Middle Eastern pride: Don’t feed into Western perceptions


Terry Tan | Staff Illustrator

By Mariam Shalaby / Columnist

I was probably still in the womb when I first heard the advice, “Show them who we are!”

It’s a mantra for Middle Easterners, Muslims and anyone else lumped in — and profiled ­— with our wave of immigrants to the United States.

As a first-generation Middle Eastern American, I didn’t dwell on it much. It was easy to understand: Be yourself. Let others shape their opinion of you from their own experiences, not from what the media tells them.

My immigrant parents are Egyptian and Chinese-Filipino. As a sociable, multi-ethnic family, we dipped our feet into in a variety of social circles, where I noticed the varying levels of Middle Eastern integration into American society.

There were families who mainly socialized with people from their home country, and those whose children’s Arabic rolled off their tongues as fluently as their English.

In the middle, where I fell, the families sent their kids to public school, where they memorized the names of all the Pokemon and American presidents. On the weekend, they went to the mosque, where they learned the names of God.

On the opposite end of the spectrum were the kids who didn’t know the difference between kabab and kofta and couldn’t tell you anything about where they came from, except that it was far away.

Picking and choosing what elements of either culture to keep is part of the immigrant experience left up to the individual. That’s OK.

But it’s not OK when Middle Eastern immigrants who chase Western acceptance by perpetuating the negative perceptions of themselves, aiding a gradual deconstruction of identity.

If we claim to be proud of where we come from, we need to sincerely exhibit that pride by portraying elements of our culture without shame. Without that pride and ownership of our identity, we only perpetuate anti-Islamic and anti-Middle Eastern sentiment.

Identifying accomplishments by how well they negate Western perceptions make our fond statements meaningless. We can’t speak favorably of Middle Easterners if we can’t speak favorably of the Middle East.

Last week, I attended a conference hosted by the American Middle East Institute for Middle Easterners and Americans in business, health and technology. According to its website, the group “is focused on building business, educational and cultural ties between the United States and the countries of the Middle East.”

A loose-leaf biography of one of the speakers, Samir Khalil of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, was tucked inside the conference’s program. Across the top of the page was a logo of a bridge across the ocean from the United States to the Middle East. A single sentence caught my attention.

“Although born in the Middle East, Samir’s nearly three decades in the United States … have made Mr. Khalil an invaluable bridge builder between the world of American innovation and a transitioning Middle East marketplace.”

What? “Although born in the Middle East?”

It was almost self-deprecating. If we want to show people who we are, why do we feel the need to compensate for where we come from?

Later that evening, I sat in Carnegie Music Hall, waiting to hear CNN journalist and author Fareed Zakaria, an analyst whose smooth prose and foreign policy rhetoric informed much of my young life.

He provided his perspective on the history of the Middle East and how its present political, economic and social state developed. Zakaria kept using the word “jihadi” as a synonym for extremist. Jihad in Arabic means “a struggle.” In a religious context, it commonly means a struggle against one’s inner desires. The concept of jihad as religious extremism is a Western misinterpretation that Middle Easterners do not use.

Zakaria later began an anecdote about a rural Pakistani woman who wanted her child to be an engineer. She sent him to a “madrasa,” an Arabic school, run by a local imam.

“The state educational framework had collapsed,” he said. “On the other hand, this local imam had decided to set up a madrasa … these Islamic ties often intersect with the failure of states and then seduce people.”

His point here was that the Middle East needs a better structured state education system. But the statement that “Islamic ties … seduce people” panders to the idea frequently used by American media that Islam “seduces” innocents into violence and reinforces a false association between madrasas and terrorism.

These speakers were people who decided not to assimilate, but decided to represent us and promote those of Muslim heritage to our new American society. I’ll admit the endeavor is admirable. But after the conference, I kept replaying the moments in my mind when they cut corners here and there in an effort to get what they thought was an edge.

A 2011 Gallup study on anti-Islamic sentiment found 52 percent of U.S. citizens believed that Western societies do not respect Muslim societies, and about half of Americans from major religious groups believe most Americans are prejudiced toward Muslim Americans.

The majority of the population already acknowledges the lack of respect for our origins and identities — we don’t have to perpetuate stale stereotypes or pander to what the Western media says about us. Instead, we should cultivate the missing respect by being proud of our true identity.

The same Gallup article included a 2008 study showing that, of all other regions polled, those from United States and Canada most commonly believed that tensions between Muslim countries and Western countries caused the culture of anti-Muslim sentiment. For Middle Easterners to validate untrue cultural stereotypes in order to create pride surrounding “exceptions” making “progress” will only increase that tension.

If we want them to get to know us — the real us — let’s start from the ground up, with American principles. Let’s start with pride in our origins, the whole truth and ownership of our values.

Mariam Shalaby primarily writes on social change and foreign culture for The Pitt News.

Write to her at [email protected]