28 Oct. - 3 Nov. 1999
Issue No. 453
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Even the left-of-centre Guardian, played its part
Framing IslamSince the time of the Crusades, Islam has been the West's preferred -- and hated -- other, the mirror in which it could project its own violence. Omayma Abdel-Latif-- writing from London -- observes similar forces at work in British press reports on Islamist violence
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"Since you cannot convey reality precisely, since in the last resort there is no precise reality to convey, why worry? All that is expected of you is a good story, so let them have it. Truth? What is truth?"
Edward Mortimer, 'Islam and the Western journalist'
The lead article on the Daily Telegraph's foreign news page was no exception to the rule. Yet another story on an outbreak of violence perpetrated by political protest groups with a religious discourse in the Middle East. The reporter, Patrick Bishop, billed as a senior staffer on Middle Eastern affairs, sternly warned his readers: "Western leaders are becoming increasingly concerned by the threat to democracy posed by the growth of Islamic fundamentalist extremism." He went on to deliberately play on Britons' fears and anxieties, by stating that "many of the Islamic zealots have relatives living in European cities".
For Bishop, the killing of teachers, writers, journalists and entertainers are 'naturally Islamic' acts, which express "the fundamentalists' hatred of Western values". By so describing them, he implicitly suggested that matters of education, writing and art cannot really be considered part of the 'indigenous' order of things, but belong exclusively to the Western value system against which the Islamists are fighting.
Such an attitude is typical of those which are to be found in the Western press in general, and especially here in England. They have set the stage for the construction of Islamism -- defined here as the use of Islamic metaphors to narrate a political project -- as a political spectacle, one which evokes for the Western reader the nightmare of a constant Islamic 'crusade', characterised by 'terrorism' and 'violence'. In the process, these alleged attributes of the Islamic order of things are thus effectively naturalised and, in the process, depoliticised. News on Islam is rarely bracketed off from everyday life as a self-contained set of 'political opinions' or 'biased views'. Instead, it is presented as a form of common sense, thoroughly permeating everyday discourse.
A brief look at a set of headlines collected, almost at random, from British newspapers, shows clearly how a link is constructed between Muslims and the notions of violence, terrorism, and disrespect for human life: British Muslims sent to Islamic training camps; Italy on security alert after Islam terror warning; Clinton to lead summit against Islamic terror; France fears protracted Islam terror campaign; Islamic fanatics gun down Briton in terror campaign; Fundamentalists outfox liberals; Muslim radicals challenge the nation's secular, European self-image.
My aim here is to show how Islam has been constructed in the British press over the past two decades within a perceptual framework of violence, extremism and anti-Western sentiments. Such a construction, far from promoting accurate expectations or understanding, has instead evoked a drama objectifying fear and a sense of constant threat. This has been done in two main ways: framing news on Islam within a certain perceptual framework; and staging political violence in the Middle East as a crisis through which the relationship between Islam and the West has been shaped in the second half of the 20th century.
In any attempt to investigate how this relationship took shape, a study of the press must play a central role. For one thing, the media was the only discourse assembling plausible messages out of disparate signs, because only they had the tools to make the crisis tangible. Only they could make a story out of it using narrative forms which would fit the audience's expectations. Accordingly, one can observe how Islam as covered in the Western press has been converted into a system consisting of a limited repertoire of discrete, disembodied and oft-repeated signs -- the nauseous bearded and turbaned sheikhs, the veiled women and the raised fists -- not to forget the unruly and fanatic mob.
Deconstructing this discourse inevitably raises the question of partiality in representation. The press in the West has often been accused of perpetuating a biased image of Islam and Muslim societies. Yet the notion of bias itself can seem problematic, since it supposes that the distorted image can be compared to some kind of 'objective' reality. It also implies a conspiracy theory, an ulterior motivation, which can prove hard to measure. Yet objectivity is always relative to a certain conceptual system and a set of cultural values. As some thinkers have quite rightly argued, such objectivity cannot be achieved when there is a conflict of conceptual systems or cultural values. It therefore becomes a political act, a claim to power over others.
THE MUSLIM SPECTACLE: Perhaps, then, the coverage of Islam in the British press should not be viewed in terms of bias or objectivity, but rather in terms of creating a frame, a frame which reassures the observer -- in this case, the Western journalist -- that their own interpretation of reality is defensible. As a result, certain properties of the object are emphasised, while others are played down or concealed. Ideological considerations are paramount in choosing and framing news stories, and these values thus come to pervade the whole of public dialogue.
For the past two decades, the commonest frame within which to portray Islam has been one based on a crisis that is subsumed under the categories of terrorism, violence, extremism and anti-Western hatred. Such a frame focuses on the innocent victims of brutal violence committed by Muslim Arabs against Israelis, or by Muslim extremists against their opponents. It is not easy to find anyone writing to an alternative storyline in the British press -- one which shows the confrontation of Islamists with their governments as a legitimate struggle. The terrorism story is, after all, convenient. It provides an important shortcut for journalists in their search for sources, images and contexts. In the words of one critic, news on Islam is thus firmly placed within the 'disorder news' frame.
If we want to understand the conceptual structure used in reporting news on Islam in the British press, we should therefore look more closely at how Western values and concepts are constituted as the final arbiter of fairness, not only within the Western cultural world, but also with regards to transcultural values, such as those of Islam.
MEDIATING THE OTHER: Over the past two decades, the construction of Islam in the Western media has focused on the rising tide of religiosity which began with the Iranian revolution in 1979 and went on to sweep the Middle East region. The waves of this movement were political protest movements which had adopted a religious discourse.
"Islam has been constructed in the British press within a perceptual framework of violence, extremism and anti-Western sentiments. Such a construction, far from promoting accurate expectations or understanding, has instead evoked a drama objectifying fear and a sense of constant threat"
The rise of Islamism was a primary component in the construction of an image of Islam in the British media. There, the Islamists were generally reported as having taken a stand against all things Western. Indeed, certain Muslim and Western writings on the subject have led to the reification of conceptual structures and cultural values on both sides, by adopting those of the West as the only perceptual framework within which the Islamism phenomenon was reported and understood. This framework then provided the ground upon which an image of Islam was culturally canonised.
To take issue with this process is not to deny that the West has occupied some space in the Islamists' discourse. My argument is rather that both Western press reports and certain Muslim writings have portrayed Islamism as existing only in relation to Western hegemony, and as the antithesis of Western cultural values. As a result, there has been hardly any attempt to view it as part of a system of relations in whose evolution the West was one of many components, not the sole determining factor.
While there is no such thing as a monolithic "West", or a monolithic Islamism, the press discourse on Islamism has tended to be completely binary. The two categories -- Islam and the West -- came to exist only within a construction of reality in which things Islamic and things Western were defined by their mutual contrariety. The world was mapped out in terms of West and non-West. In the press coverage, we can trace a logic of equivalencies at work: a frontier was drawn up, along which a number of positive and negative qualities were sorted between the 'West' and the 'Rest'. Thus a contrast appeared between modernity, with the West as its epitome, representing civilisation, democracy, rationality and freedom, and non-modernity, the West's other, represented by barbarism, irrationality, despotism and slavery.
Many writers, in assessing the relationship between Islamism and the West, have placed the emphasis on the Islamists' rejection of things Western as the central theme in their discourse. Professor Ernest Gellner, for example, believes that the centrality of anti-Western themes was due to what he described as the 'trauma' of the West's impact on Muslim societies. This in turn has led Muslims to question the usefulness of their vocabulary and their sacred meta-narratives. This process of questioning resulted in what many Western scholars describe as a 'return' to the 'genuinely local ideal', and suspicion of all foreign meta-narratives. In such a discourse, the West came to represent a denial of Islam, imperialism, state repression, economic mismanagement and cultural erosion. Bobby Sayyid is just one of those who see this as explaining how the image of Islam was constructed as the radical 'other' that cannot be 'embraced'.
But such an argument is itself problematic, since it suggests that Islamism is only comprehensible in relation to such a decentering of the West. What this postmodernist argument ignores is that Islamism should be viewed as part of a system of relations and conflicts with other actors with whom it has to contend for consensus and power. While it is true that Islamists have set some of their boundaries in relation to the West -- mostly in the sphere of morality -- yet the bulk of their struggle has been a contest over the extent of state control, the boundaries of legitimate state activity, and the definition of public and private spheres. The effect of such arguments have therefore been to decontextualise the phenomenon of Islamism, by reducing its emergence to a pure reaction to the West's decentralisation.
STAGING THE CRISIS: In the British press, the construction of Islamism has passed through a general discourse of 'crisis'. In effect, Islamism that has been reduced to a reaction to the West's conceptual structures, was located within a 'crisis' frame that continually presented itself whenever and wherever events in the Muslim world took place.
For a crisis to be visible to the wider public it cannot merely occur: it has to be staged. Such an operation, Armando Salvatore argues, requires a significant event that has to be clearly connected with the structural crisis of development, and which can be narrated according to simple, culturally available patterns, where the role of the 'bad guys' can be identified with the widest possible consensus. Some critics would argue that such an undertaking is no longer an intellectual task, but rather one that relies heavily upon the resources and techniques of the media.
There would seem to be good grounds to argue that two events have been central to the staging of Islamism as a crisis in the British media: the Iranian revolution in 1979, and the wave of violence carried out by Islamists during the '80s and '90s in certain Middle Eastern countries. This staging in turn led to significant changes in the ways in which Islam could be used, transculturally, to define Western identity. It has been quite rightly argued that the West's interest in covering Islamism was not primarily due to an "objective" assessment of which political acts were being performed in the name of Islam in Muslim societies, but rather to the fact that it provided a contrastive image which could help redefine the Western political subjectivity at a time when it was going through its own crisis. Consequently, Islamism became a phenomenon only when the authorised Western observer -- the media and foreign policy-makers -- felt the urgency to reflect on it. Thus, Islam was no longer a civilisation of the text and law, and as such closed in on itself, but a global issue looming large on the Western political agenda.
Such a representation of Islam, as a constant advocacy of a certain course of action -- violence, terrorism and extremism -- was to prove extremely effective in influencing public opinion. Thus, ever since the Islamic revolution in Iran, a reader of the British press will have noticed that the most significant element of continuity in the coverage of the region is precisely the pervasive presence of a crisis as an unquestioned constraining category.
THE ONLY BENCHMARK: There have been three central themes around which an image of Islam has been constructed in the British newspapers:
1) The violence committed by Islamic groups in the Middle East, Hamas in Palestine, Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya in Egypt and the GIA in Algeria.
2) The international network of 'Islamic' terror which swept over Europe during the 1990s.
3) Iran's involvement in supporting terrorism.
The focus on Islamism is central to this image, since it has brought into the coverage a whole range of issues concerning civil liberties, minority rights, multi-culturalism and human rights. Religion is also a prevailing issue, as images from the history of religion, whether Islamic or Christian, have been recalled and deployed in support of conflicting constructions and arguments.
In the press, one could thus trace the construction of an Islam whose properties have disrupted and posed a threat to the continuity and harmony of the liberal value system. Such a construction relied upon the dense presence in newspaper discourse of category labels. To name but a few, Islamic terror, Islamic militants, Islamic holy warrior, Islamic terrorists, Islamic dictator, Islamic attacks and fanatical Islamic terrorism, have all proved enduringly popular.
The main thread running through most stories is to hold up Western ideals as the only benchmark and place them in explicit opposition to those attributed to Islam. As a result, the Muslim world is approached in terms of how it differs from and conflicts with the West, instead of being considered in its own right. Islamism is also assimilated into the Western historical imagination through reports of the fanatical expression of religious fervour, from which all consideration of the social, political and economic factors which may have given rise to it are excluded. Islamism is thus constructed as a fanatical wave rising far beyond the pale of the comprehensible, rational politics of liberal democracy.
One particular attribute which serves in this context to exclude Islamism from the Western humanist tradition is the notion that the Islamists' have shown a total disregard for the value of individual human life. This perception plays itself out against the background of the state as the embodiment of constitutional practice. It is precisely at this point that the problem of legitimacy arises. For the picture of a benign state versus evil terror can be challenged by introducing the concept of state repression or state terror. Such a concept has been rendered insignificant in the press coverage. Islamism was thus not seen within a system of relations, but is rather completely decontextualised. Indeed, the tendency to separate discrete facts from the social context which gave rise to them has been the norm in press coverage. In this way, the fact that the rise of violence in Algeria or Egypt, for example, has gone through a number of successive phases, which have progressively transformed political protest into continuous and intensive carnage, has largely been ignored.
Thus the coverage of Algeria has focused on the number of victims of the violence and the state's reaction. Perhaps there will be at most one or two sentences explaining that the acts in question were committed by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) which was "poised to win the election". In the case of the Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya of Egypt, the sole phrase explaining the motivation behind the attacks would usually attribute them to the desire "to topple the secular government and establish an Islamic state". The newspapers thus followed an "inoculation" approach, which presents imbalances without discussing causes. Such a procedure serves to dehistoricise and depoliticise the discourse, by viewing the rise of 'Islamic attacks' or 'Islamic violence' as something inherent to Islam.
This absence of explanation, therefore, naturalises the situation, by making it part of a common sense. Violence was committed, just because these groups were Muslims and were out to topple the 'secular' government. In this way, violence has come to be constructed as an essential element in the creation of an Islamic order of things.
The tendency to question aspects of Islam, such as its attitude towards women, also surfaced in several stories. One example dealt with the status of Egyptian women under what the reporter described as 'the rise of Islamism'. The opening paragraph consisted of a quote from Marlyn Tadros, a Copt, identified as a human rights activist, who is "disheartened by the way things are going in her country". Marlyn is quoted as saying that, "Once, we women in Egypt were pioneers in the Arab world. However, due to the 'Islamic revival', we are going backwards."
All through the article, Islam is constructed, through extensive quotes from Tadros and two other 'liberal' feminists, as the reason why women have been excluded from public discourse and are being treated as "second-class citizens". Islam is thus something that "women from rural, traditional, and conservative backgrounds" would welcome, but not women from liberal and progressive milieu, women who are proponents of women's rights. By placing the emphasis on 'Islamic revival', Islam is thus reified and made to appear as the only reason why Coptic girls are being persecuted, women are seeing their rights eroded, and women who speak out for those rights are constantly under threat.
Such reports are alarming, in the sense that while they quote indigenous sources, they nevertheless totally fail to present an impartial account, by omitting the other point of view -- that of mainstream Muslim women. Instead, they take sides with those who are 'like us' (the West).
This in turn raises the question of the sources used by journalists writing on Islamism. To judge by the end result, there is a marked tendency to quote either extremist voices, which play to the image of a violent religion, and secular Westernised indigenous sources, who suffer the wrath of Islamists, be they minorities or women, to the exclusion of all others.
In this way, the politics of the Middle East is reduced to an irrational religious regression beyond the pale of the comprehensible rational politics of Western liberal democracy. No wonder then that most people in the West are unable to understand how such violence has emerged, and what it means for the societies in question.
Edward Said, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, Vintage (London, 1997)
Armando Salvatore, Islam and the Political Discourse of Modernity, International Politics of the Middle East series, Ithaca Press (London, 1997)
Bobby Sayyid, A Fundamental Fear, Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism, Zed Books Ltd (London, 1997)
Ernest Gellner, Postmodernism, Reason and Religion, Routledge (London, New York, 1991)
The Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and the Independent issues from 1994-1997