Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Innocence of Muslims: Rage and Image

Muslims suffer from the problem of “image deficit.” They must do something about it before it is too late.
By Zafar Anjum

George Orwell once said that all art is propaganda. Today, in the age of ‘images’, every image is propaganda, a tent pole holding up the canvas of a larger image that favours one group over another, pits one party against another, in a binary of competition for survival, resources and dominance.
When the Twin Towers fell on September 11 nine years ago, I was sitting inside an American multinational company in Delhi. While I felt the pain and horror of this monstrous attack on innocent citizens, I had another kind of lump in my throat.
If I were the head of a Muslim state, that day my first call would have been to the White House. My second call would have been to the world’s biggest public relations company. Why? I will explain it soon.
But first a few thoughts on 911 and why it was a watershed event.
As far as the official story goes, the act of terror on 911 was committed by a bunch of Al Qaeda nutcases who happened to be Muslims. The terrorists carried out the attack in the name of Islam. They used the cover of religion to incite war and hatred against their own people—thus proving that the act was not only against America, it was also against the Muslims at large. Among the 3,000 dead were Muslims too; amid the destruction was also a Muslim prayer room in the World Trade Centre.
So the other lump in my throat was this—as millions of people watched the burning towers on their TV screens, a ‘particular’ image of Islam was being burnished in their memories. As most people judge a book by its cover, so do they judge a religion by its followers. On that unfortunate day, the terrorists achieved what thousands of books and articles could not have achieved: equating Islam with terror. A religion which was by and large considered ‘peaceful’ for 1400 years suddenly came to be ‘perceived’ as violent. That’s what makes 911 a watershed event for the world.
But this ‘perception’ building does not stop there. Over the years, Islam’s projection as a hardcore faith has got reinforced by more images and subliminal suggestions that those images imply: Osama Bin Laden’s videos that kept coming from somewhere (even Pentagon didn’t know from where), the assassination of Danish filmmaker Theodoor van Gogh by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim, the Danish cartoons controversy, the Swiss ban on minarets, and the French ban on burqa and the Cordoba House project (Park51) near the Ground Zero in New York. The latest event in this series is the worldwide protests against the trailer of an American film, The Innocence of Muslims.
Freakish news sells and such news travels fast these days—not just by TV but by Twitter and Facebook. A woman’s death by stoning in Afghanistan or Iran or Saudi Arabia becomes international news. For most people who use social media, this is the sort of medievalism that they associate with Islam. Differentiating between Islam and a society’s feudal practices would tax the brains of Lady Gaga lovers—that is the assumption.
These images, often presented as freakish stories, have a cumulative impact, leading to the formation of a narrative, a stereotypical public image of Islam, like a creature with two horns—violence and medievalism—that befittingly begs the intervention of NATO forces and American foreign policy to cure it of its barbarity and backwardness.
Add to this image the public ignorance that is prevalent about Islam simply because there is no supply of stories from the Muslim world in the mainstream discourse—in the form of comic books, animation and feature films and television shows that comprise today’s mainstream media. On the other hand, you have Hollywood films and TV shows such as True Lies and 24that keep reinforcing the ‘negative’ image of Muslims. Since supply creates its own demand, so you have a situation which regularly stokes ‘Islamophobia’.
Though both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars have written books and magazine articles dissociating Islam from terrorism, it does not make much of a difference except in the academic circles. The message seldom reaches the common man. The man on the street does not have the time to read Noam Chomsky or do research in the library. He watches movies and eats his dinner before the television or spends time with friends in bars and gets his information from gossip that emanates from one or the other mainstream media outlet.
The challenge before Muslims, therefore, is to‘re-engineer’ their image in the mind of the man who likes to eat TV dinners. For that they need to get hold of the microphone.
Understanding the manufacturing of reality
The problem is that Muslims don’t understand the deep effect of this game of images and perception-building. And even if some of them do, they don’t become actors. They remain sad spectators.
Perception is more real than reality—that is a cliché as well as the truth since the 1950s. The visual media not only transforms our sense of reality but finally reality itself. In this day and age of quick sound bites, videos and social networks, images spur the fabrication of reality. As a Latin American writer says, the idolatry of images makes us blind to the miracles of reality.
If Muslims had understood this reality, they would still not react in old fashioned ways to events that hurt their religious sentiments, that is through protests, demonstrations, and by violent methods such as killing the person who committed the act of insult against the religion or through suicide bombings. This kind of reaction betrays their lack of understanding of the age of image, and in turn, reinforces their siege mentality, steels their sense of persecution. Since they can’t negotiate with the images, they turn away from them, feeling more alienated. This further complicates the problem.
Muslims today complain of their religion’s demonization and the growing Islamophobia. But writing articles about it or whining about the problem in email groups and forums is not going to help in any big way.
There are a couple of things Muslims need to do on an urgent basis.
First, Muslims need to grasp this deficit of image management. They have to explore and locate the centre of the contemporary anxiety that surrounds them: You can walk into any bookstore and find graphic stories and novels on the life of Buddha, Jesus, Rama and so on. Where is the graphic book on Islam’s messenger and his life (except for Moustapha Akkad’sThe Message—that too is not readily available in all bookstores all over the world)? Where are the stories from the Quran? Can you find DVDs on them? If they are not there, Muslims need to supply them.
I understand the Muslim hesitation of entering the sphere of image-making. All Abrahamanic faiths—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—forbid the making and glorification of images. But this has not stopped Christians or Jews from participating in the media. Muslims too have to find a creative solution to address the asymmetry. Television channel Al Jazeera, and publishing house Goodword Books were a good start.
Two, learn to manage the community’s reactions when controversies break out. A seasoned, peaceful and reasonable response should be offered. If newspaper editors and television studios tell you that there is no market for positive stories about Muslims, then convince them otherwise. Act and move out of the shadows and become part of the panorama. Media is oligopolistic—so if you can’t own the microphone, at least rent it.
Three, Muslims need to be more pro-active and media savvy. Defuse a crisis before it is too late. Intransigence is not the way. Compromise, aimed at harmony, should be the motto. The insistence on Project51 in the United States and Babri Masjid in India are examples of the community’s shortsightedness. Harmony is a game of give and take, of compromises and concessions. Demanding a constitutional right against strong public opinion is akin to missing the woods for the tree.
Four, Muslims need to tell the world time and again that terrorists don’t represent them. They are the freaks. Also, stop being alarmed over the ban on veils and minarets. These are local issues and treat them as such. These are more about rejecting diversity than accepting Islam.
But these attitudes are part of a larger challenge—the economic forces—and here is why.
Muslims need to understand the economic forces that are operational today, forces that underpin everything—from politics to culture. The age of globalisation demands homogeneity in every sphere of life, material as well as cultural, and if a community professes its own value system against the tide, it is bound to look odd—in all images that dominate our lives (that’s why miniskirts are fine, but veils are not). As long as the Muslims stick to their own value system and culture, they will be seen as ‘savage medievalists’. The homogenization and westernization of Muslims—in image and ethos—is the last battle of globalization. Once this is achieved, that will be the true end of history.
However, merely trying to‘re-engineer’ the Muslim image is not enough. There is no smoke without fire. Muslims have to address the ugly reality of medievalism that exists in some of their feudal societies. Those have to be tackled. They have to stop seeing the persecution of Muslims as divine will, and instead, go to the roots of Islam and re-discover and live its essence, which is peace and harmony. Can Muslims show to the world a single contemporary leader who is not corrupt or tainted? That’s one big challenge of leadership that needs addressing.
Islam, as it was revealed to Prophet Mohammad, and Muslims have existed for over 1400 years now. Majority of Muslims have accepted the concept of nation states, rule of law, constitutions—all these would have been anathema during the age of caliphate. Many Muslim societies have modernized their personal laws. Muslim minorities, in most countries in the East and the West, have adjusted themselves to their new lands. If they feel alienated, it is the result of little integration which in turn arises out of their refusal to homogenize in the age of globalization. The downside is the loss of identity but that is inevitable unless history takes an imaginative turn.
When no editor agreed to publish this piece online (I did send it to many websites and publications in India and abroad), I put it up on Aljazeera's tumbler page. I am glad to see that many people have liked the piece. I would love to hear your views on this. Thanks.

No comments: