I was in third grade the first time I can remember being dehumanized. I was standing with two boys my age on the green hardtop of the tennis court at my local athletic center. Being there was my attempt to dispel the notion among my classmates that I was un-athletic, a pervasive opinion that had made me feel like an outsider. It must have been two weeks into camp and I found two boys, Barrett and Nathaniel, who liked Star Wars, so I hung around them during the time when we weren’t slamming green fuzzy Dunlop balls over nets repeatedly. The conversation made its way to playdate potential.
“Want to come over on Wednesday Nathaniel?” Barrett asked.
“I don’t think I can” Nathaniel replied.
Eager at the opportunity to make a new friend I piped in: “I’m free on Wednesday”.
Barrett retorted, “I don’t think you can come over”.
Then I asked a question with implications that still haunt me now. “Why not?”
“You know,” Barrett began, “with everything that’s going on in the Middle East I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
That’s the first time I can remember someone reducing my entire humanity, my identity, to just my ethnicity. Since then there have been innumerable airport checks, C4 jokes, and curious individuals asking if I ride a camel to school. Which is why Imma Vitelli’s dialogue on the dehumanization of Muslims and Arabs really struck a personal chord with me.
Imma Vitelli, Vanity Fair Italy’s war correspondent and published author, began prefaced her dialogue by admitting failure and tributing a to her friend Anthony Shadid, a two time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who worked for The New York Times. Imma’s failure was that early on in her career she fell into the same trap as 3rd grade Barrett, . Imma discussed how the international press conflates ‘Arabs’ with ‘Muslims’ with ‘extremism’ when the three are actually unrelated. One third of Muslims do not live in the Arab world, a great deal of Arabs are not Muslims and, according to Imma, “people do not hate because of a religion”.
Throughout the course of the dialogue Imma laid out the stereotypes that the international press had associated with the Arab world, why the press reduced Arabs to these stereotypes, and the implications of this dehumanization. Reporters who went to the Arab world post-9/11 either didn’t have the money, interest, or language skills to get a full understanding of the culture of the region. Furthermore, editors wanted grotesque stories, which would sell papers. This led to reporters selling stories about suicide bombers, murders of Christians, and contributed to the narrative that the Arab world was at war with Western values. Imma argues that this dehumanization made certain human rights violations, such as Camp Bucca where roughly 85,000 innocent Iraqi citizens were imprisoned, condonable. Imma points out that stories concerning the closing of the prison camp only discussed the American involvement in the camp and not the stories of the prisoners. “You must include the others in your story,” Imma warns. Her tone suggests that she in not just addressing the journalists in the room. We often get lost in the narrative that we are the protagonists in a war against our enemies and don’t acknowledge the motivations, complexities, and plurality of the others. This narrative is crafted at both the individual and national scale, and has implications from something as small as Barrett not inviting me over, up to gross violations of human rights such as the wartime prisons that Americans ran including Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca, and the current carpet bombing of Syria.