Imagine of Unity by Aisha Khatun

Under The Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century, rulers persecuted Moors and Jews in an attempt to create a racially and religiously pure country. A hunt was established to find Moors and Jews who were suspected of falsely converting to Christianity, so that they would not pollute the blood of a new national and eventually European identity. During this period, the religious identity of being Christian began to take on a racial component whereby the word ‘European’ began to be equated with both White and Christian. In contrast, the word ‘Moor’ was used as both a religious and racial signifier and general term to describe the Other. It was also used interchangeably with other terms such as ‘African’, ‘Ethiopian’, ‘Negro’, ‘Muslim’ as well as ‘Indian.’ The uses of these terms interchangeably and stereotypes surrounding the Moor and all components of Other the Moor represents is highlighted in Shakespeare’s Othello.

Lawrence Fishburne as Othello in the 1995 film adaptation

Othello, the protagonist of the play, is a highly respected general within the Venetian army. He is a Black Moor and former Muslim who has converted to Christianity. He falls in love with the ‘pure’ and ‘white’ Desdemona, the daughter of a senator. As the play unravels, through believing that his wife is cheating on him, due to the character Iago and his cunning lies, Othello slowly meets stereotypes of ‘aggressive Black bodies’, as well as the savage ‘Moslem’ and ‘Indian’. Throughout the play, he is referred to as a ‘Barbary horse’ and ‘old black ram’ and then refers to himself poignantly as a ‘turbaned Turk’ and ‘circumcised dog’ at the end of the play before he transgresses into darkness and commits suicide. As the play unfolds, Othello becomes angry and aggressive regarding his supposedly disloyal wife. His rage is constructed in an animalistic and inhumane manner. His jealousy overcomes him, and he murders Desdemona and then kills himself, thus acting upon his stereotypical bestial nature. Symbols and motifs of the Far East tied with Islam are blurred into one and used to emphasise how Othello has regressed to an animal like state. The specific use of the phrase ‘circumcised dog’ highlights this. The words used to describe Othello throughout the play highlight Shakespearean society’s perceptions of Black; Muslim, Arab, Turkish and Indian bodies, and ultimately how these different groups regardless of race, ethnicity or religion, were placed within the same category and analysed accordingly through the same lens.

Continuously within the media and cinematic world, we have seen the stereotype of the tanned Muslim man as aggressive, evil and inhumane, in big Hollywood movies from American Sniper, Taken, Iron Man, Lawrence of Arabia, Back to the Future etc. This image of Arabs, Turks and Persians as a threat to Europe and Christian Whiteness existed from the medieval era to the crusades to Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, for example, with the coined term ‘Barbarian’ used to refer to anyone who was foreign and didn’t speak the local language or was from out of town, from regions including Persia and Egypt. During The Crusades, Arabs and Ottomans alike regardless of faith: Muslim, Christian or Jew, were labelled as infidels and pagans in the bid for the Holy Land. Fast forward a thousand years later, these notions have been maintained and preserved through intervention into the Middle East and 9/11, not only by individual members of society and different groups, but political factions, and leaders including George Bush who famously stated ‘You are either with us or you are with the terrorists.’[1]

9/11 and its aftermath was a turning point which further marginalised religious and ethnic minorities. After 9/11, anti-Arab hate crimes rose significantly, leading to severe injuries, disabilities and deaths. Racial profiling and surveillance by law enforcements became routine practice. Housing, jobs and other forms of discrimination prevailed. Coptic churches with Arab masses were targets of hate crimes as well. The negative portrayal of Arabs on TV, in movies and video games continuously reinforced and still do reinforce anti-Arab hatred and violence.[2] Due to society’s long historical perspective of race and racism, specifically, generalising different ethnic and religious groups as one, as clearly demonstrated through Shakespeare’s Othello, anti-Arab sentiment tied in with anti-Islamic sentiment was and is projected unto groups who are neither Arab Muslim, neither Arab nor Muslim. This is particularly due to contemporary society’s perceptions of terrorism and who constitutes a terrorist based on whether they ‘look Muslim.’

Family Guy, Turban Cowboy, Season 11, Episode 15

Perceptions of who is a Muslim/ terrorist/ extremist/ refugee/ asylum seeker etc have been blurred, and individuals decipher the enemy, the threat through a ‘us vs them’ didactic. These perceptions are usually based on stereotypes including facial features, clothing, colour of skin, language, accent etc to name a few. During 9/11, Sikh women were succumbed to acid attacks and other hate crimes on the basis of their Brownness and their wearing of the chunni or dupatta (long scarf within South Asia which usually comes with a selwar khameez). Sikh men who wore turbans as a marker of their faith and spirituality lost their lives as well. In previous blog posts, I have mentioned the case of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a visibly Sikh man who lost his life at the hands of Frank Roque on the 15th of September 2001 who was looking to go and ‘shoot some towel-heads’[3].

Within the media, Black and Brown bodies are negatively portrayed. They are continuously labelled, deconstructed and analysed through subjective, biased and prejudiced lenses. The soft sentiment of the ‘lone wolf’, ‘high achieving student’ and ‘poor mental health’ do not apply in the same manner surrounding minority groups. And though they make up only a small amount of the general population within the western hemisphere, they are the most overrepresented e.g. COVID-19 and the emphasis on BAME as being the most affected, but not an explanation as to why that is, as if Black and Brown people have some kind of genetic mutation that makes them more susceptible to coronavirus, and within the criminal justice system; people of colour are racially profiled, are more likely to be stopped and searched than their White counterparts and more likely to have harsher prison sentences over the same committed offence.

Image from Mental Health Today, 2020

From The Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition to 9/11 to COVID-19, racial, ethnic and religious identity has been and will always be constructed by both the individual and the collective wider society but maintained and preserved by the latter. People have control over how they choose to conduct their inner and physical identity from their chosen beliefs to the clothes they wear to the way they style their hair. However, people do not have control over the very pigment that forms their skin, nor their visible features which society uses to mark them as ‘different’ from the majority of that given nation. Explicitly, people do not have control over the way others choose to perceive and build their said identity, nor group identity with other individuals who look or mirror them based on physicalities. Certain ideas and thoughts about different ethnic, racial and religious groups were created thousands of years ago in order to maintain a social, economic and political hierarchy. These negative ideas and thoughts created systems of oppression and violence, which we still see in the present from physical acts to repeated notions of widely fixed and oversimplified images in the media and wider media, and subjective biased narratives which form wider political ideologies and socio-economic systems of injustice, subjugation and persecution.

To understand race relations within the present day we need to understand history.

[1] Stone, Oliver. The Concise Untold History of the United States. 2015, USA, Ebury Press p.279

[2] Kivel, Paul. Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice 3rd Ed. 2011, Canada, New Society Publishers p.181

[3] Willis, Laurie. Hate Crimes. 2007 USA, Farmington Hills Greenhaven Press p.54

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