story, and catchy music it is all that one could expect out of a Disney film of the 1990s.  Although the genius of the screenplay and production are reflected through the movie’s lucrative profits, many casual viewers fail to see the ways in which with Aladdin Disney constructed an easily consumable package of the “Other” in Arab culture.

            In the opening minutes of the film the storyteller sings of a fictional land of roaming camel caravans: Where they cut off your ear / If they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.  Off the bat Disney has begun to construct this desert society of Arabs as one that is a binary opposite to the one young Americans live in.  In the movie world there are no second chances for mistakes.  Hell, Arabs seem like the kind of people that will maim you for no reason other than not liking the way you look.  Their codes of ethics are fundamentally different from us in the West, but it’s okay: they don’t know any better.  To them, this place is simply their home.

            It’s important for the movie to establish itself in a world that is distinctly not close to home for viewers so they can more fully suspend disbelief and buy into the plot.  Even so, it’s interesting that people at large buy so unquestioningly into this dominant discourse about the Middle East.  The fact that the city of Agrabah and the surrounding areas are underdeveloped by Western standards, people starve in the streets, and the homeless prowl looking for food makes it “barbaric”.

            The hero of the film, Aladdin, is an interesting character to examine.  Aladdin’s accent is distinctly American, while the guards, Jafar, and other villains speak Arabic-accented English.  Although Aladdin was born and raised in the same city as the rest of the characters, he has mystically developed his own way to talk.  This distinction perpetuates the false stereotype of foreigners as lawbreakers and the exceptionalism of do-good Americans.  Though these comparisons aren’t overt, they are noticeable throughout the movie and undoubtedly make an impact on the viewer.

            It’s easy to dismiss these aspects of a great film and argue that everyone knows the film isn’t trying to depict reality.  It chooses a fictional venue with landmarks of mixed backgrounds to create a plot that is utterly fantastical.  But even if people do know it’s not real, the fact that these artistic choices make an impression on the viewer is undeniable.  The target audience for the movie is children under 15 years of age who likely know next to nothing about the state of the world outside the United States.  For these children, this movie is a powerful building block in forming the foundation of an “Other” that is so inherently different from the society they know and love. 

As Youmans asserts in Humor Against Hegemony, unless one can get the attention of the masses it doesn’t matter what they are saying.  Even for adults it has been proven that the deepest impressions are made when the subject is deeply interested in the material being consumed.  Although many adults have access to other channels of information, it’s easy to see how an entertaining film with generalized visual representations of an unseen population and culture could be taken to heart.  In short, attention begets influence. 
by Grayson Smith

Musings on Prince of Persia

With the emergence of video games into mainstream entertainment in the past few decades has also come cultural baggage.  Though books and movies have been long since critiqued for portraying minority ethnic groups in a negative light, video games, in their interactive nature, have the ability to do so to an ever greater degree.

Prince of Persia is a video game franchise that started as an American made computer game for the Apple II.  The 1989 version then went on to inspire a plethora of sequels throughout the 2000s.  The game is based in ancient Iran and opens with our hero (the character the user controls) unjustly imprisoned in a palace dungeon.  The player is then informed the Grand Vizier is planning to take the throne and marry the princess, who has one hour to agree to the marriage or be killed.  The player has the obligatory role of saving the princess and restoring order to the faltering kingdom.

 In the same way many books and movies do, Prince of Persia decides to construct its plot around a mysterious foreign culture.  It interestingly assigns Iran as the specific country for the story to take place, somewhere where it won’t be too difficult to convince the audience that such corruption can occur.  Even the princess of such a country is left powerless to the domineering male character of the Grand Vizier.  She must be saved, and she must be saved immediately.

In Lila Abu-Lughod’s 2002 article “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” she discusses the ways in Arab women are victimized in Western cultures.  She argues that instead of acting rashly based on pity for a culture one knows little about we instead try to develop a more serious appreciation for differences among women around the world.  Although the dominant discourse in the United States is that these women are victims of abuse and strict local law, it’s important to first understand the cultural context.  The hijab, an often-sighted symbol of oppression in the Muslim and Arab worlds, is often times far from mandatory.  The hijab, for many Arab women, becomes the opposite: a statement of fashion and individuality.  In the same way that women of the West see Arab garb as oppressive, many Arabs see the ways in which Western media exploits the bodies of young women and think that Western women are equally victimized.  Although the victimization is happening on a different end of the spectrum (and often not conceived of poorly by those purportedly “victimized”) they are both examples of an aspect of culture being interpreted in distinctly foreign ways.

The cover of the 1989 game (seen above) portrays the Grand Vizier in a headdress grabbing the princess by the wrist.  This image also furthers the stereotype of the Arab woman as a victim of Arab men.  Although save-the-princess plots are fairly standard when it comes to video games, it’s very surprising the frequency in which the plot is framed within an Arab world context. 

It’s also interesting to note that the player only has sixty minutes to save his damsel in distress, further pushing the urgency of the situation.  If people don’t act now to liberate Arab women, corruption will run rampant and societies’ economic development will stagnate.  From here the exceptionalist United States, with its superior moral code, will be pressed even harder to intervene and find a solution.  Is this the discourse we want to present to the young generation?  By “othering” Iran as exotic and separate from the US the producers push this thought process on players.  Yes, the producers are simply trying to create a fantasy world in which players can get lost from reality, but it's unreasonable to deny the power they hold with the decisions they make as to setting, plot, and casting.  Though it doesn’t seem completely logical to blame video game producers for employing these strategies, it’s necessary that it is widely recognized how in the real world the situation is different.
By Grayson Smith

Works Cited:
Sisler, Vit. "Digital Arabs: Representation in Video Games." Digital Islam. Oct. 2006. Web. 01 Dec. 2010. <>.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Defying Othering through Art: Lalla Essaydi’s “Les Femmes du Maroc”:

This piece explores the complex nature of Arab feminine identity through the lens of past and present by pulling inspiration from several iconic 19th century American and European Orientalist paintings. For example, one photo is posed like Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingre’s Grand Odalisque. Essaydi recreates these depictions without male figures and elegant details so that the women become the sole focal point of the piece. She also displays small copies of the Orientalist original nearby on the wall to help visitors make the connection. She deliberately poses Moroccan women in draping white fabric. She illustrates, with henna, Arabic calligraphic script writings from her own personal journal that cover every surface of the print.

In the past, calligraphy was an art form practiced exclusively by men for the transcriptions of sacred texts. One of the purposes of Essaydi’s photographs is to eliminate the original Orientalist photos of their misogynistic and Euro-centric discourse. Historically, Orientalist paintings were used to eroticize the Middle East, thus giving Europeans a view of a mysterious land and the “new Islamic world.” Each woman in the set of photos has a moderately to openly hostile expressions.
"I always had this love-hate [relationship] with Orientalist paintings," Essaydi said. "I find them exquisite but at the same time, the content is absolutely outrageous."

Throughout her work, Essaydi wishes to present herself though multiple, diverse lenses—as an artist, a Moroccan, a liberal, a traditionalist, and a Muslim. She invites viewers to resist stereotypes with her images. This particular piece, absent of male figures, functions to take the power back from the original Orientalist images and redistributes the power to these women and to all women who are objectified. She challenges the archaic view of the exotic, unexplored, Muslim woman and aims to create a more honest view of Muslim women. Thus, she challenges the idea of each woman as “the Other” in the original Orientalist depictions. She wanted to give the real image of the Moroccan women she knows. “She is not repressed - she has determination and creativity like any man or like any woman in the West or any other part of the world!" exclaims Essaydi. This sort of influence would be very powerful if it were spread more widely and throughout more of popular culture.
This painting was purchased by the Louvre and can be seen in the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers. Art is often considered high culture and inaccessible to the general public. Low culture seems to only show that Muslim women are oppressed and that cultural relativism isn’t something we have time to be concerned with. Does accessibility to low and high culture inform how we view a culture? Since certain people do not have the luxury to go to visit such an exhibit, do they not have the same impression of Islamic Women?
As stated in “Racism in the Name of Feminism: Imperilled Muslim Women in Norway,” the body of the Muslim woman is fixed in the Western imaginary as confined, mutilated, and sometimes murdered in the name of culture. The argument here is that this idea serves to reinforce the threat that Muslim men pose to the West. Cultural relativism is the principle that the standards of one culture cannot be used to understand or judge another culture. People that are not directly part of Muslim culture presume to know how Muslim men oppress Muslim women. We must use positive expressions such as this one to stop “othering”. If more people could see and experience this exhibit, preconceived notions about Muslim women and oppression of all Muslim women would be challenged.

By: Gianna Fazioli

Works Cited

Razack, Sherene. Racism in the Name of Feminism: Imperilled Muslim Women in Norway. University of Toronto Press. 107-144.

Said, Edward W., “Orientalism,” in Moustafa Bayoumi and Andrew Rubin, eds.  The Edward Said Reader (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 63-75.