Home Op-Eds On the Overlooked Stigmatization of Muslim, Arab, Latin Men

On the Overlooked Stigmatization of Muslim, Arab, Latin Men

On the Overlooked Stigmatization of Muslim, Arab, Latin Men

New York – It would be an error of the first order to judge the Other, any Other, by standards that are inappropriate and effectively exterior and foreign to it. To understand the Other (like understanding the self) means to sympathize with it, to try to enter its soul and spirit, to identify with its worldview and cosmology. –Wael Hallaq [1]

Katherine Ewing’s Stolen Honor discusses a subject which has long and deeply troubled me, that of the stereotyping and stigmatization of certain “categories” of men, especially: Arab men and Latin American men, and more generally, “Muslim” men as well as males from many “minority” or “Other” groups. Having grown up in Mexico, I am repeatedly asked about my father’s “machismo,” and just have it assumed and taken for granted, precisely as professor Ewing writes, by “politically correct” people, that my father must have been a “macho” in the sense and meaning described by her:

In the United States, the form of masculinity associated with machismo is highly stigmatized and stereotyped: ‘As defined by U.S. society, the concept of ‘machismo’ has distinct negative overtones. Being macho is often associated with being a wife-beater, a philanderer, a drunk, a ‘bien gallo’ –a fighter, like a rooster.'” (Rodriguez and Gonzalez 1997). What often goes unnoticed by Americans who identify themselves as politically correct is that in the United States this label was applied first to Latin American men and has contributed to their marginalization.[2]

As Ewing explains, to many who consider themselves politically correct (and would feel horrified by the suggestion that they are prejudiced), the fact that they are de facto and unconsciously prejudiced against the males of certain cultures which have been consistently portrayed in less than favorable ways in the public discourse and media completely eludes them. The majority of people never consciously think or become aware of this very destructive form of “othering” and stigmatization. Many take it as a given, a fact that “we all know” and therefore don’t even need to discuss or debate, that Mexican men, Arab men, Muslim men, etc. are violent and oppressive towards women and that women must be saved from these types of men. As Gayatri Spivak writes, the view that “white men are saving the brown women from brown men” is prevalent and hardly examined. Only recently, Professor Ewing tells us, have the stereotypes about Hispanic men, for instance, began to be questioned.

Bearing striking similarities in the actual stereotype content and stigmatization process directed against Hispanic males, the widely prevalent stigmatization of Muslim males in general and Arab men in particular, is largely ignored. The primary concern and focus of public discourse is on the oppression of women and the violence they endure at the hands of these men. What Professor Ewing writes is unfortunately and deeply true to this day: “The stigmatization of Muslim men in terms of women’s rights is a longstanding element of Western discourse. The Bush administration used the argument for women’s rights as part of the justification of the war in Afghanistan, as in Laura Bush’s radio address to the nation in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon: ‘The fight against terrorism is also the fight for the rights and dignity of women.'” Right here, in the United States, an alarmingly large number of women are trafficked, enslaved, abused and sexually assaulted on a regular basis. But if one were to read academic research and media publications alike, one would think we have transcended such things in the United States and because of this, must now solely focus on the pain that women endure in other places.

This obsessive focus on the plight of Muslim women reinforces the “truth” of the stereotypes (and thus stigmatization) against Muslim men. Among Muslim men, however, there appear to be categories or levels of discrimination, with Arab men being, in my opinion, the most severely attacked group. Hardly anyone would disagree that Arab men are unceasingly demonized and shown in the worst of lights, reduced to stereotypes, ridiculed, caricatured, and portrayed as dangers that “women must be saved from.” These stereotypes have been assimilated and parroted by other “minority” men who are also stigmatized, but to a lesser extent –let’s say, Iranians who may not want to be associated or confused with other groups of Muslims.

This is because the propaganda machinery of the recent times has forcefully attempted to distort the Arab male identity perhaps more than any other, to alienate it from its nature and to prevent others from knowing it at all. Racist philosophies, including this mainstream Western disparagement of Arab men, are deeply painful and harm every human being. The frustration I feel at the constant onslaught I encounter of trite and obtuse stereotypes about “Arabs” in general and Arab men in particular is intolerable. Even in academia, when the substance of the arguments put forward by scholars of Arab origin cannot be discredited, attempts to dismiss or devalue their work through attacks launched at them (in supposedly “academic” journals) for “belong[ing] to the Arabian race”[3] incredibly take place. Clearly this “category” of scholar –and his work, regardless of its incontestable brilliance–is treated quite differently than the category of let’s say white male scholars.

To conclude, I found Professor Ewing’s discussion of the mechanism whereby a society imposes, defines, and distorts the masculinity of the “Other” enlightening and upsetting. Without having studied this issue academically, what she wrote deeply resonated with me and clarified ideas I had long intuited about the stigmatization of “minority” males in the modern nation-state and the purposes this serves. Using the example of Turkish men in Germany, Ewing demonstrated how this “stigmatization is naturalized through a hegemonic discourse emotionally structured by social fantasies and how a national and transnational imaginary based on such fantasies is produced through government institutions and public culture.[4]” This is precisely what has happened in mainstream Western culture in relation to, among others, Muslim men and Hispanic men.

[1] Hallaq, Wael B. “Groundwork of the Moral Law: A New Look at the Qur??n and the Genesis of Shar??a.” Islamic Law and Society 16, no. 3/4 (2009): 239-79, 247.

[2] Ewing, Katherine. Stolen Honor: Stigmatizing Muslim Men in Berlin, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2008, 12.

[3] See, for instance, Patricia Crone, Serjeant and Meccan Trade, in 39 ARABICA 216, 239-40 (1992). Unable to counter Professor Wael Hallaq’s valid and logically irrefutable criticisms of her work, she typically twists his substantive legal critique into a vile ad hominem attack based on the fact that he “belongs to the Arabian race.” Her hollow response to Wael Hallaq’s critique is a desperate attempt to save a hopelessly deficient work called Roman, Provincial and Islamic Law, and is paradigmatic of the way Orientalism has always treated outside critiques, “brushing them aside as being inherently motivated by ideological considerations, as if Crone herself and the other Orientalists are free of complex forms of ideological biases.” See, Hallaq, Wael, “The Quest for Origins or Doctrine,” in Islamic Legal Studies as Colonialist Discourse, 2 UCLA J. Islamic & Near E. L. 1, 32, 2002, p. 9.

[4] Ewing, Katherine, ibid, 6.

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