By Matthew Jaber Stiffler, AANM Researcher
One of the first questions people ask me when they find out that I have travelled through the Arab world is, "Weren’t you scared?" I get this question from family members and friends, students, and even visitors to the Arab American National Museum. I never take offense to the question, and I never fault the person for asking it. Based on the amount and type of information available in the United States about the Arab world, it makes complete sense that the majority of Americans would view Arab countries and their people as violent.
Besides the long line of Hollywood films and television shows that feature Arabs as terrorists, potential terrorists, or terrorist supporters, and from the decades of (mostly one-sided) news coverage of political strife and violence in the Middle East, where else can the general public acquire accurate information about the Arab world and the diverse peoples that live there? Further, since many social studies textbooks contain only cursory mention, or even outright misinformation, about the Arab World, even teachers are left to educate themselves. All of these factors enable the public to remain relatively uninformed about a large, important region.
Given this situation, I don't mind when people ask me if I was scared to travel to Arab countries. I actually like when people ask me this. It presents a wonderful teachable moment. I calmly respond that I was not scared at all. I always say, quite truthfully, that I feel safer walking the streets of Amman, Jordan, alone at two o'clock in the morning than I would on any street in almost any city in the U.S. What many Americans do not realize is that outside of political violence, such as wars and civil strife, there is relatively little violent crime in the Arab world. In fact, according to a 2004 study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the murder rate in the U.S. is higher than almost every Arab country, and in the majority of cases two to three times higher.
I often joke that the scariest thing that will happen to you in an Arab country is that someone will run out of their house and grab you, cajoling you to join them for tea, coffee, or dinner. Unfortunately, the reality that Arabs pride themselves on being hospitable to visitors is clouded by the stereotype that Arabs are somehow inherently angry and violent. As with most stereotypes, knowledge and direct experience is the best way to push through the misinformation. Hopefully the AANM and this online exhibit will help in this endeavor.