|A constant stream of war images from Iraq and Afghanistan are re-inforcing an association of Islam with violence and instability [EPA]|
It is hard to imagine amidst the omnipresence of discourse currently on Islam that a mere three decades ago, Islam had been a marginal concern situated on the periphery of western consciousness.
If ever encountered in press reports during the cold war, it would most likely have been in the figure of the “mujahideen” confronting the Empire of Evil in Afghanistan. Islam appeared as a benign ally of the forces of freedom camped in New York and London.
What finally brought it to the heart of Euro-American preoccupations were the events that occured on 9/11.
Islam became a local and globalised issue at once, transmitted in countless daily images across the globe.
Since then, rarely does a day go by without hearing, reading, or watching reports of a terrifying Muslim-related event. The presence of Muslim minorities within western capitals has further complicated things, aggravating the intricate interplay of the local and the global.
Fears of a perpetual Muslim danger overlapped with deep-seated fears of immigrants, aliens, and strangers.
Explicating the truth
Coverage of Islam has turned into an industry specialising in the engineering of images, scenes, and messages.
In a globalised world governed by the power of the image, the question is no longer what has sparked this event or that incident and how it has unfolded on the ground, but how it gets captured by the camera and reported to viewers, listeners, and readers at home.
Some might argue, that the media merely reports what is already in existence. However things are not so straightforward in the real world. For the lens is neither neutral nor objective.
It is subject to a set of pre-defined choices and calculations that decide what we see and do not see, know and do not know.
The media is not a mirror reflecting what is out there. Its role is not simple, passive transmission, but active creation, shaping, and manufacturing, through a lengthy process of selection, filtering, interpretation, and editing.
The hidden arms that hold the reins of our media – the giant news corporations and their masters – are not benign charities driven by the love of humanity.
Paradigms of dissemination
Of the 57 countries in the vast geographic and cultural expanse known as the Muslim world, some are rich, others poor; some royal, others republican; some conservative, others liberal; some stable, others less so; some where women preside over the state, others that deny them the right to vote; some that oppress in the name of religion, others that do so in the name of secularism…etc
But this strikingly varied mosaic is absent from mainstream coverage of the subject. What is compound, complex, diverse, and multi-faceted turns into a plain surface without depth, reduced to a narrow set of narratives about blood-thirsty terrorists, shouting mobs, black turbans, battered wives, and caged daughters.
The Muslim world becomes a silent object that does not speak, but is spoken for, an anonymous background against which stands the reporter dispatched from the metropolis.
S/he is the agent of understanding, the one who deciphers this strange entity’s mysterious codes and uncovers its secrets for us; the one who gives it meaning, truth and order.
Nowhere is this will to superficiality and reductionism more evident than in reports of conflicts in the Middle East.
Viewers are given a few minutes during which they watch and hear descriptions of wreckage, smoke, burnt cars, scorched bodies, severed limbs, blood, and wailing widows.
With no attempt to explain the underlying causes and histories of the crises in question, the reports merely compound existing misunderstanding.
The confusion is such that roles are often reversed, with the victim mistaken for the oppressor.
Prisms of perception
This is confirmed by a number of studies, such as the one conducted following the Palestinian Intifada by Greg Philo and Mike Berry of the Glasgow University Group.
The researchers monitored hours of BBC and ITV coverage of the 2002 Intifada, examined 200 news programmes, and interviewed over 800 people about their perceptions of the conflict .
The researchers encountered an alarming level of ignorance and confusion among the viewers, of whom only 9 per cent knew that the “occupied territories” were occupied by Israel, with the majority believing that the Palestinians were the occupiers.
This is hardly surprising given the unbalanced coverage and its tendency to obscure the central truths in the conflict: It does not tell us that over 418 Palestinian villages were destroyed in 1948, that their inhabitants were expelled in their hundreds of thousands, that Israel was largely established by force on 78 per cent of historic Palestine, that since 1967 it has illegally occupied and imposed various forms of military rule on the remaining 22 per cent, or that the majority of Palestinians – over 8 million – live as refugees today.
Reports of the Iraq war do not fare better. The viewer is given the impression that the country’s ills are rooted in its people’s bloodthirstiness and love of self-mutilation, with one sect and ethnicity vying for the other’s destruction.
The Americans emerge as benign mediators whose role consists in imposing order and preventing the different groups from exterminating each other.
The causes of the ongoing state of chaos are increasingly being brushed under the carpet, viz the 150,000 strong army deployed to invade a country hundreds of miles away, the destruction of its infrastructure, systematic demolition of its national collective memory, desecration of its cultural heritage, erection of an ethnic and sectarian based political system, dissolution of its army in the name of “de-baathisation”, and arming of one faction against the other – first the Kurdish Peshmarga, then the Shia militias in the name of “confronting the Sunni triangle”, and finally al-Anbar’s Sunni tribes under the pretext of combating Al Qaeda.
What the media reports do not tell us is that Iraqis continue to suffer not because they are Arabs, Muslims, brown-skinned, or followers of an “inherently violent” religious culture, but because they are the victims of a heartless power game that saw them as little more than insects, worthless creatures to trample on without bothering to count the dead.
The west seems to have created its own “machinery of truth” about Islam, Muslims, Arabs, and the Middle East.
Through it the lens is directed and small narratives are produced and reproduced ad infinitum.
The titles and headlines may vary, but they lead back to a narrow ring of notions that define Muslim society in the eyes of manufacturer and domesticated consumer alike.
These boil down to violence, fanaticism, irrationality, emotiveness, stagnation, subordination, and despotism. They are the pillars of an orthodoxy, which is popularised by the media and bolstered by a complex network of power centres and institutions.
To defy it is to place oneself outside the mainstream and within the margins, alongside outsiders, heretics, and truth monsters.
Soumaya Ghannoushi is a freelance writer specialising in the history of European Perceptions of Islam. Her work has appeared in a number of leading British papers including the Guardian and the Independent.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.