Arab and Muslim media makers consumed all their dictionaries, all the lexicons, synonyms and metaphors in their denouncement of the cataclysmic events of 9/11. It is by no means due to that fateful day and its innocent loss. I can effortlessly recite from my memory all the dazzling and self-motivated titles and lines; like “it was Islam that was hijacked and toppled under the ruins of the Twin Towers,” “we [Arabs and Muslims] are also the victims,” and the famed “the flaws and misconceptions in the image of Muslims and Arabs in the West.”Despite all that and a year after – if one scratches the surface – did the Muslim and Arab media kitchens produce proper works for the new hungry curiosity that can meet the significance of the event? Even questioning their objectives at such serious times is a duty of self-consciousness and criticism.
Ear Training or Ear Tiring?
Among all the implications of 9/11, the fall of the Twin Towers made the media stand tall in shaping/controlling public consciousness and interests, opinion (just imagine the difference if the incident was not aired or televised at all). The vigorous horns were taken out of the arsenal of the American and Western media and Arabs and Muslims became nuisance to peace and the security of the planet. In response, both the retroactive response and the sealed-off and shutdown assertions about Muslims and Arabs being terrorists, hijackers, barbarians, bloodthirsty and envious of American/Western liberty and advancement created a thick wall of self-assurance.
Muslim and Arab hasty responses were highly impulsive and limited; “Islam is/means peace,” “we are not terrorists,” “we are not barbarians,” etc. At that stage, Muslim/Arab discourse was inflicted by a severe dichotomy, being defeatist, negativist, apologetic, and reactionary on the one hand, and self-denying on the other.
The well-spoken lucidity of Ziauddin Sardar described the situation inIslam has Become its own Enemy: “This state of denial means Muslims are ill-equipped to deal with problems of endemic terrorism. Indiscriminate violence, terror by governments against their own people, by opposition groups and between factions, has now become such an integral part of the political discourse of failed polities that it is taken for granted.” (The Observer, October 21, 2001)
This is the catch. Terror was hardly mentioned as an internal problem in the media—with the long history of its social, political, economic, intellectual, theological and historical contexts. Media in the Arab and Muslim worlds kept separating Muslims from terrorism, even though terrorism has sunk its teeth in the heart of the Muslim world far before US involvement. The works of the media were mere plastic surgery.
On the Heels of…
As the American media changed its agenda to validate the “war against terror” the situation got worse. Arabs and Muslims woke up with a new dawn of anti-American foreign policy sentiments: coverage of American wanton policies, the growing rift between America and Europe (excluding the UK of course), the fear-provoking pictures from the Occupied Territories and the American green light and blood-red hands behind them as well as pro-Zionist control of the American Media was also stressed upon as if all that was altogether novel.
This in fact, although voiced before 9/11, further distanced the Muslim and American public. Now that was another problem.
The Arab media did not criminalize the American public for the criminal foreign policy of their government, yet the issue of cultural rapprochement was hardly visible (in comparison to promoting the stigmatized image of Islam and Muslims on the part of the Western media). In that early phase, following the 9/11 attacks, and due to the inflammatory videos of Osama bin Laden, al-Jazeera network was crowned as the queen of the Arab and Muslim media. It offered what the Arab thoughtless and emotional hunger dictated.
We have been hearing about all those workshops, seminars, conferences, talk shows, programs and campaigns on changing the image of Islam before the red furious eyes of the West. Classical Arab and Muslim factionalism and under-organization caged projects for such campaigns in the West within the Arab league and other Arab and Muslim syndicates and institutions. The lack of funding and cooperation, even, silenced the Muslim voice in the West.
On the opposite camp, the American government initiated “half a billion dollars into a channel that would compete in the region with al-Jazeera and would be aimed specifically at younger Muslims who are seen as anti-American…‘eye-popping’ but is being seen as a worthwhile investment if it lessens the possibility of further attacks by starting to dry up the pool of recruits to al-Qaida and by convincing young Muslims that the US is not anti-Islam” (Duncan Campbell, The Guardian, Nov 23, 2001).
Theycannot understand us, Arabs, for the language barrier and we go to them because of our disgraceful lack of cooperation and commitment, despite our tremendous yet scattered resources and intellectual capabilities.
Take the mere example of the incident of publishingthe letter that was assumed to be from bin Ladento the Afghani people on this very website. Through the latest controversy over the publishing and after the many presses and networks that reviewed the letter – such as the BBC and The Washington Post – the website was described as “moderate.” As for Arab reviews of the site, it was viewed as osuli (fundamentalist) in most of the press, and even in the respected Al-Hayat–despite the unequivocal stance of IslamOnline on the 9/11 attacks and its well-established modern and liberal standpoints.
Media or Mediocrity… Now What?
Muslims have been excluded from international acceptance. The good reasons for this are dual-based: Western fixed self-assurance; the uncompromising orientalist dogmas (along the lines of its literary and scholarly overconfident background) and stereotypes and predisposed media coverage, met with overwhelming apologia; lousy one-sidedness and inertia; lack of the use of proper approach and tone and rather under/disorganization in approaching the West.
Attempts at cultural rapprochement with the West are hardly heard of in the Muslim media. We are also the victims of our malculturalism. For “us” (here, the Muslim world), we only represent “us” as the antithesis and the mirror image of what the other side believes. This is undereducated. No peoples or cultures can present themselves merely as “not terrorist,” “not barbaric,” “not backward” or “not chauvinist.”
For is this enough? Is that all we are? All we’ve been? Only if we answer such questions can we know what we will be. No wonder the “other” cannot relate to “us.” As 9/11 has shaken the ground under the self-assured Western mentality, many anthropological, cultural relativist, and activist attempts have been in the works on the side of the “other” to understand and relate to “us.” Our media, in its attempt to understand the “other,” must reach out for them.
Of course not all the West is red-handed in American immoral foreign policies and anti-Arab/Muslim stereotypes. If the media in the Arab and Muslim worlds cannot reason beyond apologizing for 9/11, then not only will it victimize its audience, but the Western public – the pro-Arab and Muslim among them too – will be in for another post-9/11 agenda and approach.
Outflanking the wedge between the Muslim and Western publics is the duty of all intellectuals, media-controllers and anchormen in the Muslim world.
Tarek A. Ghanemis an Egyptian freelance writer based in Cairo, Egypt. He is specialized in comparative politics and is currently assistant to the English section in Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya (International Politics), a quarterly journal published by Al-Ahram Foundation, Cairo, Egypt.