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A Search for Empathy:

The Effects of the Dehumanization of Muslims in the American Perspective

Nell Baumgarten

University of Washington

Muslims in Western Context

Karam Dana

January 11, 2017


America is defined by its pervasive media as much as its shallow educational system.

Arguably, Americans have lost their ability to see the humanity in Muslims. While an astounding

capacity for empathy distinguishes humans from other living creatures on earth, empathy only

arises towards others when one person recognizes the humanity in someone else. Without the

acknowledgement of humanity in others, empathy and therefore any sort of compromise or

teamwork become impossible.

This idea presents broad implications for the tensions between Westerners and Muslims.

Through the examination of the writings of many scholars, a theme emerges: the ignorance,

suspicion, and even outright animosity of Westerners, particularly Americans, towards Muslims

stems from their inability to see the humanity in Muslims. This renders it nearly impossible for

many Americans (this essay may appear to assume all, but is rather commenting on a common

theme) to empathize. Empathy necessitates a fuller understanding of the other side. As Tariq

Ramadan wrote in his book, one should begin with the being, the smile, the dignity, the culture

that fashions the person before reducing him to a sum of needs which I support.1

In this case, rather than a sum of needs, many scholars contend that Americans view

Muslims as a homogenous mass with no variation or acknowledgement of differences.2

Nadine Naber argues that the Arab American communitys diverse and constantly shifting

make-up have made its people practically invisible in the eyes of Westerners. When Americans

do pay attention, they appear to view Muslims through a lens which Edward Said calls

Orientalism, a perspective which regards Islam as one monolithic thing, and then with a very


1
Tariq Ramadan. What I Believe. Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 11.
2
Nadine Naber. Ambiguous insiders: an investigation of Arab American invisibility. Ethnic
and Racial Studies, vol. 23, no. 1, 2000, p. 38.
special hostility and fear.3 The individual humanity of Muslims is removed and replaced by an

umbrella of stereotypes through the failure of America to recognize their multidimensionality.

The perception of a lack of humanity and the resulting absence of empathy originates

from modern presentations of Islam and Muslims to Americans. According to Said, American

perceptions of Muslims derive from a sense that so far as the West is concerned, Islam

represents not only a formidable competitor but also a latecoming challenge to Christianity.4

However, today, the American lack of empathy towards Muslims arguably stems more from

modern educational and media styles, as religion has come to play an increasingly smaller role in

the lives of most Americans. While media and education might derive their approaches from this

historical conflict, most modern Americans remain relatively uneducated on the subject and form

the majority of their opinions based on what the media presents.

From a very young age, the media surrounds Americans and teaches certain ways of

thinking that include stereotyping and racializing Muslims. The reinforcement of ideas that

terrorize and barbarize Muslims also dehumanizes them, preventing Americans from connecting

and empathizing with the Islamic people. Nadine Naber focuses on the assumption of violence

in not only Muslims but any Arab, which is reinforced by films like The Siege or Aladdin.5

Other stereotypes also thrive, and Muslims are consistently portrayed as dark and evil, and

sexually immoral savages.6 As they are reduced to a few overarching stereotypes, Muslims

lose their humanity and become distortions of actual people.


3
Edward Said. Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest
of the World. Vintage Books, 1981, p. 4.
4
Said, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the
World, pp. 4-5.
5
Naber, Ambiguous insiders: an investigation of Arab American invisibility, pp. 45-46.
6
Naber, Ambiguous insiders: an investigation of Arab American invisibility, p. 43.
After 9/11, the media took on the task of informing the public about bin Laden, and

other terrorist suspects and groups, but did not see the need to educate about the other, truer

Muslims, as discussed by Bushabout the diversity of Muslims within and outside the United

States.7 Rather than teaching that the Islamic people are a varying group with unique cultures,

the media perpetuates the stereotype of the violent Islamic terrorist. These same topics are

repeated so many times that they taint the views of Americans. No perspective of a Muslim was

given on the events of 9/11, and instead bin Laden graced the cover of the Times with an

expression that could either be grimacing or smiling.8 When people cannot read the emotions

of others, it makes them uneasy and unable to connect and therefore feel empathy. This loss of a

human connection is furthered by political cartoons that display radical caricatures of Muslims

which hardly appear human.

On the other end of the spectrum, education plays an unfortunately similar role to the

media in the dehumanization of Muslims. Education includes both what people are taught and

what they choose to investigate. As Said states, academic experts on Islam in the West today

tend to know about jurisprudential schools in tenth-century Baghdad or nineteenth century

Moroccan urban patterns, but never (or almost never) about the whole civilization of Islam

literature, law, politics, history, sociology, and so on.9 Essentially, scholars know about the

historical facts but not about the people themselves: they do not comprehend the Islamic people

as humans. Instead of studying a whole culture, Americans tend to study what the media


7
Michael W. Suleilman. Islam, Muslims and Arabs in America: The Other of the Other of the
Other Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, vol. 19, no. 1, 1999, p. 7.
8
Suleilman, Muslims and Arabs in America: The Other of the Other of the Other, p. 11.
9
Said, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the
World, p. 11.
presents as interesting and noteworthy. Even scholars, who might consider themselves to be

experts, study the same repeating categories that the media exploits.

Because of the media and education, Americans have lost their ability to see the

humanity in Muslims. Their subsequent lack of empathy has created a rift between Muslims and

Americans, fraught with violence and ideological tensions which hold serious implications for

change within America. Now, America must decide how approach Islam in schools without

dehumanizing the Islamic people. Liz Jackson argues that students should learn about Arabs,

Muslims, and the Middle East through both American and Muslim perspectives in order to

demonstrate to students how an autonomous perspective can be better developed through a

thorough examination of sources of evidence, and is not simply provided to them by a text or

newspaper article.10 By ignoring the media as an information source and instead learning to

understand the perspective of the other side inherently teaches students to humanize and feel

empathy towards others. Americans learning in this way would be trained to be critical of the

media and its one-dimensional analysis of a multi-dimensional group of people.

In his book, Tariq Ramadan describes Muslims and Americans as on both sides of the

divide.11 A divide can only be removed by bridging the gap it creates. As Ramadan writes, a

mediator is a bridge, and a bridge never belongs to one side only. People cannot exist on two

sides at once without empathy, which necessitates a recognition of the other sides humanity. By

creating a dehumanized version of Muslims as a homogenous and heavily stereotyped group,

American media and education have presented barriers towards paving this bridge with empathy.


10
Liz Jackson. Images of Islam in US Media and Their Educational Implications. Educational
Studies, vol. 46, no. 1, 2010, p. 18.
11
Ramadan, What I Believe, p. 14.
Works Cited

Naber, Nadine. Ambiguous insiders: an investigation of Arab American invisibility. Ethnic

and Racial Studies, vol. 23, no. 1, 2000.

Said, Edward. Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest

of the World. Vintage Books, 1981.

Ramadan, Tariq. What I Believe. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Suleilman, Michael W. Islam, Muslims and Arabs in America: The Other of the Other of the

Other Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, vol. 19, no. 1, 1999.

Jackson, Liz. Images of Islam in US Media and Their Educational Implications. Educational

Studies, vol. 46, no. 1, 2010.