With escalating conflicts throughout the Middle East, it’s difficult to worry about anything other than the impending threat of increased American involvement. The news is filled with reports on how many care packages were dropped in Iraq or how many civilians have been killed in the most recent attack on Gaza. But what is frequently overlooked is who exactly those supplies are going to, whose families are being torn apart and forced to flee their homes to escape the violence.
With travel advisories issued by the State Department for the majority of countries in the Middle East, mobility is limited, leaving much of the American population entirely dependent on news delivered by reporters. The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, however, suggests that some of these reports might be biased or incorrect: CAMERA’s report, published in Time magazine in July, purports that figures regarding casualties in Gaza released by Hamas-affiliated organizations have falsely represented the conflict to audiences in the United States. This level of reliance on potentially false information promotes a disconnect between the average American and the average Middle Easterner, helping to perpetuate the misunderstanding and fear that much of the American population experiences when it comes to the region. All that really separates Americans from Middle Easterners is 7,000 miles, but neither population fully realizes their similarities simply because of a lack of opportunities.
Brandon Stanton — the photographer who founded popular blog Humans of New York — is attempting to change that with his two-month trip to the Middle East. He has traveled to Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Uganda, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo so far on his world tour in order to share the stories of the people affected by these conflicts with his followers back in the United States.
People familiar with HONY might have a difficult time distinguishing between the stories shared on the streets of New York City and those shared on the streets of Amman, Jordan and Shaqlawa, Iraq. Though some of the interviewees do share the struggles of living in the Middle East, many also share stories that depict the same career aspirations, financial struggles and childhood innocence that can be found in New York or any American city.
Though Americans might never agree on what course of action is best in the Middle East, “Humans of the Middle East” deserves more attention. Real stories told by people in the Middle East — such as the stories Stanton is sharing — must replace the ones depicted in the news, which primarily focus on the actions of ISIS and Hamas. The people living in the Middle East have the same desires for happiness and comfort that Americans do; children in Erbil, Iraq and Dhana, Jordan share the same dreams of becoming doctors and pilots. Middle Easterners have the same frustrations with ongoing war and violence; the same hope that one day their country will no longer be divided by opposing beliefs. One young woman explained to Stanton that she hopes to “help work toward unity in the Arab world — both between countries and within countries” to allow the Middle East to return to the cultural and intellectual hub that it once was.
What one must understand, however, is that the majority of people living in the Middle East cannot be characterized by the violence created by the minority. The majority does not support attacks carried out by militant groups. Currently, according to The New York Times, more than 97 percent of the world’s Muslim population does not identify with Salafism, the most extreme and militant Islamic denomination. Thus, the majority suffers from the actions and beliefs of a minute, yet aggressive group of extremists.
For the most part, however, news reports in the United States regarding the Middle East focus on that minority. In a recent CNN article on ISIS, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) was quoted calling the terrorist group a “cancer which has spread throughout that region.” Most of these “Humans of the Middle East” have remained faceless and nameless victims, dehumanized and overcome by the violence they want so desperately to escape, making Stanton’s work all the more necessary.
If the United States hopes to help resolve the issues in the Middle East, Americans must start understanding the people, stories and cultures of the region rather than perpetuating the stereotypes that surround it. There must be more listening, exploring and learning involved rather than hasty, reactionary actions. One of the stories shared on HONY helps highlight just how similar Iraqis, Iranians, Jordanians and Americans all are, seeking the same decency and comfort as anyone else: “If you speak gently, you’ll find good people wherever you go. If you find a bad person, just move on to the next person.” It is time for the United States to heed this lesson when it comes to the Middle East. Rather than focusing on violence, conflict and bigotry within the region, Americans should reach out to the multitude of good “Humans of the Middle East,” the ones that can bring their countries the pride and positive attention they deserve.