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Piercing the veil of mystery and stereotype in the Arab world

The TV Arab, by Jack G. Shaheen. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press. 146 pp. $14.95. The American House of Saud: The Secret Petrodollar Connection, by Steven Emerson. London: Franklin Watts. 450 pp. $18.95. The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict, by Steven L. Spiegel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 480 pp. $24.95. For many Westerners, the term ``Arab world'' conjures up images of religious fanatics, terrorism, endless deserts, spy-novel intrigue. As if real people weren't involved.

Beware, in all your conjuring, of oversimplification and stereotyping. ``Arabs'' come from 21 nations, each different, each composed of many different internal cultures, religious sects, political orientations. ``Arab'' is no more synonymous with ``terrorist'' than with ``handsome desert savage.''

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Long after stereotypes of blacks, Jews, Hispanics, Italians, and Orientals were banished from the mainstream media, Arabs are still being cast as heavies on TV and in movies. They may be the last major ethnic group to be callously relegated to a ``type'' by Hollywood, editorial cartoonists, spy novelists, journalists, and advertising copywriters.

So says Jack Shaheen, a journalism professor at Southern Illinois University, who has chronicled a series of distortions and misrepresentations of Arabs in the media. (A more academic and wide-ranging book on a similar theme is the ``Split Vision: The Portrayal of Arabs in the American Media,'' edited by Edmund Ghareeb and published by the American-Arab Affairs Council.)

Shaheen argues that what most Americans know about Arabs comes via the evening news. Over the past 30 years this has been a chronicle of negative images, portraying Arabs as backward, ruthless, hapless; or, more recently, flush with oil wealth, as fabulous spenders, though still ruthless and backward.

But even more insidious, he says, are the television shows, movies, and novels that portray Arabs as antagonists, ever out to seduce, corrupt, and in the end cower before the Western hero. Such stereotypes are about as legitimate as those imposed on other ethnic groups and shrugged off with the line, ``Well, there is a certain element of truth in it.''

``TV helps shape our morality,'' Shaheen says. Even with recent improvements, ``old stereotypes never fade-to-black; they just fade into syndication.''

Isn't it time to put ethnic stereotypes to rest? The peoples of the world are too interesting, too diverse, for us to need to resort to stereotypes and clich'es.

In the short time I was stationed in the Middle East, I met hundreds of individuals of many nations. One of the great fear-dampening lessons of that assignment was that individual people do not necessarily act in a prescribed manner. Each is unique; each is searching for the same life, liberty, and happiness we all are searching for. Stereotypes are an easy out for hackneyed writers. They hinder our understanding of a rich and diverse people. Conspiracy theories

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And just as we need no longer see a communist conspiracy behind every trend from rock music to teen-age pregnancy, shouldn't we be similarly leery of charges of secret influence and subversion in the halls of state by Israelis, Koreans, the Vatican -- or, yes, even Arabs?

Hear Steven Emerson, author of the ominously titled book ``The American House of Saud: The Secret Petrodollar Connection'': ``Never before in American history has any foreign economic power been as successful as Saudi Arabia in reaching and cultivating powerful supporters all across the country.''

Well, Emerson's recounting of the connection of US oil companies and banks with Saudi Arabia is neither particularly revealing nor troubling. It certainly is not ``secret.''

Yes, it is true that the huge transfer of wealth to the Arabian Peninsula during the 1970s shook the world economic order. And it is true that Saudi Arabia is a vastly important country because of its huge oil reserves.

But a modern history of US-Korean, US-Japanese, US-Israeli, US-British, US-any-nation relations would spell out a similar tale of congressmen and businessmen who have something to gain from these relations, and of lobbyists, bribes, and greed. If the US deals with Saudi Arabia in a special way, it deals with Israel in just as special a manner. There are trade-offs in each bilateral relationship.

In his book, Emerson implies that it is a mistake to say US Mideast policy is becoming more evenhanded. But keeping in mind the $3 billion the US gives to Israel each year and the staunch commitment to its security that every American president since Truman has made, it is hard to see how the US has slipped into the clutches of the Saudis. Roots of US Mideast policy

Now consider a less alarmist book, ``The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict,'' by Steven L. Spiegel, which does a good job of showing how modern US Mideast policy has developed. The treatment is somewhat academic, but it is refreshing in its fairness and thoroughness.

Rather than looking for the hidden hand of Israel or Saudi Arabia in the corridors of power, Mr. Spiegel shows how the critical factors in shaping US Mideast policy are ``the basic assumptions of the president, the individuals on whom he relies for advice, and the resulting decision-making system which converts ideas into policies.'' Presidential attitudes, he says, ``prove remarkably resistant to the effects of outside forces -- interest groups, events and crises in the area, the bureaucracy.

``Even elections do not determine American policy toward the Middle East, any more than do oil companies, missionaries, Congress, lobbies, the `Arabists' of the State Department, the press and media, crises, or historical precedents.''

True, a US president's views may be influenced by particular groups as each challenge arises, Spiegel says. But the president tends to set the agenda more than do special interests.

And each president has had his Mideast challenge, from the birth of Israel during the Truman administration, through a dozen wars, coups, major shake-ups -- up to Israel's invasion of Lebanon during the Reagan years. In all this, ``unfulfilled objectives have been the norm'' in US Mideast policy, Spiegel concludes.

Steven Spiegel's book is a fine policy text and goes a long way toward debunking the simplistic good/bad view that so many authors foist on the Middle East.

John Yemma was the Monitor's Middle East correspondent from 1980 to '83.

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