Islam and media: 9/11, soap operas and the ‘arab spring’

June 19, 2017
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We publish an excerpt of the book Islam, religion and politics (LUISS University Press) by Francesca Corrao. A focus on the origin of ‘Islamic mediatization’: new medias, the relation with the West, and war strategies.

An evil that seemed to have been eradicated with the end of Nazism is raising its head once again, as in the Kristallnacht (Crystal Night) of Europe’s not-too-distant past, breaking out with the Taleban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan and continuing to our own day with devastation of the archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria by the members of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State”.

The media have played an ambivalent role in the relations between the peoples along the Mediterranean coastline. In some casesit has been positive, but more often has led to aggravation. At the time of the war against Saddam, most of the Arab world took the side of Kuwait in defence of international law, but in the space of no more than a decade the war of images waged by Al Jazeera set Arab public opinion increasingly against the West (1996). In most of the Arab countries Al Jazeera’s arrival on the scene had a destabilising effect, undermining the monopoly of the state media in internal propaganda and maintaining law and order. The introduction of new technologies, moreover, led to radical transformation in Arab-Islamic society. As had already been the case in the times of Nasser with radio broadcasts of the Egyptian leaders pan-Arab message, today the networks have contributed to giving greater circulation to the various political lines. It is, in fact, worth dwelling on the role of the culture of images and information in an environment where traditional oral communication had had a primary function, due also to the still widespread illiteracy

Al Jazeera, the Arab broadcasting station best known in the West,serves to publicise the foreign policy of Qatar, and to disseminate conservative Islamic propaganda in the world, but it is not the only one. The Saudi family, in its huge proportions (over 20,000 people), controls the major panArab multimedia networks, not only in the interest of revenue from the commercials, given that the Arab market constitutes the interface for the Saudi market, but also to disseminate its religious and political view of the region and relations with the world. The major entertainment networks and media empires – MBC (launched in London in 1991), Rotana Radio, AlArabiya 24-Hour All News – in the hands of Saudi capital, were brought in to counteract the news broadcast by Al Jazeera.
In the Arab world today, manifold places and people are involved in shaping national and transnational public opinion. The schools and mosques were, and only in part remain,state monopolies, for foreign influence has found its way even here subsequent to inroads made by international capital in the form of aid for the mosques and subsidies for private education. The end of education as a monopoly has been a significant factor in the outbreak of the Arab “revolutions”; suffice it to recall the important role played, and claimed, by the young students of the “Multimedia and Journalism” course at the American university in Cairo.

The number of foreign universities is growing, not only in Egypt and Jordan, but also in the Gulf countries. For example, there are a great many foreign universitiesin Qatar: 70% ofthem are American, 20% British and 5% French. Moreover, the Qatar Foundation provides a great many scholarships to local students to increase access to higher education and obviate the need for students to go abroad to study (www.qf.org.qa.).

In less than twenty years, education and the media have contributed to changing culture in the Arab countries and, above all, they have helped to create dialogue between the various, and all too often uncompromising, cultural and political positions. In Syria, for example, president Bashar al-Assad (elected in 2000) promoted the production of TV series that could help close the cultural gap separating the rural populations, traditionally more conservative, from the more open-minded attitudes of the middle-class citydwellers. To this end the government forged an alliance with intellectuals and writers chosen also from the ranks of the opposition in the interests of cultural progress. One of the most successful programmes was Spotlight, which came out in the year when the President took on a serious commitment to bringing in reforms to open the country up democratically (2001). This satirical soap opera addressed delicate issues like corruption, the pervasive presence of the secret services and the ills of society still firmly based on patriarchal values. Despite the growing disorder spreading through the country, broadcasting went on until the spring of 2011, when the news became dominated by demonstrations and crisis, and Damascus filled with hoardings warning against “sectarianism” and “division”. The last instalments also found room for the youth protests demanding freedom, but fiction eventually gave way to reality and reformist initiatives came up against the real-life drama of the powerful who deny rights and defend the privileges of the ruling class with the force of the army behind them.

Fear and diffidence are spreading in the West, where the media have replaced the old exotic picture of the East, as conjured up in the Arabian Nights, with a predominantly terrorist image of Islam. This radicalisation of information has played a crucial role in fomenting hostility, culminating, at the turn of the millennium, with the horror of 9/11. Thus the war of terror came to a climax, bringing the front to the centre of the media in a tragic crescendo of “spectacular” actions. In practice, the war on terror declared by the President of the United States George W. Bush reinforced the political line pursued by the regimes of Ben Ali and Mubarak, who thus felt authorised to consolidate their power, changing the constitution to prolong the presidential mandate and open the way to succession for their families.

The outbreak of the Arab revolts, the so called “Arab spring” in 2011 gave the population the sensation that they had attained the awareness and sense of responsibility necessary to start on a new democratic path. Many regimes were swept away by a rising tide of mass demonstrations and many a Raisthat had seemed immovable was driven to flight or put on trial. In Egypt and Tunisia, the majority emerging from the first free elections was constituted by the better-structured political groupings, or in other words the parties representing the Islamic Brotherhood, but transition, as we have seen, was far from simple. The fruits of the new cultural blossoming were gathered by the most fully integrated brotherhood movement, but not all the societies had developed the capacity to enter into non-conflictual dialogue, with the few outstanding exceptions of Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan. The situation is still very fluid in the region, and what some had seen as a cause for concern, the rise of Brotherhood fundamentalism, has now been eclipsed by the brutality of the self-proclaimed “Islamic Caliphate”.

Islam, religion and politics

The author

Francesca Corrao

Francesca Corrao is Full professor of Arabic language and culturs at LUISS


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