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"If 100 000 Arabs die, I don't feel anything at all but I can feel sympathy with the allies and their families. I am afraid of the Arabs."
These words were written by the Swedish journalist Erik Hörstadius after the end of the Gulf War. With one or two exceptions his statement attracted no attention and gave rise to no debate. The explanation for this is simply that most Swedes felt and thought the same way. Racist comments directed at Arabs are still as accepted as they always have been. It has not been possible to revile any other religious, cultural or ethnic group with impunity so continuously.
During the Gulf War, in the same way as during the oil crises, cartoonists again felt free to depict Arabs in an extreme Stürmer style with hooked noses and evil greedy eyes without causing offence. The Arab world was again presented as a huge desert over a gigantic sea of oil, populated by cowardly terrorists and fat, rich sheiks groping for belly dancers. Not even their religion was spared from scorn. The possible impact on the price of oil was illustrated with muezzins. Instead of calling "There is no other god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet" from their minarets, they were now proclaiming falling share prices on the West's stock exchanges.
These cartoons often give a picture of a lifestyle of blatant opulence and those portrayed are depicted as people outside our accepted system of values, full of greed, every desire imaginable, malevolence and underhandedness. Muslims are described not just as criminals and terrorists in general but also as notorious baby-snatchers and women abusers.
As recent as in the 1980 edition of the major dictionary Roget's Thesaurus the synonyms for "arab" are words such as lout, rascal, scoundrel, boor and yokel. They were removed only after pressure from Arab organizations in the United States. Slogans such as "Fight high oil prices: Mug an Arab today" or "Buy a Toyota! Drive an Arab crazy!" are still considered acceptable in the American press. A record in lack of taste that is difficult to beat was achieved a few years ago by an American company manufacturing coal briquettes in the form of an Arab sheik. The product was named "sheeks" and sold under the slogan "Save oil, burn sheeks". Furthermore, a few years ago the FBI attempted to fight corruption through "Operation Abscam" (abbreviation of Arabscam), in which agents dressed up as Arab sheiks offered bribes to American politicians. It is not difficult to imagine the violent protests that would have ensued if the operation had instead been designated "Jewscam" and people in the guise of anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews had acted as bait.
In novels, short stories and TV programmes, Arabs are portrayed with impunity as either blood-thirsty, fanatical terrorists or as ridiculous, smarmy, unintelligent nouveaux riches with an insatiable desire for Western women. In one film after another Muslim crowds wave their fists and shout anti-Western slogans full of hatred. No objections are raised to books such as Rafael Patais "The Arab", in which various negative qualities based on racial biology are attributed to Arabs. A chapter in Erica Jong's best-seller "Fear of Flying" is entitled "Arabs and Other Animals" which has not given rise to any demands that the book be censured.
The author Leon Uris has had even greater impact with his purely racial propaganda. No other people could with impunity be described in the terms he has used for the Palestinians. The American linguist Noam Chomsky gave the following description of the treatment of Arabs in the American media: "The American press regularly disgraces itself with racist caricatures of Arab sheiks said to have decided to destroy Western civilization by increasing oil prices. Similar references to Jews would be condemned as a return to Goebbels and Streicher. We can read learned discussions about "the Arab mentality", about "the culture of shame" that prevents Arabs from looking reality in the eye and about the treachorous and violent character of the Arabs. It is totally inconceivable that e.g. Jews and Israelis could be discussed in the same way except in Klu Klux Klan publications."
The same unfortunately also applies to a great part of the European press.
How come that racism against Arabs is still acceptable? There are several explanations:
- an anti-Islamic ideology dating back to the time of the crusades with ideas of an eternal holy war between Christianity and Islam decreed by fate
- a racism following in the wake of European colonialism
- an anti-Arab propaganda as a consequence of the Palestine conflict
- a need to fill the threat scenario vacuum after the collapse of Communism. Without an external threat it appears to be much more difficult to keep the concept of Europe alive
- and lastly a negative image not least self-inflicted by Arab politicians.
Christianity still does not seem to have got over the traumatic experience it was to see the representatives of a new monotheistic religion, who regarded their belief as the perfection of Christianity, not just rapidly conquer large parts of the then known world, including Christianity's sacred places, but also threaten Europe's heartland. We simply do not seem to be able to reconcile ourselves to the idea that for centuries Islam was the superior civilization. Ever since the time of the crusades an image of Arabs as a backward and brutal race has prevailed.
Later, Islam successfully competed with Christianity in the missionary field and thus was perceived as a threat there too. Generations of Westerners have had got their picture of the Arab imprinted at school and Sunday school as a cruel reactionary being and desecrator of places sacred to us. One of many Swedish examples of this was book Fredrika Bremer's widely read book "Lifvet I den gamla världen (Life in the Old World) in which she describes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the middle of the 19th century. The Arabs are said to "impede all culture and well-being in Palestine. To win respect, European missionaries and consuls must form colonies and defend themselves by force of arms against this plague of locusts, it is however not very difficult since the Arabs are not the least courageous….. How beautiful, how rich, how happy this country could be under a good Christian administration! ... Not until then will the desert here flower like a lily".
Countless other prejudiced but much read travel books such as, for example, Mark Twain's "The New Pilgrim's Progress" have been contributing to this picture. In our time American Christian "ayatollahs" like the TV evangelists Billy Graham, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have an enormous impact with their message that the Arabs are suspicious characters who stand in the way of the biblical prophecies.
"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword", Jesus says in Matthew 10:34, and in the Old Testament very drastic policies are prescribed in several passages, for example in Deuteronomy 20:16-17 concerning Canaan's population. "However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes." After the conquest of Jericho, Joshua complied with this instruction: "They destroyed with the sword every living thing in the city, - men and women, young and old".
We do not expect anybody to equate these and countless other similar Bible passages with Christian or Jewish ethics. The concept "jihad", usually translated "the holy war", on the other hand has caused much ink to flow in Europe over the centuries and is considered unequivocal proof that Islam is a fanatic religion whose message throughout history has been spread by the sword and still today is forced on dissidents in the same way. On the one hand we seem to assume that the Islamic world out of some kind of absolute necessity must have treated its religious minorities with the same cruelty and fanaticism as we did over the centuries and, on the other we are ignorant of what the "jihad" concept really means.
The basic meaning of the word "jihad" is a physical, moral or intellectual effort. In English the closest expression would be "struggle" which can have different meanings. Every effort made to follow the path of God is a "jihad". This does not in any way need to be combined with warlike acts although Osama Bin Laden and other fundamentalists have been very succesful in their efforts to make Western public opinion believe so.
The image of Islam as a military threat to the West and as an expression of general backwardness and primitiveness also dominated our perspectives during the age of European colonialism and was the excuse for conquests in the name of Crown and Cross. Colonial officials and officers together with missionaries became the mainstay of empire building. The British spoke of "the white man's burden" and the French of their "mission civilisatrice". The school systems, military academies and political institutions that were established aimed to create a society in line with the conceptions and ideals of the colonial power. The power shift to Europe and the emergence of modernity were not seen as a consequence of the conditions and circumstances underlying the age of enlightenment and the industrial revolution but rather as a result of Christianity's inherent supremacy both as religion and culture. Bismarck urged the French prime minister to occupy Tunisia because: "You cannot leave Carthage to the barbarians" and Britain's General Allenby conjured up the memory of the crusaders when he marched into Jerusalem at the end of the First World War.
Edward Said claims in his much discussed book "Orientalism" that the East has undergone what he calls an orientalization and been transformed into a stereotype formed over the centuries by wars of religion, literary depictions and a scientific discourse named precisely orientalism. According to Said not only is this the West's own invention in order to understand the East but the fiction created by the West has also served as a contrasting picture to contribute to Europe's definition of itself. Without a foreign other, its own identity becomes unclear.
Underlying the varying expressions of orientalism are the same everlasting dogmas about the East's backwardness, its deviation from our norms and its generally threatening attitude. Orientals are said to be incapable of logical thought and undeveloped in all areas of life. Their civilization is basically antihuman and "homo arabicus" or "islamicus" as incorrigible as immutable. The Arabs cannot be allowed to speak for themselves, a view which Karl Marx also subscribed to. "They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented", he wrote in "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte". Hence, the East is something to be either feared or controlled.
The resistance European colonialism encountered in the Arab world, and not least the Algerian struggle for liberation in the 1950s, have contributed to the rapid equating of Arabs with terrorists. Naturally this also applies to a great extent to developments in Palestine, both before and after the formation of Israel. European arrogance in relation to Arabs is perhaps most clearly illustrated in the Balfour Declaration in which a British minister promises a country that was not his to a people who did not reside there against the will of the original inhabitants and without consulting them. In spite of the fact that the Jews, the vast majority of whom were recent immigrants, made up less than ten per cent of the population in 1917, it seemed completely natural to Balfour to describe the Arab inhabitants as a negligible non-Jewish population which, of course, is as objectively justified as calling the Finns in Finland that country's non-Swedish population.
The Zionist movement and the state of Israel have therefore had an enormous advance advantage in the propaganda war that has been waged alongside the political and military antagonisms. The western world's fear of Arabs and its prejudices resulted in a total indifference to the Palestinians' situation and an equally total indifference to their just demands for a national identity and a state of their own.
Instead, we in Europe have let the Palestinians pay for our feelings of guilt towards the Jews. In the same way as the Jews were accused in Germany in the 1930s of controlling the economy with their capital and of promoting international communism, it seems to be natural to equate Palestinians, Arabs in general, and Islam with international terrorism. This in spite of the fact that the most radical and ruthless leaders of the Palestinian organizations have been Christians.
Leon Uris's novel "The Haj", presented as an attempt to understand the Arabs, is a record breaker in open racism and this best-seller has had a great influence on the image of Islam and the Arabs not just in the United States but throughout the world. In this book, the Arabs are described in a way which according to the Jerusalem Post "would make a Jewish extremist like Meir Kahane blush".
"Independence", says one of the main characters in the novel, "is a dream we have never dreamt". In the novel, young guerillas are sold by their parents, drugged and "thrown over the border like a piece of meat for the dogs since fedayin do not want them to return. They only want martyrs". Uris avails himself of every conceivable racist stereotype. His Palestinian Arabs are poor, uneducated and totally lacking in personal initiative. They are violent by nature, sexually overactive and deviant. According to Uris, Arabs in general are "a decadent, wild people who are controlled by a religion that has divested them of all human ambitions with the exception of a few who are sufficiently cruel and arrogant to take the lead over the others as though they were a flock of sheep. It is a mad society".
According to Uris, the Palestinians were even themselves the cause of the massacre staged by Menachem Begin in the village Deir Yassin in 1948. The attack was caused by "the cruelty and evil that emanates from the Muslim world". The Israeli hero is on the other hand plagued by the fact that "we have been forced to carry out such acts in order to survive. I can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. I cannot forgive them for forcing us to murder theirs".
Israeli politicians and writers have also yielded to open racism directed at their Semitic cousins. Begin, for example, spoke of Palestinians as "two legged monsters". In the reputable Jerusalem Post, it has been possible to read from the pens of recognized writers formulations such as "the primitive behaviour of the murderous Arab world," etc. The massacres at Sabra and Chatila, instigated by Ariel Sharon, did not concern Israel according to Begin since they just involved Arabs killing other Arabs. Furthermore, it seemed natural to the Israeli Supreme Commander Eitan to equate Arabs with cockroaches in a speech to the Knesset.
After the collapse of Communism, Western politicians and media again discovered the market value of Islam as a potential threat. Books, articles and TV programmes on themes such as "Allah's sword", "The green threat", "A fundamentalist international", "the Islamic challenge", "Islam's war against modernity", "A global intifada" were abundant. Although there are now over a billion Muslims who are in the majority in some fifty states from South-East Asia to West Africa, Islam is portrayed as a monolithic block, often directly or indirectly equated with Islamic fundamentalism and fanaticism which is presented as the "genuine Islam". Usually the Arab world and Islam are equated in spite of the fact that it only represents about 15% of the Islamic community in which Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India are the largest states. The creators of threat scenarios consistently ignore the various religious and political currents that characterize the Muslim states and also their ethnic and cultural diversity and individual character.
The fear of religion that increasingly characterizes our own secularized and commercialized societies is projected onto the Islamic world as though it were one unit. Even expressions of general piety such as regular visits to the mosque are looked upon as expressions of fanaticism. Deep inside we seem to doubt the excellence of our own civilization and this we try to compensate by defending ourselves against an imagined outside threat. The modern West is therefore reasonable, the backward East more or less mad and impossible as a partner with equal rights in discussions. The Muslims are and will remain unpredictable and dangerous. A dialogue should therefore be avoided instead of sought.
In this way, the image of the enemy Islam is not only a crutch for our own cultural identity but the Muslim world is also transformed into areas to which we can move negative elements of our own culture and black passages in our own history. An example of this is the comparisons between Saddam Hussein and Hitler during the Gulf War and again to-day.
The situation of women is another example. There is no decree in the Koran corresponding to Paul´s word in the Bible that women should remain silent in the churches and the Koran contains provisions that were revolutionary for the situation of women in the seventh century, for example provisions relating to inheritance. Inspite of that, Islam is not only considered the main cause of women's subordinate position in Muslim society but we also wrongly assume that the worst cases apply in general. Regarding both wearing the veil and polygamy, the Koran gives different interpretations and anyway both these phenomena are exceptions rather than the rule in the Muslim world. Nor is the female circumcision that is practised in parts of the Muslim world decreed in the Koran. It was already practised in Pharoanic Egypt, which of course does make this phenomenon any more acceptable.
Such simplistic notions arouse diffuse fears of a serious threat to "our Western culture". This threat in its turn appears to be a necessity for strengthening a European identity which is now wavering. The concept of Europeans first occurred in a chronicle of the Battle of Poiters from the mid-eighth century. The Arab commander Abd ar-Rahman was beaten by Karl Martell, whose army consisted of a motley collection of Gallo-Romance and German tribes. However, these Europeans were only united on the battlefield. They subsequently, writes the chronicler, returned to their respective home countries and the community dissolved. What all attempts to create a European identity, since the Battle of Poiters in 732 have in common is that the idea of unity has been strongest when Europe faced a common enemy. If Islam is now given this role as a substitute for Communism, a historic circle of 1250 years will be closed.
The Arabs themselves are also greatly to blame for our negative image in the West. Their inability to create democratic institutions and to modernize their societies has brought about a hotbed for racist ideas.
The behaviour of many Arab politicians over the years, the often exaggerated political rhetoric, and the continual antagonisms between Arab states have also contributed to a self-caused negative image which Saddam Hussein strengthened during the Gulf War and which was again reinforced by Usama Bin Laden after September 11.
"Ever since the first day Islam appeared, different powers have tried to destroy it and take away its power. And when they were not able to do so they tried to put it into the melting-pot of internationalism and dissolve it there. However, since Islam was ordained by God and shaped on the basis of moral, right and justice, it has been capable of withstanding all attempts to crush it irrespective of whether these were in the form of crusades, colonial conquests or Sionist occupation or were of a Marxist, materialistic, existentialist or individualistic nature."
This statement from the book "Islam and the West" by one of Islam's best known modern apologists, Anwar al-Gundi, is typical of many Muslims' image of the hostility of the Western world.
While the origins of our image of the enemy, Islam, are hundreds of years old, the Muslim image of the enemy in the West, is of younger date. The crusades and the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain in connection with the Spanish Inquisition are certainly considered prime evidence of the West's aggressiveness but during the crusades no real image of the enemy was drawn. Some military skills were indeed attributed to the Franks as the crusaders were called, however they were mainly regarded as temporary visitations by uncivilized barbarians who were regarded as vastly inferior. The Syrian Prince Usama wrote, for example, in his autobiography:
"Having got to know the Franks, one can only thank and praise the Sublime God, and look on them as animals possessing no virtues at all except courage and bravery."
The feeling that there was a threat from the West did not grow strong until the early 19th century in connection with the European states' growing influence over and interest in the Orient. It was, however, growing slowly and alongside a continued admiration for the Western world's economic, scientific and technical progress which, above all in educated circles, led to attempts to imitate the West.
France's occupation of Algeria in 1830 and the subsequent massive European meddling in the affaires of North Africa and the Middle East were gradually looked upon as a conscious attack on Islam. The conspiracy theory grew stronger after the First World War. The Arabs were promised independence in exchange for their participation in the fight against the Turks but these promises were never fulfilled. Instead, their reward was the Sykes-Picot Agreement with its arbitrary division of the Middle East into British and French mandates. The Arabs had to be satisfied with tributary monarchies in Transjordan and Iraq instead of an Arab state from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic. The Ottoman Empire collapsed according to this reasoning as a result of a conspiracy aiming in the long term to divide the Islamic community into a number of small areas that could be more easily controlled and ruled.
The nation states that emerged after the Second World War were therefore in their turn regarded as a logical consequence of this conscious effort to split Muslim unity. Naturally, much space in these conspiracy theories is given to the 1917 Balfour Declaration in which, over the Arabs' heads, the Jews were promised a new homeland in Palestine. Israel is seen as the last outpost and relic of European colonialism.
In the eyes of both the secular pan-Arabists and the Islamic fundamentalists, the West has been doubly successful. The conspirators succeeded not only in breaking the Muslims' unity but also Islam as a political system. You can now read in the fundamentalists' pamphlets how the Western powers persuaded Arab intellectuals to falsely differentiate between religion and politics. Military aggressiveness and cultural and economic expansionism are said to be a common feature in the West's behaviour towards the East ever since Napoleon's Egyptian expedition in 1790.
Some years ago The Economist contained a fictitious dialogue between a Christian and a Muslim religious leader, in which the latter says: "It worries me that so many people seem to think that the next phase of history will be a fight between your part of the world and mine. It is true that we live at elbow's length from each other and our elbows have met in a painful way on many occasions in the past. But almost 2 000 years after the birth of Jesus and more than 1 400 years after the birth of Muhammed, let me begin by asking if this must really happen again".
"We hate what we don´t know". This statement is attributed to Ali ibn Abu Talib, the fourth Caliph, and also Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law and the first Shiite Imam. It is still valid both in the West and in the Muslim world.
As a result of ignorance, fear and contempt, false enemy images are now projected on both sides. The tesserae of which they are composed are often interchangeable. For the Islamic world too, the West serves as a projection area for all that is considered incompatible with its the Muslim societies. Many Muslims now feel obliged to continually defend their faith and culture against Western condemnation deriving from a false image of Islam. Thus, the enemy images reinforce one another. This reciprocity implies a manifest danger that the willingness for dialogue will further decline, which in its turn will strengthen the forces in both the East and the West that see the gap between the two as insurmountable.
The West must now avoid responding to these images of the enemy and conspiracy theories by cultivating its own. Instead, without sympathising, we must be aware of their background and through cooperation and in practical actions show that they are myths.
A major precondition is that we realize that not all religious sounding formulations have a religious meaning. They are often simply a cultural framework when economic, social and political problems with a purely secular background are to be formulated in order to be politically exploited. Religious hypocricy and pious self-deception are not reserved for Christian cultural circles but are just as popular among politicians in the Muslim world. Islam is used as an instrument in the same way as Christianity for political, economic and social ends. And yet practically every religious phrase from the lips of an Arab politician is taken as an expression of fanaticism. In this way the threat scenario is kept alive despite the fact that in most cases it is political rhetoric for domestic consumption. By the same measure not only the born-again-Christian George W. Bush with all his biblical rhetoric but also Bill Clinton should be characterized as Christian fundamentalists since they as early as in their inauguration addresses have asked for God's help during their presidencies.
Of course there is too much blind fanaticism and dogmatism in the Muslim world today, expressed in acts of terror, oppression of women and serious violations of human rights. However, just as Christianity is not the explanation for the serious problems in our Western societies, fanaticism and irrationality in the East can not automatically be linked to Islam. Rather in both the West and the East, the causes are social, economic and secular. Authoritarian governments, expansionist aspirations, terrorism - these are the real threats but they are not new but old and well-known phenomena. If they are described as such they can be handled dispassionately. But if the word Islam is added, the West immediately exaggerates the real danger.
Thus, the same problems are the same in both cultures although they manifest themselves differently. The objective must therefore be to look for the common causes in a dialogue instead of involuntarily throwing the blame for everything evil on the other side's religion. Europe must lead the way here. To the United States the Mediterranean is just one of many seas, for Europe on the other hand it is a border with an area with which we have always been sharing our history. The Muslim world has perhaps never before been in such strong contrast to Europe as it is today in spite of the fact that it, because of modern technology and modern communications, never has been so near. Whether or not this gap can be bridged is not an academic question posed in an ivory tower. It concerns us on every level, not least through the immigration to Europe from this area. Extremists on both sides have a common aim to make the Mediterranean a sharp cultural border. For that very reason we must, in spite of all the difficulties, seek a dialogue with Islam in its various manifestations with the aim to get rid of threat scenarios and prejudices. As long as these exist, relations between the East and the West will be determined by distrust and hatred.
Between three to four per cent of the Swedish population have a Muslim background which makes Islam the second biggest religious community in my country and the number is growing. In 1994 the Swedish government initiated a dialogue project with Muslim countries, which in a way became the starting point for the Barcelona Process. In April 1998 we organized together with Egypt a Euro-Mediterranean Workshop in Stockholm on the Dialogue between Cultures and Civilizations . The conclusions were endorsed by the Foreign Ministers meeting in Palermo in June 1968 and by the ministers of culture in Rhodes in September the same year. In 2001 Sweden and Spain took the initiative to an action programme for the Dialogue between Cultures and Civilizations which was adopted by the foreign ministers in Valencia in April 2002.This action plan focuses on three themes: youth, education and media. These themes were chosen for the obvious reason that todays´ youth are the decision makers of tomorrow, education is a powerful instrument in fighting ignorance, which is a breeding ground for intolerance, racism and xenophobia and media are effective means to reach out to the general public.
I would also like to mention that in October 2000 a Swedish Institute was inaugurated in Alexandra to further the dialogue between cultures and civilizations and the Swedish Consulate in Istanbul also sees this as one of its tasks.
In today´s world the dialogue should however not only be pursued between countries but also within them. In April 2002 The Swedish Foreign Ministry published a book "Yalla - let us decorate the Christmas tree - Sweden and the Muslim Cultural sphere". This book was distributed free of charge to all high schools and pre-university institutions as well as to all immigrant and youth organizations in Sweden. The purpose is to strengthen the dialogue between the West and the Muslim world, to create understanding for people with a Muslim cultural background and to fight prejudice against other religions. The book was printed in 250 000 copies, quite a number for a country of nine million people. It is also available in Arabic and English.
There is nothing in our genes that predisposes us to fear one another. I know that from a personal experience. In 1986 my family moved from Damascus to Beijing. Our daughter was two at the time. En route we made stopovers in New Delhi, Bangkok and Hongkong and she became increasingly anxious for every change of scene. After a fortnight´s travel we arrived at the embassy residence i Beijing, her new home for several years to come. Her lips started to tremble, but just as the tears were about to flow the muezzin at the Pakistani embassy next door began calling to prayers. She immediately grew calm. A smile of relief lit up her face and she exclaimed "Allah, Allah!" Suddenly this little girl with a Catholic Slovak mother and a protestant Swedish father felt safe. Allah was also in Beijing, so there was nothing to fear.
So is there no reason to fear Islam? The answer is; not the religion as such. But we should keep an eye on those who pursue policies under its banner as well as on those who do so in the name of Christianity.
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