I am not Arab, nor am I Muslim, but I am Middle Eastern. I’m sure for some people this statement is confusing. After all, the assumptions that permeate western society can lead one to believe that all people in the Middle East are Arab, that all Arabs are Muslim, and all Muslims are terrorists.
I’m Persian-Iranian, African and Mexican. My grandfather left Iran in 1979 during the Islamic Revolution, along with a few additional family members. Growing up, I remember him traveling back and forth between the United States and Iran, bringing his customs and experiences with him.
My understanding of Iran was never negative, and yet I had no choice but to come to terms with the fact that there would be certain liberties I would not have access to if I were to visit. My mother had always been nervous about my family traveling to Iran as well, fearing the discrimination we may face being female and Christian.
Although access to my Persian-Iranian culture was and still is limited, I still knew of it and participated in it through Persian dance, music, food, and holidays. I grew to appreciate the diversity of my family – some of us Christian, some Muslim, and all of us unified by Sufi poetry, Iranian music and literature and our shared appreciation for one another.
Though I am aware of the beauty of my Iranian heritage, I understand that Iran, along with the rest of the Middle East, is often tainted by politics, and in the minds of many, it is reduced to the role of an antagonist, and far separated from reality.
I did not realize the pervasiveness of this until a few semesters ago, when one of my professors told me that the Middle East was “geographically doomed.” He went on to say that the region was just too concentrated, and there were too many ethnic groups that inhabited it. This was why he believed there was so much conflict there, not because of disagreeing viewpoints or western imperialism, but simply because of its diversity. He spoke with so much assertion, as though he was an expert in this matter, and I was hardly able to object.
It is this kind of rhetoric that gives rise to hate speech and makes it easier for western governments – of whom for years have exploited people and land in the Middle East – to have an excuse to do these things and act without condemnation.
Now, more than ever, it is imperative we do not fall victim to ignorance. The truth is there is a plethora of diversity in the Middle East, as much diversity as there is here in the United States. By challenging the narrative that all Middle Easterners are terrorists and extremists, we work to undo ongoing dehumanization and oppression of the region’s inhabitants. This includes Palestinians, whose cries have, until recently, largely been ignored by the international community and by so-called enforcers of international law and human rights. And still, Palestinians have been unjustly targeted and collectively labeled as “Hamas” on multiple media fronts.
The everyday language used to describe the Middle East, however seemingly irrelevant our choice of wording is, can be deceptively harmful if we are unable to view this region outside the realm of war and political conflict. Simply understanding the Middle East, which is really Southwest Asia and North Africa or SWANA, from a historic, empathetic and humanitarian standpoint, can make many “complicated” situations far less so, and encourage us to advocate for what truly matters: life, freedom and peace.