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Resisting Western Images
Oct 1, 1994

How is the power of Western images managed?

We are often told that the West believes in freedom of expression for all. If this belief were practised sincerely, would we not see many different images of the many peoples and cultures in the world, images as diverse, rich and plural as the reality is? But we do not. We see overwhelmingly one view of the world, one way of living in it and understanding it. In theory, an individual is free to make and put on air whatever images he or she likes, but in practice whatever does not conform to that dominant one view does not get much exposure and so remains without effective influence. If you own all the motorways in a country; you do not need to close down the little byways and side-roads; you can be sure that all the big traffic will move on the big roads. Indeed, leaving the side-roads enhances the comfortable (but false) impression that one is free to move as one likes, to pick one's own route through life. In the same way, when a whole system of media networks are constantly putting out a particular image or idea, it really doesn't matter how many little 'slots' are left open for those who wish to express a contrary image or idea. That different image is never on the air long enough to persuade significant numbers of people who are inundated with the dominant image the rest of the time. Besides, how many individuals can afford to set up a radio or TV network; and even if they can, how do they get or keep a license to broadcast if their perspective is subversive of the dominant culture?

The task of the enormous media output generated by the West, in particular by the United States, is global management of public tastes and options. It does not work by forcing individuals to think or say or buy particular things; it works by limiting the possibilities of what might be said or bought. You do not need to chain people up in order to control their movements; a more efficient way (certainly where large numbers are involved) is to control the whole of the space in which they can move. Control is exercised by regulating the scope - the horizons - of what is possible. This form of control is the most insidious and dangerous ever devised: any individual, at any individual moment, has the illusion that he or she can think, say, wear, do, whatever he or she, at that moment, pleases. But when the sum of moments is added up, it shows, for the overwhelming mass of people, a staggering uniformity of perceptions, tastes, choices, actions. That is why, for example, in India where the vast majority of people (Hindus) support a prohibition on the eating of animal flesh, Macdonald's hamburgers ear be a great commercial success, or why the poorest people in the 'Third World' come to believe that they have at last got their share in the good things of this world when they spend their scarce earnings on a bottle of Coca-Cola. The cultural diversity of the world is being systematically reduced:for the great mass of people, it becomes harder and harder to imagine even that there should be, let alone could he, alternatives. At the same time, because the alternatives are, so to speak, off the air, people become culturally orphaned, lose contact with their past and struggle to hold on to any identity except as isolated individual consumers in the international market-place.

You may say images are only images; nobody believes that they are real. After all, people do not believe that the commercials they see represent reality. Of course they do not. But that does not prevent them being powerful. The greatest teachers of mankind in every culture have taught through the imagination: they used poems, parables, similitudes, stories. The reason is that in such forms, the whole resources of language are employed, not just, for example, the rationality or logical power of words. A well-told story that depicts sacrifice is more deeply affecting, more deeply persuasive, than any number of beautifully argued philosophical treatises explaining the merits of sacrifice. That is why a constant barrage of films, TV series, commercials, showing the success of 'the American way', alongside the failure or irrelevance of any other way is so potent a Weapon in cultural (and therefore political and commercial) dominance. The effectiveness of images cannot he overestimated: if there is a danger, it lies in underestimating their power.

Why is it managed in this way?

It is tempting to explain why the West promotes itself at the expense of other cultures as a political or economic conspiracy. But the reasons may he deeper than that. Historically, in stark contrast to Islamic civilization, Western civilization has never been assimilative: it has not wanted to acknowledge the virtues of other peoples and cultures except when it could insist that those virtues belonged to the past (and now belong in an anthropological museum), or could confine them to very specific skills - such as the making of silk or the use of acupuncture among the Chinese, or calligraphy or geometric ornamentation in the Arabic-Muslim world. By contrast Western popular consciousness is incapable of assimilating, for example, the historical fact that serfdom was first abolished in Europe not by the rulers of the European Enlightenment, but hundreds of years before them by the Muslim Turks - which is only one of the reasons why Turkish rule in Europe was so popular (even with non- Muslims) and endured so long.

Western expansion has always been based on the conviction that, in what counts, the West had everything that was good to offer, and it was the historical destiny of everybody else to accept it. That is why to this day, even the most transparently selfish, aggressive policies are represented as altruistic: the West still claims to be sending aid to Africa, Asia, Latin America, when in reality those parts of the world are being drained of their wealth to sustain the West's affluence - the flow of wealth (in cash as well as materials) is not from but to the West In the past, when Europeans conquered lands and peoples, the vast majority of them genuinely believed they had given to the conquered peoples the necessary first lesson in liberty. The degree of self-delusion on such questions is so deep-seated that almost no amount of history (and there is a great deal) can shift it. What is the source of this self delusion?

It seems likely that the twin roots of this attitude are certain Christian doctrines and Greek-Roman legal practice. From the Jews' concept of themselves as the only favorites of God, the Christians inherited the idea of being special, chosen to be 'saved' through the mystery of believing in Christ. It is hard to understand now, but it really was a part of formal Christian belief to say that non- Christians could never be virtuous - an irrational idea which eventually led to the invention of 'limbo', a place neither heaven nor hell, to which non-Christians who had been virtuous or great (Socrates and Plato, for example) could go. Because believing was already equivalent to being 'saved', Christians, when they obtained political power, felt justified in suppressing or even eradicating non-believers and heretics. The sincere horror in the modern West of anything resembling 'religious' government derives from memories of their long history of incapacity to be both religious and powerful and tolerant at the same time. 

After secularism was established as the 'civilized' form of governance, the idea of being special and 'saved' came to be transferred to the 'nation'. This was truer of Protestants who (unlike Catholics) had separate national churches which broke off allegiance to the Pope in Rome. The 'nation' was made up of 'citizens' or 'subjects' who - following the pattern of the ancient Greeks and Romans - enjoyed full legal status as 'persons'. Non-nationals did not enjoy such status. The Greeks' term for non-Greeks was 'barbarians' (a cultural rather than racial distinction). This term, varied as 'heathen', 'savage', 'primitive', etc., was indiscriminately applied to any peoples the European nation-stares conquered. The conquered peoples were denied the very privileges and dignities which the Europeans daimed as a justification for taking complete control of their lands and resources. If and when the Europeans judged that the 'barbarians' were sufficiently 'civilized', then (in theory) some sort of status approaching that of Europeans might be extended to them. How reluctantly such rights were granted, if ever, is too well- known to need rehearsal.

Of course, in very recent times, official attitudes (and constitutions) have changed: in the Western countries themselves, all people are supposed to enjoy the same status. The difficulty has been that die legal constitutions do not fit well with the mental and emotional constitutions of the vast majority of Western people: popular culture necessarily reflects the still popular feelings of cultural and racial superiority - that to be Western is to be good and to be non-Western is, at the very least, to be most unfortunate. There was nothing unusual or odd about Western commentators during the Gulf War speaking of 'bringing Saddam Hussein to heel' - an expression normally used of disobedient dogs which must be brought under control. Despite the far more appalling crimes of a Karadzic or Milosevic in Bosnia, it is quite inconceivable that any Western commentator would dare to say that 'Karadzie must be brought to heel'. Similarly the genuine sense of shock and dismay at the events in Bosnia is directly related to those events happening in Europe. The implication is that the same events elsewhere are not dismaying - thus, the 'ethnic cleansing' of Muslims from Burma (about half a million have been expelled) has passed without comment, so too have the horrors against Muslims in Armenia, or the frequent massacres of Muslims in India which (in deference to the sensitivities of the Indian government) are invariably described in the Western media as 'communal disturbances'.

The ethos, the make-up, of Western self-image needs this dichotomy of 'saved' and 'un-saved', 'us' and 'them', needs an 'alien' to hate and fear. Now that the 'evil empire' of Communism has collapsed, it is Muslims who will increasingly be called upon in the popular imagination of the West to play the part of 'them'.

What can be done to resist?

First of all, it is necessary to understand that making propaganda images is a slow subtle activity. Its effectiveness is general and collective, not particular and individual; it operates in the background rather than the foreground; it has a long wavelength, not a short one. It is not a question of a sudden burst of abuse against an enemy, like one angry individual throwing a heavy lump of dirt. No; it is more like the force of gravity - the most powerful in the universe - it operates unseen (mostly unquestioned) over huge distances upon the whole mass of a culture. The ground has to be prepared, the image built up steadily with every individual opportunity exploited as it arises. The negative image of Islam has been available to Europeans since the Middle Ages; it can he argued that Christian Europe defined its own identity as against the Dar al-Islam whose prosperity and power it had envied for so many centuries. It is therefore easy to build on this background consciousness whenever the foreground presents an opportunity - a terrorist attack, a rise in the price of oil, a rich Arab mistreating his wives or servants, and so on. All such occasions provide the material out (if which popular fictions are woven - films are only one example of such fictions.

Secondly; it is necessary to seek nut and hold to the truth in spite of the power and pervasiveness of the negative images. It is necessary to demonstrate and affirm the humanity and inclusiveness of Islamic civilization. Wherever die Muslims governed, they enhanced (and not diminished) the quality of life and culture of the 'native' people. They became a part of the people they ruled so that, in a very short rime, it was hard to tell them apart in terms of role or relevance in the culture of the region as a whole: East and West have only ever been united as one civilization under Islam.

Finally, it is necessary to answer false images with true ones. As well as complaining that the recent film of Columbus starts with the 'ethnic cleansing' of Spain (minarets pulled down, etc.), Muslims need to demonstrate that Columbus was not setting off into the unknown hut following paths long since travelled by Muslims - nor Arabs, in fact, but black men from Mali who sailed to South America - some six hundred years before Columbus did - and drew maps of it, intermarried with the 'native' people, then sailed tip the Mississippi to meet and intermarry with the Iroquois - for all of which there has been reliable documentary and archaeological evidence (including a map of the 'New World') made available by Western scholars for seventy years. Rut that evidence is something that does not fit at all with the cinema image of blacks as indolent savages and Europeans as eager explorers bursting with white-man's courage and curiosity. Muslims should not hope that the Western imagination, while it retains its character as Western, will correct its own false images - it may correct its facts but (for reasons already explained above) no amount of documentary facts can ever compete with a good story. It is tip to Muslim's themselves to provide both facts and the telling of those facts in a form that can put the false images right.