Islamic Peril: Media and Global Violence

Karim H. Karim

This book seeks to undermine news media discourse that defines Islam as the Western world's "primary Other," an Other that has filled the "threat vacuum" produced by the collapse of the Soviet empire and the decline of the Communist menace. Concentrating on the period between 1980 and 2000, Karim elaborates upon themes already established by Edward Said in Orientalism (1978) and Covering Islam (1981), in this case situating Canadian news media discourse within a larger, global narrative. Karim posits journalists as "integration propagandists" whose work reinforces rather than challenges "the 'clash of civilizations' thesis and the belligerency it proposes" (p. 193). He argues that this dualist view hinders understanding of the very real violence and conflict that fill up news columns every day.

If this larger, critical thesis has already been well circulated by scholars such as Said, Karim nonetheless enhances the argument by positioning Islam as the new Red scare, by highlighting media double standards applied to violence and conflict, by showing us how journalists fuel anti-Islamic discourse, and by demonstrating the incongruity of casting Muslims in the role of "them" when they are increasingly a part of "us." The news media, Karim writes, portray Islam as "a composite entity, with little distinction made between its diverse followers and their respective beliefs, cultures, and actions" (p. 176).

Karim asserts that the age-old Muslim threat, which lay dormant in the aftermath of World War II, re-emerged with the 1979 overthrow of the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi of Iran and the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (p. 121). Very quickly, the Cold War script that had divided the world into pro-Western and pro-Soviet camps was revised to accommodate a new global conflict featuring the Muslim Other. "An ancient enemy darkens the dawn of the new millennium just as we rise from the triumph over the communist East" (p. 1). To demonstrate how easily this revision was made, Karim cites the following Globe and Mail headline during the Gulf War: "Cold War battle transferred to gulf" (p. 130).

Such reportage pits the rational, modern "North" - which Karim delineates as the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel (p. 7) - against an essentialist Islam. Following what he calls "the Jihad model of journalism," Karim notes that power struggles in Muslim parts of the world are depicted not as ideological or political, as in the North, but as rooted in tribal, religious, and/or ethnic hatred. "The jihad model is the specific cognitive macrostructure which presents the conflicts involving Muslims as caused by their religion" (p. 159).

A similar double standard is applied to the question of how physical force is described and legitimized. Labels such as "violence" and "terrorism" delegitimize particular acts of physical force at the same time as they discredit those who employ physical force against governments and their armies. Karim writes: "In naming only certain kinds of political violence as terrorism, in assigning causal and remedial responsibilities for this public problem, and in legitimating a depoliticized way of viewing it, the mass media are vital participants in engineering consensus about this issue" (p. 34). This is a specific example of what Karim means when he says journalists work as "integration propagandists," integrating their audiences within dominant belief systems (p. 23).

Karim posits news consumption as one of the rituals that holds communities together and grants authority to institutions of power. Acting as a kind of shorthand to understanding, news stories portray good and bad, right and wrong, heroes and villains, thereby reducing the particularity and complexity of global conflicts to dramaturgical typecasting (pp. 26-27). As such stories are told and retold, they constitute a dominant discourse, a restricted field of meanings within which such events are comprehensible. "Dominant discourses reproduce themselves inter-textually, with the various media that carry them continually referring to each other" (pp. 5-6).

Dominant discourses are also reproduced transnationally. Karim makes specific reference to the Canadian print media's dependence upon American, British, and French wire services, a dependence that helps to sustain and reinforce the global narrative on Islam. "A significant part of the Canadian mass media's coverage of Muslim societies involves an interpretation of Muslim responses to the North's, often American, cultural, ideological, economic, and military influence over those parts of the world" (pp. 14-15).

Perhaps the greatest value of this book is the central irony Karim reveals about Northern media discourse. Islam is fast becoming second to Christianity as the most popular faith in many Northern countries. Islam is not a place over "there," but a faith increasingly shared by people who live "here," and thus: "Polarized frameworks of 'us versus them' are becoming even more invalid than ever" (pp. 178-179).

If the importance of this kind of scholarship was evident prior to the events of September 11, such work has taken on added urgency as anti-Islamic discourse fuels the demonization of militant Muslims, validates U.S. led military campaigns, and impedes open and serious discussion of the question "why?" Karim doesn't stop at critique. At the same time as he implicates journalists in the propaganda war, he provides an alternative path by advocating an "informed journalism" disengaged from cultural, national, and institutional allegiance (pp. 183-188). Karim skilfully demonstrates the signifying power of discourse and positions journalists as agents in the construction of dominant representations of Islam. By placing particular emphasis on the notion of agency, he denaturalizes the Islam we see depicted in the news media and compels journalists to assume responsibility for the signifying power they wield and work toward rendering journalism a truly independent practice.

References

Said, Edward. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Pantheon.

Said, Edward. (1981). Covering Islam: How the media and the experts determine how we see the rest of the world. New York: Pantheon.



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