Concepts of Otherness Essay

The relationship between different ethnic groups in the US was often accompanied by conflicts and tension. The attitude of the dominant white American community to other ethnic groups was often quite contradictive, because it was characterized by discrimination and biased attitude to other ethnic groups. As the matter of fact, ethnic issues were traditionally a subject of criticism of the US from the part of the world community as well as from the part of the local civil rights organizations, which grew particularly strong in the middle of the 20th century after the emergence of the Civil Rights movement headed by Martin Luther King. In fact, the attitude of American society and the local authorities to representative of ethnic minorities and other people was often unjust and unfair, to the extent that the attitude of American society and authorities to ethnic minorities could be characterized as biased, while its foreign policy was characterized by the existence of obvious double standards and aggressive politics in relation to other countries, which Americans considered to be weaker or less developed than the US.

In such a situation, the attitude of the US to Arab world in its foreign policy and the attitude of American society and authorities to the Arab community may be viewed as an example of extremely biased and controversial attitude because, as specialists show (McAlister and Nabeel) Arab world suffers from aggressive foreign policy of the US, which at the present moment tends to be more and more militarized, while within the US, Americans create a concept of Arab community that is absolutely irrelevant to the actual situation because of the huge ethnic and socio-cultural diversity between various ethnic groups which Americans define as Arab. In this respect, Melani McAlister and Nabeel Abraham in their works argue that, in actuality Arab world is absolutely different from what American traditionally get used to think of it. McAlister underlines that this may lead to the growing opposition of Arab states to American foreign policy, while Nabeel indicates to the problem of the loss of identity and irresistible feeling of otherness that dominates in the self-perception of people originating from what American defines as Arab world. In their works, McAlister researches the evolution of the US foreign policy in relation to the Arab world in the post-World War II period and the impact of this foreign policy on the US ideology and culture, while Nabeel focuses his attention on the life of Arab community in Detroit and its problems and the life of Arab-Americas in this city may be viewed in the context of the US at large, because this is a typical life of Arab-American community in a large American city.

Historical background

Before analyzing the work of both McAlister and Nabeel, it is necessary to briefly dwell upon the historical background of the period described by the authors.

First of all, it should be said that Melani McAlister in her “Epic Encounter” focuses on the period after World War II till the present epoch. Basically, this period was characterized by the emergence of the Cold War which influenced substantially not only politics of the US and the rest of the world but also its cultural development because people lived under a constant pressure of the state being fearful of a threat of the nuclear war, attack of the USSR and its allies.

In such a situation, the US were strategically interested in the dominance in the Middle East region and respectively to the change in the balance of power in the world the US steadily increased its pressure on the Middle East to the extent that eventually, after the end of the Cold War, Americans started active military operations accompanied by economic sanctions against countries opposing to the dominance of the US.

As for Nabeel, he primarily focuses on the life of the Arab community in the US and its current problems. This theme is actually very important, especially in the present historical context, because in the late 1990s and early 2000s the attitude of Americans to the Arab community became more and more negative because it was associated with terrorist organizations and radical Islamists. In such a situation, the author attempts to show this community from within, as culturally diverse and rich community, which, though, has a lot of problems because of its diversity and loss of identity of some of its members. Such a representation of the Arab community is very important from historical point of view because it helps change the attitude to this ethnically and culturally diverse group.

Melani McAlister’s concept of otherness

Melani McAlister in her work Epic Encounters raises a number of important problems in the foreign policy of the US and its impact on the situation within the country and the extent to which they were closely interrelated. To put it more precisely, the author attempts to trace the link between the foreign policy of the US and its attitude to Arab countries in particular and the impact of the foreign policy on the self-perception of Americans. In this respect, it is necessary to underline that the author suggests quite an original view on the problems of foreign relations of the US with Arab countries because she analyzes the foreign policy not only in historical context, but her major concern is the cultural development of the US and their mutual impact to the extent that the aggressive policy of the US contributed to the formation of racial prejudices and superior attitude of Americans to the Arab world, while, the latter stimulated the further oppression of interests of Arab countries by the US and its disregard to the interests of Arab states.

At the same time, it should be said that the author provide a profound research of the foreign policy of the US in the Middle East and she defines the major changes that occurred in American foreign policy in the region within the last half of a century. Melani McAlister starts her research with the post-World War II period, when the US had just started to play the leading role in the world. To put it more precisely, it was the epoch when traditional leading powers, such as European countries, including Great Britain, France, and Germany, started to play less significant role in the world international political relations. Another dominant super power came into play, the US, which attempted to spread its influence worldwide. Consequently, in terms of this foreign policy of the spread of American influence in the world, European countries historically presented in the Middle East were replaced by the US. The author shows that at the beginning of the relations of the US with Arab world, American foreign policy was rather soft and amicable. At any rate, they attempted to develop normal relations with the Middle Eastern countries.

Nevertheless, as the Cold War progressed and the power and influence of the US in the world increased, the attitude of Americans to the Middle East grew more and more superior. Melani McAlister argues that the US, being economically and technologically more advanced and having consistently better position in the world than the Middle East region, attempted to impose its own politics and way of development to local countries. At the same time, its foreign policy gradually changed. At the beginning it was the policy of benevolent supremacy, in terms of which, the US attempted to convince Arab countries and countries of the Middle East that partnership with the US will be profitable for them and, what is more important, such a partnership could be a guarantee of their safety and peace in the region but, in response, the US needed the recognition of their supremacy and dominance. In such a way, this foreign policy implied the benevolent recognition of the superiority of the US Arab countries that naturally implied inferiority, or at least weakness of these states and their inability to be equal partners of the US. As a result, they were treated as “others” and this concept of otherness actually implied weakness, if not to say inferiority, of countries and peoples of the Middle East that was absolutely unjust, but, on the other hand, it was basically determined by the foreign policy of the US.

Furthermore, in the future the foreign policy of the US grew more and more aggressive and Americans tended to the establishment of the total control over the region. Thus, in the 1980s they developed the policy of military multiculturalism which actually resulted in the growing military tension between countries of the Middle East and led to the military intervention of the US in the region in the early 1990s. At the present moment, the US continues the aggressive foreign policy increasing its control over the Middle East applying economic sanctions and military interventions establishing total control over countries which attempt to oppose to the domination of the US in the region and probably develop a different concept of otherness, the concept according to which otherness means not inferiority but rather uniqueness and the way of development, which is different from the one imposed by the US.

The dominance and aggressive foreign policy of the US in the region contributes to the development of the concept of otherness, which defines countries of the Middle East as inferior to the US and American people are influenced by the ideology of the superiority of the US in the world and, therefore, they treat the local ethnic minorities respectively to its foreign policy.

In such a situation, it is very important to understand reasons of the US foreign policy. Melani McAlister tends to explain the foreign policy of the US by the cultural development of the country (91). To put it more precisely, the author shows that the US foreign policy and national ideology and culture are closely intertwined and influence each other. As a result, the American foreign policy creates stereotypes of Americans in relation to the position of their country and themselves in the world compared to other nations that also affect foreign policy making it more and more aggressive and expansionist. The idea of the American superiority and the image of the US as the defender of democracy and basic human rights and values amply promoted by media contributed to the formation of the respective foreign policy which treated other nations, which could not compete with the US as inferior.

At the same time, Melani McAlister underlines that it was not a benevolent acceptance of American values, lifestyle and traditions but it was imposed to the Middle East by the US and countries that attempted to resist could be easily defeated as Iraq, for instance. As a result, the attempt to develop an open market economy, implementation of some democratic principles, socio-cultural changes are imposed to the Middle East by the US with the help of its aggressive foreign policy since countries of the region are unable to conduct independent policy because of the dominance and permanent pressure from the part of the US. In such a situation, it seems to be quite natural that countries of the Middle East cannot get rid of the concept of otherness because they feel their difference which became even more obvious when the US became the only superpower in the world and now it has no rivals in the world.

It is worth mentioning that all these findings the author makes are the result of her profound research. Melani McAlister attempted to apply the analysis of historical documents, different researches conducted in this field, such as the research on history of religion and relations of the US and the Middle East that helped her better understand cultural and historical background of relations of the US and the Middle East countries. In addition, she included in her analysis the research of pop culture.  For instance, she researched media and major cultural trends within the US but she heavily relies on her own judgments concerning cultural changes in the US and its relation to the formation of the national ideology, which, in its turn, defined the foreign policy of the country and relations with the Middle East.

In fact, the author concludes that the Middle East is really different, and its otherness may be perfectly felt in the cultural domain (McAlister, 139). Nevertheless, Americans attempt to transform this otherness into a kind of inferiority because they do not take into consideration cultural specificity of the region of the Middle East in its foreign policy. Instead, they impose their own values and their own vision of the future development of these countries pushing on them in their foreign policy, while in the US Arab-American communities are perceived as strange for traditional American culture, because their traditions and norms do not match American democratic standards and the principle of equality.

However, the methods applied by Melani McAlister are a bit controversial because, on the one hand, she uses the analysis of historical documents and scientific researches concerning the history of the Middle East, its culture and religion and the relationships between the US and the Middle East focusing on works of other researchers and referring to official documents. On the other hand, the author analyzes the development of American pop culture and attempts to develop her own vision of its impact on the foreign policy and, in this regard, her research is not really objective. In fact, she attempts to develop her own subjective views on the US foreign policy and national culture without reference to some official documents, for instance. Nevertheless, her arguments and research at large are well-organized and properly structured that make her conclusions sound quite convincing. At the same time, the author successfully uses factual evidences to support her judgments. For instance, she uses the analysis of modern media to show that the image of the US created in media and Americans which are always positive and superior, contributes consistently to the pan-American ideology and aggressive foreign policy of the US. In such a way, Melani McAlister increases the credibility and reliability of her conclusions and judgments with the help of examples and factual evidences from the real life. As a result, this approach allow the audience to take into consideration the arguments and conclusions made by the author but still remain critical in relations to the research because McAlister’s suggestions, such as those concerning the link between the development of pop culture and the foreign policy of the US, may be viewed as subjective while facts and examples she uses may be interpreted in a different way. The author argues that it is possible to view the modern media and pop culture not as a factor that influences the ideology and foreign policy of the US, but, in contrast, as a product of the dominant ideology and the result of its aggressive foreign policy that contributes to the development of certain stereotypes and image of the US that are simply transmitted by media to the mass audience.

Nabeel Abraham’s concept of otherness

Unlike Melani McAlister, Nabeel Abraham basically focuses on the life of Arab communities in the US, instead of the focusing on the foreign policy of the US. Nevertheless, Nabeel Abrahaam also pays a lot of attention to the cultural situation and the impact of American culture, ideology and lifestyle on the life of ethnic minorities which are defined by Americans as Arab community (36). The author focuses on the problem of Arab community in Detroit, in order to better understand what problems Arab-Americans actually face in their everyday life in such a large and typical American city as Detroit.

One of the major problems people originating from Arab and Middle East countries encounters is the problem of the cultural and national identity, which the entire book is focused on. In fact, the book reveals the fact that people that immigrated to the US from countries of the Middle East and North Africa are defined by Americans as Arab community. However, they have serious problems with their national and cultural identification (Nabeel, 142). To put it more precisely, these people actually represent different ethnic groups. They left their native countries because of different reasons and what should unite them is the life in the new country, in the US, where they supposed to find a better life. However, many of people that immigrated to the US from the Middle East and Northern Africa are deceived and even lost in the new socio-cultural environment.

Speaking about the book by Nabeel Abraham, it is important to underline that it actually represents a collection of essays written by immigrants from Arab countries or by people of Arab origin. In this respect, it is necessary to underline that the term Arab is applied as the concept developed by American society to people which originate from the Middle East, Arab countries and North Africa. However, American concept of Arab has little in common with Arab proper. Americans view on Arab is too large and unites all people who emigrated from the region of the Middle East and other territories, such as North Africa, where Muslim traditions were strong. In contrast, to such a large American concept of Arab, in actuality, Arab world is limited by the boundaries of Arab countries situated predominantly in the Arabian Peninsula. Anyway, American view on the concept of Arab includes different ethnic groups which are not Arab by its ethnic origin or culture. As a result, people that are included into Arab community by Americans feel their otherness because they are different from Arabs, but they are not perceived as separate ethnic groups by the rest of American society.

In fact, the method chosen by Nabeel Abraham is quite interesting because it provides ample opportunities to learn about the life of Arab community in Detroit from the primary source, i.e. directly from these people who do not tell just a story they heard about or which they researched thoroughly. In stark contrast, all the essays comprising the book are taken from the real life and written not by witnesses but rather direct participants of all those events described in the book.

Obviously, such an approach may be viewed as quite effective because the audience can receive very important information about the real life of ordinary people of Arab community. In fact, it is a kind of documentary which represents a wide range of personal tragedies, problems, and difficulties people of Arab community of Detroit experienced and still have in their life. In such a way, the book creates a very vivid and trustworthy picture of the life of Arab community in Detroit. On the other hand, the variety of essays written by representatives of Arab community of Detroit makes the entire book quite emotional. The fact that it is only the position of Arab community is represented in the book makes this work rather subjective or one sided. What is meant here is the fact that Nabeel Abraham fails to present a wide range of opinions on problems of Arab community. As the matter of fact, the entire book is rather the message of different representatives of Arab community to the rest of American society, than a profound analysis of the position of Arab community, problems of its representatives, their difficulties, etc. In such a way, there is only one side that is represented in the book ”“ Arab community, while the opposing side, i.e. the dominant ethnic community of the US, remains under-represented. This is why this book is mainly based on subjective judgments and perception of the surrounding world made by the contributors of the book, who depicted their own life story and their problems.

Nevertheless, even such presumably one-sided view on the life of representatives of Arab community of Detroit turns to be extremely diverse as the community itself does and it is a great discovery made by Nabeel Abraham because his opponents, representing non-Arab, or the dominant white community of Detroit and the US, view Arab community as a solid, one ethnic group. The latter, as the book shows, is a serious mistake.

In this respect, it is necessary to underline that traditionally, according to the contributors of the book, ordinary Americans view Arab community as the community that is constituted by representatives of one ethnic group or, at any rate, it is believed that all these people have similar socio-cultural background. Therefore, they are grouped as Arabs. However, in actuality, the situation is quite different. All these people are not one and the same ethnic group.

In stark contrast, often they represent absolutely different ethnic groups with different culture to the extent that their views may differ consistently and even oppose to each other, while American cannot see this socio-cultural diversity that leads to misunderstanding of this group and inability of its representatives to get integrated into the local society.

What is more important, there are some really paradoxical situations when people turn to be in a complete isolation from the life of a community and they perfectly feel their otherness, though they cannot really understand what its otherness actually means. In this respect, it is possible to the example of Linda Walbridge and T.M. Aziz’s essay (Nabeel, 321) in which the authors show that, being Iranian, it is impossible to get integrated into Arab community, because Arabs and Iranians are two different ethnic groups that have different cultures and traditions and even their religious views may vary consistently. At the same time, Iranians, if they just arrived in the US or if it is the first generation of immigrants, cannot get integrated easily in the American community either because the attitude of Americans to Iranians is traditionally hostile because of the confrontation and serious tension existing between the US and Iran in their international relations. As a result, Iranians are not accepted by Americans and need some time to get integrated into the local community. On the other hand, they can neither get integrated into Arab community, to which, according to an American view, they should belong, because they are not Arabs. Consequently, such people turn to be in a complete isolation and have to survive in a new country without any support from the part of some ethnic community. They are in some socio-cultural isolation and they cannot identify themselves with any ethnic or socio-cultural group in the new country. In such a way, they feel their otherness and difference from the rest of society that is apparently very discriminating and unjust and it is the result of the lack of understanding in American community of the fact that Arab world is different and Arab community is, in actuality, ethnically and culturally diverse group where many people cannot find their own place and their identity.

At the same time, the difference or diversity within Arab community is very significant even between representatives of the same ethnic groups. For instance, different generations have different views and even their lifestyles differ consistently. In this respect, it is possible to refer to the fact that new immigrants from Arab or Islamic countries that have just arrive in the US argue that representatives of their ethnic group that have been living in the US for many years or that represent the second or even later generation of immigrants in the US are dramatically influenced by Americans (Nabeel, 268). Moreover, younger generation is substantially influenced by American pop culture, which actually does not have ethnic difference, but, instead, contributes to the formation of homogeneous community. As a result, new immigrants also feel their difference, otherness compared to the rest of American society and even compared to the ethnic and socio-cultural group they originally belong to.

Furthermore, in contrast to widely spread belief among Americans that Arab community is religiously homogeneous, the actual situation in Arab community of Detroit is quite different. In fact, people constituting Arab community are really predominantly Muslims but, at the same time, they often have significant differences in views on Islam. To put it more precisely, there are suni and shi’i groups whose views on Islam differs consistently as well as their traditions and socio-cultural norms. In such a situation, shi’is often turn to be in a disadvantageous position because they are traditionally associated with Iran and are viewed as collaborators of Hussein’s regime in Iraq (348). Hence, these people can feel their otherness and exclusion from the community and American society at large because they cannot identify themselves with the community. As a result, the otherness of these people leads to their isolation from the community and problems in relations with its members. At the same time, in the result of conflict and tension in relations between the US and Iran and Iraq, Americans have quite a hostile attitude to the entire Arab community regardless the fact that this community has nothing in common with the criminal regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, for instance. Nowadays, representatives of Arab community are viewed as Islamists or even radical Islamists by many Americans but such an attitude is not only unjust and erroneous but, as the matter of fact, Arab community is not totally Muslim. In this respect, the story of Sharkey Haddad is particularly noteworthy because he lived in Iraq and belonged to Chaldean community which was Catholic and the attitude to this community in Iraq was quite hostile. After his immigration to the US, Americans viewed him as an Arab, while Arabs could not accept him as a member of their community because he was neither Arab nor Muslim. In such a way, the book reveals his ambiguity in defining himself as “a Chaldean or an Arab or an American” (Nabeel, 210).

Consequently, many representatives of Arab community feel that they are different. They feel their otherness that prevents them from being a part of American as well as Arab community, which proves to be extremely diverse not only ethnically but also socio-culturally.

Similarities and differences in views of McAlister and Nabeel

Obviously, both authors, Melani McAlister and Nabeel Abraham raise extremely important problems of otherness. In fact, works of both McAlister and Nabeel focus on Arab community and Arab world and its relations with the US.

However, McAlister attempts to views the relationships between the US and Arab world on the international level, while Nabeel’s book shows the life of Arab community in Detroit, i.e. it is rather the view from within. In such a way, they view on the problem of otherness in different dimension.

As a result, McAlister argues about the otherness of people who originate from countries oppressed by the US in its foreign policy, which contributes to the formation of a superior attitude of Americans in relation to other ethnic groups. In such a way, living in the US, people from “inferior” countries feel their inferiority. In such a situation, they have serious problems with their ethnic and cultural identification because they do not want to perceive themselves as Arabs because of the superior attitude of Americans but they cannot be Americans because they have different ethnic and cultural background.

Unlike McAlister, Nabeel’s book reveals the otherness of Arab community in Detroit in the sense that this community is misunderstood by Americans who view it as a solid ethnic and socio-cultural group. In stark contrast, the book shows that this group is other, it is diverse and often views of people belonging to this community differ dramatically. Moreover, the book also shows that many people, whom American view as members of Arab community, are rejected by this community because they have their own otherness, which make them different and, therefore, isolated from both American and Arab community.

Nevertheless, both McAlister and Nabeel agree at the point that culture is one of the major factors that contributes to and, to a significant extent, defines the otherness of people and peoples. To put it more precisely, McAlister views culture as the major force that influences the foreign policy of the US in relation to the Middle East, which is apparently unjust and superior, while Nabeel’s book reveals the fact that the lack of understanding of Arab culture leads to misunderstanding the concept of Arab community by Americans that leads to situations when people that are not Arabs and have little in common with Arab traditional culture and beliefs or who are not even Arab by their ethnic origin are considered to be a part of this community.

Finally, both authors agree that the concept of otherness is extremely discriminating and lead to the growing misunderstanding between individuals and entire nations.

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