One warm Sunday afternoon a few years back, I went with my scout group on a march against the Iraq war shortly after our weekly meeting. Dressed in our scout uniforms, we joined hundreds of protesters waving banners and flags, blowing whistles, and chanting anti-war slogans to the beat of drums. While enjoying the carnival-like atmosphere, I watched a photographer scouring the crowd with a large camera in his hand. Walking past one row of protesters after another, he suddenly stopped near us and aimed his lens. His target, mind you, was not the uniformed scouts with their sweet, colourful homemade placards, but two figures nearby, swathed in black from head to toe, with only their eyes showing, their foreheads covered with headbands which read “jihad now”.
Of all the hundreds present on the scene, it was the two sinister-looking figures that attracted the photographer’s lens. And this small incident is neither unique nor isolated. In reality, it captures the approach that large sections of the media in this country and others take on Muslim-related issues. The vast Muslim world, stretching over 12 million square miles, and its 1.5 billion people, are reduced to shouting mobs, battered wives, caged daughters and froth-mouthed clerics threatening the west with death and destruction. The images are often so disturbing, terrifying and nauseating that if I did not know enough of the subject and its complexities to enable me to question the messages conveyed, I would have disowned Islam and Muslims long ago and wanted to have nothing to do with either.
Some might argue that the media does not create these blood-curdling, stomach-churning images, but merely reports what is already in existence. Things, however, are not so straightforward. For the camera is neither neutral and innocent, nor objective and impartial. 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, and how we see and know it. 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 – we should remember, are not benign charities driven by the love of humanity.
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 “progressive”, some stable, others less so, some where women preside over the state, others that deny them the right to vote, some where they head colleges, universities and research institutions, others where they cannot even go to primary school, some that oppress in the name of religion, others that do so in the name of secularism, some that ban the Islamic veil by force, others which impose it by force …
But this strikingly varied mosaic is absent from mainstream coverage of the subject. What we are left with is a mass of uniform deficiency, chaos, stagnation, violence and fanaticism. The Muslim world turns into 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.
But nowhere is the 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, mayhem, smoke, burnt cars, scorched bodies, severed limbs and blood. 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.
This is confirmed by a number of studies, such as that conducted by Greg Philo and Mike Berry of the Glasgow University Group, who monitored hours of BBC and ITV coverage of the 2002 Palestinian 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% 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% of historic Palestine, that since 1967 it has illegally occupied and imposed various forms of military rule on the remaining 22%, 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 bloodletting 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 now al-Anbar’s Sunni tribes under the pretext of combating al-Qaida. Having torn Iraq’s social fabric apart, the Americans today speak of its division into three states under the banner of federalism.
What the media reports do not tell us is that Iraqis suffer today 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.
Imagine if some ruler decided to invade the British Isles under the pretext of changing its dated royal system headed by a monarch dismissed as a remnant of medieval feudalism incompatible with “our modern republican values”. Imagine if he moved his armies and war fleets to occupy the country, established his “green zone” in Westminster and set up a political order divided between the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish; Protestants, Catholics, Jews and other religious minorities. Would Britain fare better than Iraq? Would it be saved by its “great democratic values” and sublime “religion of love”?
The trouble is that our irresponsible media is not deforming our conception of an alien religion, faraway peoples, or distant conflicts and crises. In a world of overlapping borders of politics, culture and identity, it is playing recklessly with the tissue of our societies, and erecting high walls of ignorance, fear, and hatred in our midst.
First Published in The Guardian, Friday 12 October 2007