Reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for instance, the media rarely discusses the greater circumstances of the conflict, making Palestinian resistance seem irrational and often inhumane.
Propaganda has a long history of use by various governments to help accomplish their strategic goals. In the United States, the military uses the euphemism “psychological operations”, or psy-ops in short, to refer to its efforts to reinforce attitudes and behaviors favorable to US objectives. However, the law prohibits the military from employing psychological operations on the domestic population of the United States
Instead, today we see the major news media taking on the military’s role. As Muslims in the post 9/11 era, we have seen an extremely unfavorable image of Islam painted by major media outlets in the United States, such as CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and CBS. And while the target audience of such anti-Islam propaganda is most certainly the majority of Americans, most of whom are ignorant about Islam, such propaganda has also had the side-effect of warping the thinking and behavior of many Muslims living in the United States. In light of this, as Muslims in the United States we must cautiously guard ourselves against the psychological effect of exposure to repeated propaganda on our own views and balance the major news media with our own research and knowledge.
One technique that the major news media has used to distort our religion and make it seem unfavorable even in our own eyes is its use of language. For instance, these days in the media we often hear high-praise for moderate Muslims”, and in contrast, much criticism for “fundamentalist Muslims”. The term “moderate Muslim” is a major talking point of the Bush administration, which uses it to refer to Muslims who do not resist oppression and sit idly by as their country’s resources are plundered. The major media repeats this term with the same underlying implications. While many of us can see what is problematic about such a term, (and moreover, such a Muslim), unfortunately such language leads the undiscerning Muslim into thinking that there is something fundamentally wrong with his faith. As a result, and in order to avoid the psychological pressure applied by the media on him, he may make the decision to practice his faith only selectively and moderately and thus begin to have little affinity for those Muslims across the world who have been labeled by the news media as “fundamentalist”.
Another technique that the major news media has used effectively to weaken the resolve of Muslims living in the United States is its selective focus on current issues in the Muslim world that are unfamiliar to many Muslims living in the United States. For instance, the major media may report heavily on a case in which a person who commits a crime in a country such as Saudi Arabia is punished by administering lashes to his body. For most Muslims living in the United States, particularly those of us who have grown up here, the idea of a person being physically beaten for his crime is a foreign idea and thus may seem to be a disproportionate and cruel punishment. Inevitably, and with the implicit implications in the news media’s coverage of such stories, the undiscerning Muslim has an emotive reaction to such stories and begins making a connection between one such action and Islam as a complete school of thought, which he sees as sanctioning such behavior. The logical consequence of this thought is that he sees his religion as being in need of reform to some extent. Once this has been accepted, the fact that the U.S. military is slaughtering some Muslims in foreign countries and actively working toward regime change on a daily basis becomes easier for him to stomach.
A third technique that the media has successfully used to condition Muslims in the United States is its projection of political issues onto religion. For instance, these days when issues related to Islam and the Muslim world are covered in the major news media, they are often associated with bombings, killings, or some form of violence. Such stories, while ultimately tragic due to the loss of human life that they usually entail, are never reported in their full political context, leading the reader or listener to believe that there is some inherent connection between the violence committed and the religion of those who are engaging in it.
Reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for instance, the media rarely discusses the greater circumstances of the conflict, making Palestinian resistance seem irrational and often inhumane. On this issue, Mahatma Gandhi, who is championed as a leader of non-violence in the West, offered some enlightening words. Writing in 1938 during the exodus of Jews into Palestine and the subsequent violence between Jews and Arabs, he wrote, “What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct. According to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds.”
Yet without the context that Gandhi mentions, Palestinian acts of violence seem to be extreme and unprovoked. Upon hearing stories of similar, seemingly unjustified acts of violence committed by Muslims taken out of their political context in Chechnya, Kashmir, Palestine, the undiscerning Muslim may begin to think that Islam as a religion is inherently violent. Again, this thought naturally leads to one having less faith in Islam as a complete religion and less empathy for Muslims across the globe, especially if those Muslims are thought of as fundamentally violent. If this undiscerning Muslim did his research, however, and studied authentic Islamic sources instead of listening to the same media drones day in and day out, he would see, for instance, that number of verses in the Qur’an on peace amongst mankind far trump the number relating to violence and warfare.
It’s easy to believe something that is repeated over and over again. If the same negative talking points are repeated about Islam in the media, it won’t be long before our hearts and minds begin accepting them. To combat this, and since as Muslims we must be seekers of truth, we should actively seek out other sources of information besides the major news media. Thankfully with the Internet, there are plenty of sources out there for us to examine to get the other side of the picture. On Middle Eastern affairs, websites such as Informed Comment, Information Clearing House, and Counter Punch may be good starting points. Another idea is to discuss current political affairs with immigrants from the Middle East whom we know personally. It’s only when we seek to educate ourselves in this way that we can fend off the propaganda that much of the media is feeding us today and replace it with genuine understanding.