Monday, August 06, 2007

Stopping the Clash of Civilisations

The spectre of Islam is haunting the world. As a country with a Muslim population, it would do us good to understand the "Other" in our own soil. Excerpts of a paper I wrote for an elective class in Communication. I knew the Media was powerful before taking this class...but now I have some appreciation for how the Media is powerful. I took out the references, but if you want them, let me know.


The United States’ war in Iraq and continuing presence in the Middle East region are driven by two goals. First, to ensure dominance and political control over oil as an economic resource; and second, to carry out strategic positioning vis-à-vis potential rivals Russia and China in the Eurasian continent. While these intentions may be clear among students and practitioners of international relations, they are not so among the general public. These very real material interests have been overshadowed by the rhetoric of the “Clash of Civilisations” and the incompatibility of values and cultures between ‘discrete’ and ‘identifiable’ groupings. The obfuscation is deliberate, its effect absolute.

In today’s world, where naked aggression is universally condemned, the pursuit of these political and economic goals must necessarily be subsumed under the rhetoric of culture in order to gain legitimacy. Consent must be generated within the United States as well as the international community. The justification for launching multiple wars, i.e. the War on Terror in 2001, the war in Afghanistan in 2002, the war in Iraq in 2003 and perhaps an imminent war against Iran, is premised on the cultural superiority of Western values over Islamic societies. In order to make such a juxtaposition of ‘Us’ versus ‘Them,’ there is a need to reify the abstract categories ‘West’ and ‘Islam’ and to frame them in inevitable opposition.

The concepts of Hegemony in Cultural Studies and Framing in media studies are particularly useful in putting the Middle East conflicts in context.

The United States’ hegemonic appropriation and definition of Freedom/Democracy is one so powerful the world has consented to an invasion launched on falsified evidence and the civilian deaths of tens of thousands. The power of the media frame, on the other hand, has operationalised what Chomsky and Herman call the ‘manufacture of consent.’

The War for Hegemonic Meanings

Cultural Studies’ concepts of hegemony and culture wars are useful in piercing through the Clash of Civilisations rhetoric and formulating alternative courses of action that do not necessarily end in waging or supporting military action.

Briefly, the paradigm makes two core assumptions; that culture is part of all human behaviour and the society has hierarchies of power. Culture, as it is created and consumed, is shaped by dominant groups to win the non-dominant groups’ compliance to the status quo. Hegemony, drawn from Gramsci’s work on coercion and consent, problematises the relations between meaning and power. The drawing of consent consolidates political power.

Cultural Studies assumes that the media is not a neutral carrier of culture. It is a tool for dominant ideologies through its functional power of controlling the flow of information. It follows then that the media is an important site in the battle for the creation of meanings and identities, what Stuart Hall calls the ‘theatre of struggle’.

Marco Tarchi systematically reveals how the dominant groups in the United States were able to win the battle for the hegemonic meaning of the September 11 attacks to achieve multiple goals. The attacks were reified to justify the use of force, to rally support domestically and internationally, to classify who were the players, and to define what was at stake. He notes that in the media, there seemed to have been an automatic mechanism for self-disciplining - an internal logic to how the coverage was conducted.

The concentration of media coverage on the World Trade Centre towers, rather than the Pentagon, achieved two goals. First, it gained sympathy from the international community as photos of the ‘innocent’ civilians were beamed world-wide, their deaths rendered more tragic than deaths elsewhere. Second, it served to ‘decontextualise’ the historical precedent of the existence of Al Qaeda – both a product and a consequence of the heart of the US military machine.

President Bush’s use of language helped define who were the protagonists and who were the bad guys. In his first statement after the attacks he used the word ‘evil’ five times. He would “eradicate evil from the world,” and “smoke out and pursue…evil-doers, those barbaric people.”

To make sure that there was no ambiguity, Bush categorically made us choose, “either you’re with us or against us” in the US-led effort to quash “the War against Freedom.” His pronouncements simultaneously forced the international community to identify with the United States and defined that ‘freedom’ was at stake. In the bid to win consent for what it was about to do, the Bush administration transmuted the attack against the US to the attack against the whole of Western civilisation and anyone who valued freedom. ‘Freedom’ is never explicitly defined. Whose freedom needed defending? What kind of freedom needed defending?

Making the Frame Work for War

Framing is the selection of certain images, facts and developments over others and assembling them in a certain order to promote a particular interpretation of events. It also entails the conscious use of language to evoke ideas. A complete frame is able to perform four functions;

1. Define the problem
2. Provide causes
3. Give moral judgment
4. Promote solutions.

Framing enables the condensing of complex issues to simple, easily digestible narratives that you and I, the public, can easily make sense of.

In the previous section we have outlined the dominant groups’ ascription of meaning to 9/11 – that it triggered a war between Good and Evil and there was an urgent need to defend ‘Freedom.’ How has this hegemonic interpretation been operationalised in the media? How has a set of profoundly complex issues, in the context of decades-long historical events and involving millions of lives in different continents, been framed?

Following Entman’s framing functions, how has the problem been defined? The problem, if George Bush is to be believed, is that these Islamic evil-doers hated the West for its freedoms.

What is the cause of the problem? To unravel the complexity of causal factors, let us first begin with journalistic omissions. The problem is not caused by US military presence in the Middle East since the first Gulf war. It is not caused by the deaths of as many as half a million Iraqis as a consequence of US-sponsored trade embargoes. It is not caused by the resentment in the Arab world over the decades-long Israeli conflict and the perceived injustice of Palestinians losing their land. It is not caused by foreign powers’ struggle to control the region and its most precious resource.

Instead, what are the framed causes given? That ‘Islamic civilisation’ is inherently incompatible with the ‘West,’ and the differences between the two are the source of the former’s envy and hatred. That Islam is a religion that drives its practitioners to extremism. The fact that it is a centuries old creed which has had as many permutations as Christianity, the fact that it is practiced by over a billion people in varied cultural contexts across the globe, is glossed over. Islam is one just as the West is one.

Edward Saïd’s scholarship on Orientalism details the systematic manufacture of the ‘Other.’ The project of separating the Western ‘Self’ from the Islamic ‘Other’ entails omissions in history, extirpating all traces and influence of the ‘Other,’ denying cultural borrowings, denying commonalities. Only after having successfully excised the foreign in the ‘Self’ can the West declare its superiority.

Because Islamic civilisation breeds fundamentalists and terrorists and because it practices a backward, regressive religion, it is imperative for the West, led by the embattled United States, to set its people free. The choice of words to frame the issue is telling. The Pentagon first named the war against terror ‘Operation Infinite Justice’ inferring that the use of armed force is just. As supreme leader of the morally righteous America, George Bush “will not waver” in this “test of the nation’s faith.”


In the years since the September 11 attacks, Huntington’s predictions seem to be unfolding before our very eyes. Are we helpless in the face of war-mongering? Do we want this clash of civilisations? Do we want wars?

The concept of hegemony shows us that the interests of a few have compromised the lives of many. It has compromised the stability of the Middle East and has sown derision and suspicion of an entire religion. It has compromised the right of all to live in peace. In an age of unprecedented means of global communication and increased mobility in human movement, it is not in the interest of the majority to sow fear, even hatred of the Other.

The concept of framing has demonstrated the tragic consequences of transmuting a complex set of issues to an easily digestible equation of 1 + 1 = 2. It has laid bare the mechanisms with which dominant interests can and do manipulate the general public, playing on our fears, arousing our biases. Knowing all of this it is even more imperative the need to be active citizens of our nations, to be critical of our governments and the need to think of others beyond the horizon.

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