Mediating Islam and a Mediated Islam

Paper for the OIC Business Forum held in conjunction with the 10th Session of the Islamic Summit Conference (OIC), 15th-16th October 2003, Putrajaya, Malaysia
Organised by the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (ASLI) in association with the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC); the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia, and the Malaysian South-South Association (MASSA)

 

Mediating Islam and a Mediated Islam: Appreciating the Reality of Global Media today and Addressing the Challenges of Dialogue and Communication that Face the Muslim world

By Dr. Farish A. Noor.


Researcher, Centre for Modern Orient Studies (ZMO), Berlin, Germany,
Affiliated Fellow, Institute for Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia,
Fellow, Institute for Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS), National University of Malaysia (UKM)


I. Between Mediating Islam and a Mediated Islam: When Images become Reality and Reality redundant.

?The question of Islam will remain with us for the years to come. The first condition that has to be met when dealing with this phenomenon is to approach it not with hate, but with intelligence.?

Michel Foucault

We now live in the age of the simulacrum, when images have come to assume the status of reality and Reality itself has become strangely superficial and redundant.

Everywhere we look the signs of this shift are all too apparent: Tourists who flock to Malaysia are bound by the iron laws of visual representation to record their stay in every detail with the use of cameras and video recorders, only so that they may re-visit their arrival in this tourist magnet via the medium of the television screen; as if the actual lived experience of being in Malaysia was not real enough for them.

Contemporary art and visual media of this postmodern age continues to consume and regurgitate itself, stealing shamelessly from itself in order to reproduce itself ? pop stars imitate other pop stars, movies mimic other movies, novels borrow from other novels, and the claim to originality no longer bears the value it once had, as if endless and repetitive imitation guarantees truth and affords a security that is no longer found in the genuinely novel or new. Humanity today ? at least in those parts of the world deemed ?developed? and ?modern? ? exists on the level of the visual and mediatic, sustained by a mass culture of the manufacturing and consumerism of images. We are what we see and what we look like, it seems.

It is in this mediatic environment that the Muslim world finds itself, whether it likes it or not. The probing lens of the camera spares nothing and no-one, and there is no asylum to be found in the world anymore. Even in the remotest corners of the world, the eyes of the mediatic panopticon are forever present, capturing Reality and mediating it at the same time. We could not turn and look away, even if we tried to, for even then we would still come under the mediatic order of truth and knowledge, which is turn is linked to a more concrete order of power. Even if Muslims were to flee from the gaze of the omnipresent camera they would still be inevitably caught, and their flight would be recorded for posterity with or without their consent.

What is more by now none of us are deluded by the claims of objectivity and impartiality so often employed by the media. The subject of the media is a mediated subject: one that is altered as soon as it is presented and one that is inevitably re-presented as it is communicated. Islam, and Muslims by extention, have become mediated subjects of the media. As images they have become objectified and commodified.

As the recently departed Edward Said has argued in his works ? most notably ?Covering Islam? and ?Orientalism? (1978) ? the media is a tool that also carries with it the faults and foibles of its mortal makers. The solipsism so evident in the mediatic image is marked by traces of ethnocentrism and cultural particularism, traits that are all too human and which none of us can avoid. (And traits which Muslims themselves are not immune to either, it must be emphasised). However it has to be said that is the past few years such traces of cultural exclusivism and particularism have grown more and more blatant and obvious, and the characterisation of Islam and Muslims as the Other have become more slanted as a result.

Witness, for instance, the manner in which Islam and Muslims were presented to the world in the aftermath of the Oklahoma bombing of 1995. When the Gulf War veteran sergeant Timothy McVeigh drove his truck filled with chemical fertiliser into the Alfred O. Murrah building in Oklahoma city and blew it up, killing 168 people and injuring more than 500 others, the Western media was immediately on the lookout for scapegoats to lay the blame on. Almost immediately responsibility for the attack was placed squarely on the shoulders of the American Muslim community who were cast as outsiders living in the midst of the American hinterland. From the United States to Britain and beyond, television stations like CNN and BBC ? with the help of self-proclaimed ?experts? of Islamic terrorism like Steven Emerson ? pointed the damning finger of accusation towards Islam and Muslims.

Overnight, the term ?Islamophobia? made its transition from academic to mainstream media discourse. Even the subsequent revelation that the bomber was a white American ethno-nationalist and Christian fundamentalist did little to improve the public?s jaundiced views of Islam, which remained a much maligned and misunderstood religion in the West. In western Europe, the situation was hardly any better: When the German scholar Annemarie Schimmel was awarded the prize for literature by the German book publishers? association for her lifetime?s work on Islam and Islamic civilisation, the announcement was met with a hostile response from many quarters. German authors like Gunter Grass condemned the association?s decision to honour Annemarie Schimmel on the grounds that she was an apologist for a ?fanatical religion? that was equated with Fascism and Nazism. It was obvious by then that the limits of the Western liberal-democratic imaginary stopped short at the frontiers of Islam and the Muslim Other.

This is not to suggest that the image of Islam and Muslims is flat or static. Indeed, there exists a virtual typology of Islam(s) and Muslims in the mediatic imaginary, ranging from the Orientalist construction of Islam as an Arab creed bound to the nomadic life of the desert to the hysterical and paranoid imaginings of Islam as the religion of terrorists and militants that we see all around us today. Then there are the images of Muslims as misogynists, tyrants, backward, irrational and at times even comical ? made all the worse by the internalisation of these values by Muslims themselves and the elites who rule over them.

But despite the variations and multiple alterities that are posed before us, these mediated images share one common factor: they invariably and inevitably present Islam as something particular, culturally and historically specific, alien, foreign and thus rendered outside and below the violent hierarchy that locates the Western imaginary at the centre of universal truth, civilisation and power.

This simultaneous location, fixation and exteriorisation (as the Other within) of Islam and Muslims is achieved by the media via the medium of cultural mediation itself, which as we all know is never neutral or objective. In the portrayal of Islam and Muslims, the subject in question is ultimately framed like any other picture: Islam is set within fixed and precise epistemic and evaluative parameters, given a place, name and role to play; and more often than not Muslims themselves fall into the trap of living up to the stereotypical images drawn up for them.

How is this image of Islam and Muslims ? something whose normative expression is already so complex and confounding that it should escape such simplistic epistemic arrest ? rendered fixed and simple, made digestible to and for the passive viewing public? Part of the answer lies in the way that sedimentation takes place in the mediation process. 

The media, as we know, is not merely a loose and random assortment of images and ideas. For any mediatic image to take shape and have meaning it needs to be communicated via a discursive strategy that brings together these disparate and disjointed images and ideas into a coherent discourse that has meaning and can be communicated.

The media is what it is because it is discursive by nature. In the discursive formation of a mediatic message there will always be the drawing of chains of equivalences. In the case of Islam and Muslims, the Islamic idea has been put together by drawing a chain of equivalences that equates Islam and Muslims with a number of key ideas and values. This has been the case since the Orientalist epoch, where Islam was equated with a sense of tragic romanticism, loss of the grandeur, decayed antiquity, degeneration, corruption, backwardness, violence, fanaticism, fatalism and despotism. Today other ideas and values have been added to this already overburdened chain of equivalences, most notably ?terrorism? and ?militancy?. That is why the circulating image of the Muslim terrorist or fanatical militant strikes such a resonant chord in many parts of the world today: This latest image of normative Islam rests on a long tradition of Orientalist stereotypes about Islam and Muslims that dates back to Dante, Gibbon, Cervantes, Byron, the European Romantic tradition right up to Laurence, Burton and Wilfred Thesinger. The net effect is obvious even to the most negligent of casual observers: The global media today has grown increasingly self-referential, incestuous and culturally specific even as it presses its claims on universality and objectivity. There is no such thing as a global media; rather we live in a world of multiple medias, each of which speaks to its own limited ethnic/religious/racial/cultural/ political constituencies, and each of which fails to communicate with and to the Other without. 


II. Living in the Shadow of Dajjal: How the cultural mediation of politics is dividing rather than uniting the world.

Muslims would no doubt be familiar with the apocalyptic figure of Dajjal, the one-eyed harbinger of doom and destruction whose appearance foretells the coming of the end of the world. It is interesting to note that Dajjal is one-eyed: he sees the world through his singular vision which blocks out and negates all others, denying difference and alterity which are, after all, natural features of creation and the world we live in. Dajjal here symbolises the very essential gesture of evil itself ? his one-eyed vision denies plurality and difference and fails to accommodate alternative viewpoints. By doing so Dajjal denies the universal humanity that is shared by all and thus denies humanity itself. The moral lesson to be learnt is simple: solipsism not only leads one to errors, it is fundamentally morally wrong.

Yet this also happens to be the reality of the world we live in today. All that has been said about the Western global media holds equally true of other attempts to form alternative visions of the world from other political viewpoints or cultural perspectives, and the Muslim world and the Muslim media are likewise guilty of the same mistakes and moral errors.

The emergence of alternative media channels in the Muslim world, Asia, Africa and Latin America has not helped to improve humanity?s lot or helped us to understand and know each other better. Quite on the contrary, the proliferation of alternative sites and spaces of mediatic discourse has actually contributed to the disintegration of the global community, opening avenues for those who wish to live with only comfortable, uncritical ?truths? to seek false asylums and safe havens in their own self-serving media outlets. The cultural parochialism of the Western media has not been countered with a broader view seen from a radically different perspective, but rather by other equally myopic and jaundiced worldviews that have proven to be similarly wanting as far as their claims to objectivity and truth are concerned.

Witness, for instance, the state of reportage that has been produced during the recent US-led unilateralist invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. While on the one hand we are confronted with an increasingly jingoistic and triumphalist American media cheering its soldiers on as they do the dirty work of the oil companies and Western political elites, the Muslim viewing public has been presented only with an alternative of an equally parochial Muslim media that has not been able to give a critical and balanced report on the abuses of human rights and fundamental freedoms (not to mention the abuse of Islam and Islamic values) by the regimes of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban.

Some sections of the American media, motivated by their own interests in supporting the neo-Conservative establishment currently installed in Washington, have proven to be hyper-patriotic and reluctant to discuss the blatant abuse of human rights taking place in their own country and in places like Guantanamo Bay.  Some sections of the Muslim media, on the other hand, have proven to be equally bellicose and prone to hyperbole and hysteria, feeding their audiences with unfounded conspiracy theories and chauvinistic verbiage in support of groups like the Taliban, who must stand as among the worst representatives of normative Islam ever. It may be a clich頴o state that the first victim of war is the Truth, but it remains a fact nonetheless. The question is how can the Muslim world respond and react to this sad state of affairs and how can it contribute to the creation of a truly universal, objective, impartial and factual media?


III. Telling the story of Islam not just for Muslims: Why we need a universal Muslim media.

The Muslim world, as we have stated at the outset, is at an impasse partly of its own making. Islam today is a mediated subject and as a mediated subject it cannot avoid the thorny question of the media and the politics of cultural mediation.

Less we forget, the Muslim world is actually short of alternatives and solutions. It cannot afford not to engage in the politics of global media as we now live in a mediatic age where mediatic images often come to replace reality itself. This has been made painfully clear to Muslims in Southeast Asia, who have seen their economies falter and their earnings from tourism drastically cut as foreign travellers avoid the region as a whole for fear of the dreaded ?Islamic terror? menace ? a postmodern virtual nightmare in this superficial world we live in today where images of Muslims as murderous fanatics abound in movies, videos and computer games.

The Muslim world therefore faces the tremendous challenge of having to tell the story of Islam and to communicate the concerns of Muslims to a wider heterogeneous world that is rapidly disintegrating and retreating into a myriad of cultural-ethnic-religio-political enclaves, each of which denies and negates the existence of the other. To compound the situation even further, the Muslim media has been handicapped by its own propensity and inclination to mimic the mistakes of the Western media that it is so prone of condemning: namely to speak a language that is exclusive, self-referential, uncritical and often false. This, however, will not improve the plight of Muslims. Nor will it improve the image and standing of Islam in the eyes of the global community. One does not, and should not, respond to prejudicial and biased reportage with propaganda that is equally jaundiced and circumspect. Two lies do not make a right; racism must never be fought with racism, and propaganda will always crumble before the glare of facts and the truth when it can be found.

To achieve this Herculean task, however, will require both political will as well as novel and critical thinking. There are several monumental obstacles to be overcome before the Muslim media will be taken seriously as a global contender:

? The democratic deficit and the credibility deficit:

The Muslim world today suffers from an obvious democratic deficit, and this deficit does not have to be measured according to a Western criteria. Even according to the criteria set by Islam itself, the present state of affairs in the Muslim world shows that many Muslim countries do not live up to Islam?s standards and demands for freedom, tolerance, respect for pluralism and difference.

What is more the political climate of many Muslim societies reflects an obvious bias in favour of a culture of violence, force and power; a cult of leadership centred around either despotic leaders or theological elites; ever widening gaps of income and uneven development; and a host of other ills associated with the developing world.

This democratic deficit is in turn linked to the credibility deficit suffered by the Muslim media in general. Simply put, the absence of a civil and democratic political culture and independent institutions of state in many Muslim countries means that the media of Muslim countries has been reduced to mere appendages of the state or ruling elites. The Muslim media ? be it in televisual form or the printed press ? is often dismissed as the mere mouthpiece of the government that sustains and controls it, and as such is not regarded as an independent and objective source of information or opinions. Even in the most under-developed Muslim countries (such as Afghanistan while it was labouring under the Taliban regime) what little media there was/is has been under the control of the rulers and not the masses.

Under such circumstances it is hardly surprising if the Muslim media fails to communicate its message across, for it is merely seen as the bearer of official credo or state propaganda, and lacking in journalistic credibility and independence ? a factor that cannot be discounted when considering the public?s critical selection of accurate and unbiased information. The tragedy that faces the Muslim world today is that in many Muslim countries ordinary Muslims actually turn to other foreign sources of media and information that is regarded as more critical, balanced and objective.

It is fine and well if and when Muslim leaders and the Muslim media points out the contradictions and blindspots of the Western powers, and takes them to task for their hypocrisy and double standards. But for such criticism to carry weight and to have moral currency, it has to come from credible sources that are also balanced and objective enough to look at the moral, economic and political failings of the Muslim world as well. It is fine to condemn Washington?s unfettered unilateralism and the abuses of human rights that are taking places in the USA and places like Guantanamo Bay. But the same critical voices should also be directed against Muslim governments who use and abuse laws that allow for detention without trial; persecute legitimate opposition movements and who use the same rhetoric of ?war against terror? to demonise Islamist movements and parties in their own countries.

Muslim elites have yet to learn the vital lesson that in the battle for hearts and minds it is credibility that counts the most. The most advanced and impressive communications technology will still not be able to capture a loyal audience as long as the message it is trying to communicate is seen as filtered, manipulated or biased. The futility of state propaganda campaigns in the recent past has been made manifest by the rapid collapse of Communist states in the wake of the Cold War: Despite decades of state control and manipulation of the media, the masses remained unpersuaded and the message never got through. There is no reason to believe that Muslims are or would be any different.

? Avoiding the solipsist trap, leaning to speak beyond ourselves:

Linked to this narrow and myopic manipulation of the media is the Muslim media?s tendency to preach to the converted and speak a language that halts at the frontiers of the Muslim community.

Despite the obvious biases and limitations of the Western media, it does at least attempt to make the crucial leap beyond the margins of its own narrow ethnocentrism. The Muslim media, on the other hand, speaks to the Muslim community primarily and sometimes even exclusively. Failing to distinguish the difference between objective reportage and crude sermonising, Muslim media outlets and services often tend to present their news as a ?Muslim package product?, catering to the exclusive needs of a singular constituency/audience.

Evidence of this tendency towards cultural myopia and solipsism abound everywhere around us: Both the mainstream and popular Muslim press is littered with conspiracy theories, narrative fictions, unjustifiable stereotypes/stereotyping and the like. Muslims cannot and should not complain about the negative profiling of Muslims in the global media if they are unable to stand outside the narrow confines of their own cultural particularism. How many times have we heard Muslim leaders, writers, editors, journalists and columnists summarily demean and decry the West as nothing more than a failed civilisation made up of drug addicts, sexual deviants, heretics perverts, murderers and kafirs? How, pray tell, is this any different to the negative stereotyping of Muslims as murderous fanatics and irrational militants?

Yet this shallow culturalist approach to media reportage is a convenient way to avoid careful analytical and critical journalistic analysis and research. It is also a convenient way to reinforce the boundaries between in-group and out-group, Muslims and non-Muslims ? something which does not actually aid or improve the lot of the Muslims of the world as they stand today.

Worse of all, this narrow culturalist approach to media and reportage does the Muslim world much damage in the long run. By presenting Islam and the Muslim question as a singular issue confined to the Muslim world, the Muslim media is in danger of isolating Muslims in toto and leaving them out of the loop of global developments. Consider, for instance, the absence of a coherent Muslim voice in the debate on globalisation, trade liberalisation, environmental issues, nuclear disarmament, equal and equitable development and so on. Part of this is due to the absence of interest on the part of Muslim societies ? even though it ought to be remembered that issues such as globalisation and trade liberalisation affect the Muslims of the world directly ? as well as the enduring tendency to present Muslim concerns solely through the prism of normative religiosity and cultural politics.

The only way out of this impasse is for the Muslim media to take up concerns that need not (or may not have been) of primary concern for Muslims ? even though they should be. What is more the Muslim media must also learn that for it to retain its relevance (and build upon it) it needs to step out of the solipsistic trap and learn to speak the language of universals that need not be predicated on the cultural fundamentals of normative Islam or Muslim cultural identity. Issues such as globalisation, environmental degradation, rampant militarisation, uneven development et al. happen to be universal issues that affect Muslims and non-Muslims alike. (The destruction of the ozone layer and growing levels of pollution will kill all of us, and Muslims are not endowed with especially thick skins or toxic-proof lungs that will spare them while others perish). 


To conclude, we would argue that Muslims today have to accept the reality that ?Reality? itself has been transformed into a cultural and mediatic commodity. As the very real processes of globalisation, trade liberalisation and economic restructuring dismantles the old world order a new world system is being constructed around us. But this is a highly uneven and unjust world order within which Islam and Muslims have already been reconfigured and re-presented as the internal Other within. For the Muslim world to regain its voice and find its place on the stage of world politics and current affairs, it will have to remedy the democratic political deficit that has held back its advance for so long. This in turn will open the way for new critical voices to emerge, and it is only from this open, balanced, objective and critical contestation of ideas and narratives that the voice of Islam may be heard one day. It may not be a voice that sings soothing lullabies or smothering paeans to the ruling elites of the Muslim world, but it would at least be a voice that has credibility and touches upon the reality that we have lost.

End.
Bibliography:

Esposito, John, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Noor, Farish A., ?11 September and Its Impact on Malaysian Domestic Politics?, in Andrew Tan and Kumar Ramakrishna (eds.), The New Terrorism: Anatomy, Trends and Counter-Strategies, Singapore: Times/ Eastern Universities Press, 2002.
??????, ?Fighting Their Own Demons: The Reinvention of Al-Qaeda as the New ?Global Threat??, Malaysiakini.com, 6 July 2002.

Sayyid, Bobby, A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism, London: Zed Books, 1997.


Biodata:

Dr. Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist currently based at the Centre for Modern Orient Studies (ZMO), Berlin. He has taught at the Centre for Inter-Civilisational Dialogue and the Department of Science and Philosophy at the University of Malaya (UM); the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM), Leiden, and the Institute for Islamic Studies Freie Universitat of Berlin. He is also an associated fellow with the Institute for Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS), National University of Malaysia (UKM) and affiliated fellow with the Bureau of Nation-Building and National Security at the Institute for Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), Malaysia. He has just completed his book ?Islam Embedded? on the historical development of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and is currently studying the socio-cultural and political impact of transnational religious movements in Malaysia and Indonesia. His recent publications include: The Other Malaysia: Writings on Malaysia?s Subaltern Histories (Siverfish, Kuala Lumpur, 2003) and New Voices of Islam (ISIM, Leiden, 2002).

 


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