Saturday, 20 June 2009

Islam's very big image problem in the West

When you ask the average westerner (be it American, Dutch, Swede, Australian etc) what is Islam to you? What would be the response? Certainly some would say "another religion", "something Arabs worship", "the Taliban", "terrorism" or the like. Why?

Image management, be it from those within and without. Agendas have a great deal with it, by its very nature, agenda groups seek to control image.

I was today reading a very good article called "Taliban, Image-War, and Iconoclasm" by Michael Sells ( which I was impressed on how it explains this issue. I will give some excerpts here that are most relevant:

The current effort to differentiate "terrorists" from Muslims in the U.S. has been undermined by a naivete in the West about the power of images, while the Taliban and Bin Laden employ a sophisticated understanding of image and media to present themselves as representatives of Islam and to haunt--and taunt--the Western producers of such media.

When the Iranian militant hostage-takers, Saddam Hussein, or the Taliban invited the media in for staged photo-ops, they were taking control of the image of Islam in the Western world. They set us up. Images of Taliban students sitting above the written text of the Qur'an allegedly "studying the Qur'an" (when actually they are studying intense political indoctrination), or of Bin Laden surrounded by Arabic script and Islamic symbols, are shown repeatedly by the media, interspliced with pictures of the planes flying into the Towers or other horrors, along with the human suffering of the victims and their relatives and survivors.

Once that image-association is made, explanations that not all Muslims are terrorists are as effective lectures on dangers of cigarette smoking after someone has ingested thousands of images of smokers as Marlboro man, Sexy man, Sophisticated Woman, Liberated Woman, Thoughtful Man, Social Man, Powerful Woman. Advertisers spend billions of dollars finding the exact association that will work in an instant fly-by billboard flash that most people are hardly conscious of as they are driving, but which are clearly effective.

Once someone has seen the image association of mass-killer (Saddam, Bin Laden), Islamic symbol (written Qur'an, Muslims praying, sounds of the call to prayer) and atrocity (towers burning and collapsing, relatives of victims in anguish), it becomes extraordinarily difficult, however much that person tries, to hear and listen to the voices of the vast world of Islam beyond such associations.

I find these four paragraphs perfect in explaining a serious image issue.

It is certain that the average non-Muslim would be unable to differentiate between the beliefs of the average Muslim compared to the very well publicised image of extremist Wahabists, those running Al Qaeda or the Taliban.

To add to this image problem of course is the very real, deadly, violent and intimidating activities that the extremists/fundamentalists do, not only within the Muslim World. From the horrors of 9/11 to the political machine infiltrating the Muslims in the United Kingdom, France and elsewhere - this certainly provides what some would imagine is the "proof" that Islam is exactly what they have learnt from Bin Laden & Co.

Add to this the power of communication through the Internet and the media plus the efforts of groups apposed to Islam for their own agendas (be it religious, political extremism or simple bigotry) and the battle that we have of image and factual accuracy goes on.

The question is how can we battle this. I know this little blog of mine is just a drop in the bucket, but one small drop may eventually become a cup full, a bucket and even a flood.