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Guest Blogger Adel Iskandar -- Roots of Profiling: Remembering Edward Said's Critique

04/14/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The word "Racial profiling" used to elicit strong negative impressions as it connotes selective prejudicial treatment based on external characteristics. Much like the word "propaganda," which fell out of fashion in the mid-1950s, "profiling" continues to persist despite the desire on everyone's part to distance themselves from the practice of open discrimination. However, just by avoiding dogmatic terminology doesn't mean the phenomena or practices these terms represent cease to exist. Just because US government officials declare that America does not torture is not a refutation that treatment of enemy "combatants" is humane and in conformity with the Geneva Conventions.

Nevertheless, profiling has a special persistence about it because of its salience in American society particularly in the post-September 11 political climate. With Arabs, Muslim, and Middle Easterners finding themselves the target of American security apparatus' suspicion and scrutiny over the past decade, profiling has become central to the intelligence communities' information-gathering, law enforcement agencies' protective measures, and media's representation of both.

Profiling is premised on the ability to utilize identifiable characteristics of groups, populations and communities. Yet the question remains, what are those identifiable characteristics and are they particular enough so as to be confined within a given population? In all instances, profiles are built out of phenotypic features of groups--complexion, build, facial features etc. When appearance is not the primary source of attribution, names, accents, and behavioral expression become the essence of profiling. While all these characteristics are categorically flawed, the gravest danger comes from the tendency to perceive a correlation between physical traits and behavioral expression--e.g. all African-Americans have criminal inclinations and those who possess Arabic names are likely to possess violent tendencies.

Yet the profiling of Arabs, Middle Easterners and Muslims did not commence on that forsaken day in September, instead it has its roots in a deep association already established between traits and behaviors, and propagated by systems of dissemination that predate contemporary mass communication. With the rise of anti- and post-colonial politics in the Arab World during the mid-1950s came an interrogation of not only the imperial enterprise in the region, but also a systematic critique of the way in which the Orient was constructed to justify its control, subjugation and exploitation. But it wasn't until 1978 that a cohesive, encompassing, and substantive analysis identified the institutionalization of prejudicial representation of the Orient both in scholarship on the region and popular literature, to the benefit of imperial enterprise. This study was the groundbreaking and discipline-shifting Orientalism by late Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said.

He quotes in Orientalism an excerpt from a statement written by Lord Cromer, the Imperial Magistrate of Egypt in 1908 where he describes the mannerisms of his Oriental subjects in less than complimentary terms, and contrasting these to their Western counterparts:

The European is a close reasoner; his statements of fact are devoid of any ambiguity; he is a natural logician, albeit he may not have studied logic; he is by nature skeptical and requires proof before he can accept the truth of any proposition; his trained intelligence works like a piece of mechanism. The mind of the Oriental, on the other hand, is eminently wanting in symmetry. His reasoning is of the most slipshod description...[The Oriental's] descendants are singularly deficient in the logical faculty. They are often incapable of drawing the most obvious conclusions from any simple premises of which they may admit the truth. Endeavor to elicit a plain statement of facts from an ordinary Egyptian. His explanation will generally be lengthy, and wanting in lucidity. He will probably contradict himself half a dozen times before he is finished his story. He will often break down under the mildest process of cross-examination.

Cromer's observations were reflections associated with what he believed were the mishaps of oriental behavior, logic, and communication patterns. Although almost a century following the publication of this letter, much of the logic that it presupposes, articulates and entails is built on the same assumptions that still reside within the contemporary spheres of the public discourse on Orientals. In fact, what these supposed "anthropological" descriptions created were an inventory of elaborate and standardized images and perceptions of Oriental peoples, their "collective traits" and subsequently their behavioral patterns.

By tearing open the Western literary canon to expose both its explicit and subliminal construction of the Orient (a la Cromer) as diametrically opposed to the Occident, Edward Said had caused irreparable damage to Orientalism as a system of knowledge production, heralding the beginning of revisionist look at the politics, histories, and cultures of the region beyond simple-minded, monolithic, and self-serving documentation. This practice extended well beyond the original inventory Said analyzed in Orientalism. Over the years, he would publish numerous books which were rooted in both a critique of popular representation and attempting to carve out a space of self-representation, primarily on Palestine.

In the first decade of the 21st century, and despite the concerted efforts by academics and reasoned specialists on the region to dispel the negative stereotypes of Arabs, Middle Easterners and Muslims, the resilience of these cultivated perceptions and their redundancy in the Western media has made them a mainstay in American public consciousness. Edward Said remained resilient in his critique of this dehumanization by addressing a growing cult of expertise in the United States media. In his 1997 book Covering Islam, Said argues that little progress has been made in halting the barrage of negative stereotyping of Muslims in Western society, especially in contrast to other publicly denigrated minority groups:

Malicious generalizations about Islam have become the last acceptable form of denigration of foreign culture in the West; what is said about the Muslim mind, or character, or religion, or culture as a whole cannot now be said in mainstream discussion about Africans, Jews, other Orientals, or Asians.

Said's words were published in the period preceding the events of September 11, a time of seeming tranquility and an era which many assume was free from Arab and Muslim vilification. Unfortunately this couldn't be farther from the truth as documented by a numbingly repetitive discourse of demonization of Arabs and Muslims which traversed all media content from blockbuster Hollywood films to news and television programming. It would be challenging to uncover any more than a handful of positive depictions of either an Arab or a Muslim in the hundreds US films produced in the last six decades. For comprehensive treatise on this phenomenon, one need only resort to the encyclopedic work of Jack Shaheen in The TV Arab and Reel Bad Arabs (which became the title of a film on the topic, Trailer) and most recently Lina Khatib's Filming the Modern Middle East: Politics in the Cinemas of Hollywood and the Arab World. A short film by Jackie Salloum entitled Planet of the Arabs expresses this in an aesthetically startling fashion. Edited out of spliced footage from Hollywood films representing Arabs, it dizzyingly and silently narrates a long history of manufactured images of a people whose lives and culture were made worthy of disdain.

While discriminatory imagery and racialized stereotypical representations are endemic problems to which cultural studies have been highly critical, the last two decades have witnessed dramatic changes in the language of misrepresentation as characteristically stereotypical debates about minorities that have taken on more covert forms of essentialization. Instances where pejorative and derogatory terms are used to describe racial and ethnic minorities in the US are met with public outrage, a litany of apologetics, accusations of racism, threats of litigation, and other consequences which render such utterances unacceptable. However, Arabs and Muslims have not witnessed such a renaissance. Commentary in the popular media that might meet the conditions of hate speech if attributed to African Americans, Jews, Latinos, women, and GLBTQ often pass for genuine criticism towards Arabs and Muslims. Perhaps the exceptionalism of admonishment for "Orientals" in today's American media is supported by a discourse that officially sanctions it, lending it both credibility and immunity from being perceived as morally reprehensible by mainstream standards.

One such deprecating technique is by collapsing categories of identification so as to simplify, essentialize and explain the behavior of the other. We see this in the frequent confounding of terms such as Muslim and Arab and their interchangeable usage in modern vernacular circles as well as on American news television. This also makes the attack against both Arab and Muslim subjectivity a single endeavor. Examples of this and other defamatory strategies abound. Just two years ago, FOX News Channel (FNC) carried a story about an Arabic language public school in New York City which lost its principal as a result of accusations of serving as a bastion of terrorism. In one newscast, anchor Sean Hannity taking sides against NYC Arabic public school, describing it with the pejoratively-commutated term madrasa, describing the school board as a fatwa-funding agency, making clear evocations connecting the 9/11 attacks to the school, and dismissing every cogent argument from the oppositional speaker. FNC continued to pursue the story and confront a NY Councilman John Liu who defended the school's premise and pointedly suggested the preposterousness of Hannity's position.

The punditry of American news has also provided vocal anti-Arab sentiment a pedestal on which belittling and racist expressions amounting to hate speech can pass for free-wheeling First Amendment-sanctioned public expression. In one such example, the host of MSNBC's Hardball Chris Matthews entertains firebrand conservative commentator Ann Coulter's case for military attack on Muslim society. Such discourse has subliminally infiltrated all forms of public expression including political campaigning In the 2008 elections, the opposition, in an effort to undermine Presidential hopeful for the Democratic Party Barack Obama, simply had to state the rumor that he is a Muslim. Obama's managers retaliated by stating it was a "false accusation," and describing the claim as part of an orchestrated "smear campaign." Obama dutifully and fully denied any association with Islam and solemnly declared himself a Christian whenever the question was posed. Not once did he respond that his religion should be of no consequence or that being a Muslim is not an "accusation." So deeply entrenched is the animosity to all things Muslim in America, that to make amends with public and media alarm, Obama (as did virtually every candidate in every US election) had to distance himself entirely from the "smearing" faith and all its adherents.

Much of such characterizations were exacerbated in the post 9/11 milieu which thrust the Arab and Muslim worlds and their peoples into the limelight of the collective imaginary. Governed by a deeply normative view that forces "Orientals" and their nation-states into categories of good vs. bad, most American media have found themselves in the inexcusable position of regurgitating some of the most implicitly unacceptable and sometimes explicitly racist intonations about the region, hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims both in their countries and the Diaspora that spans the globe.

It has now been over 30 years since the publication of Said's Orientalism, which helped fracture the cast of immunity surrounding western scholarship on the region, shifted pedagogy on the Arab world, and became a foundational bedrock for post-colonial studies. By meticulously disentangling and demystifying the discursive processes that the colonial enterprises in the Arab world used to build a mutated and exoticized image of the region and its inhabitants, Said showed the historical continuity that characterized Orientalism. In essence, his arguments rang true for cultural studies scholars who perceived the most diabolical attributes associated with Arabs, their history, culture and social mores as remnants of a colonial lexicon about an 'othered' Orient.

This distance, which has become a massive gulf in the public psyche between what it means to be Western and American versus Arab and Muslim, must precipitate a concerted and extensive intervention on all levels to counter the unending barrage of repetitiously engrained language and depiction which threatens genuine intercultural contact and exchange. At a time when profiling is no longer perceived by the majority of US citizens as inherently un-American, but rather a favorable and imperative practice to ensure national security, there is an urgency to halt the wheels of bigotry from overriding the rule of law enshrined in the egalitarianism of this nation's constitution. To do this, we must continue to learn from the indefatigability of Said, his sound methodology, his assertive reconciliatory posture, and his adamant humanism to dislodge the prejudicial public, political and media discourses which form the foundation for ethnic, racial, and religious profiling.

Adel Iskandar is an adjunct faculty member at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS), Georgetown University. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming book Edward Said: A Legacy of Emancipation and Representation (University of California, 2010).

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