Several years ago my wife had a series of phone conversations with a reporter from a local news agency. They had a couple of nice conversations and agreed on a time to meet and do an interview for the TV station. We drove to the station and when we arrived the receptionist looked surprised that we were there. My wife told her we had an appointment with a reporter so we sat down and waited for her. She came out, saw us both, then looked at my wife in jilbab and hijab. There was an expression of shock on her face. After exchanging greetings, she said with some surprise, “But your English is so good!”
At first glance it’s an amusing story, but it should raise a question in our minds. Why did she respond in such a way? It should make us think about the role of perception in the human encounter.
The early 20th century American journalist Walter Lippmann discusses some of these issues in his famous book Public Opinion. A basic premise here is that the world is too complex and our experience too limited for us to know everything from first hand experience. Therefore we rely on others to interpret information for us. What results is a “pseudo-environment.” He says that:
“[There] is the insertion between man and his environment of a pseudo-environment. To that pseudo-environment his behavior is a response. But because it is behavior, the consequences, if they are acts, operate not in the pseudo-environment where the behavior is stimulated, but in the real environment where the action eventuates. If the behavior is not a practical act, but what we call roughly thought and emotion, it may be a long time before there is any noticeable break in the texture of the fictitious world.”1
This relates to a discussion that he terms “the world outside and the pictures in our heads.” It is clear that we will have perceptions in our minds that will not necessarily coincide directly with reality, so we must ask the question: “What is it that moulds the images in our heads?”
Lippmann referred to the use of media and propaganda to influence the minds of people as “manufacturing consent,”and Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman wrote a book of the same title. In this book they talked about how the media is used to “manufacture consent” and set forth a system of analyzing that process, which was then applied to a series of case studies. This, along with the works of Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays, are important reads for anyone who wants to understand how the media is used to influence public perception.
This obviously leads us to reflect on the media representations that we can remember, regarding the motives of our occupying Iraq, as well as current representations of Islam and Muslims in America and worldwide. It is no coincidence that the same terms and arguments are used over and over again and anyone that understands the history of “perception management” in this country can see right through it. One of the clearest efforts that can be witnessed in the media is the painting of Muslims as foreign and thereby ignoring the long legacy of Islam in America, as well as the large proportion of indigenous American Muslims. A manifestation of this effort is the redundant term “Shar’iah law.” It is no coincidence that neither the English equivalent of Shari’ah: Islamic law, nor the word Shari’ah is used by itself. The term, therefore, retains its foreign feel.
This, of course, is nothing new. Martyred American Muslim leader al-Hajj Malik al-Shabazz (Malcolm X) complained of the same problem when he said in one of his last speeches:
“Right now in New York we had a couple cases where police grabbed the brother and beat him unmercifully – and then charged him with assaulting them. They used the press to make it look like he’s the criminal and they’re the victim. This is how they do it, and if you study how they do it [t]here, then you’ll know how they do it over here. It’s the same game going all the time.”2
In responding to the challenge of false representation by the media and the management of public opinion, in many cases against the Muslim community, Muslims in America must respond with a principled and conscious contribution to their societies that is imbued with patience, humility, and perseverance. Perhaps it is relevant to invoke Tariq Ramadan here, who said in his book Western Muslims and the Future of Islam:
“I have consciously decided not to deal specifically with the problems of political security faced by European and American states, or with Islamophobia or social discrimination – not because I think these problems are secondary but because my thinking is based at a higher level. It is by acquiring the conviction that they can be faithful to their principles while being totally involved in the life of their society that Muslims will find the means to confront these difficulties and act to resolve them…
Muslims will get what they deserve if, as watchful and participating citizens, they study the machinery of their society, demand their rights to equality with others, struggle against all kinds of discrimination and injustice and establish real partnerships beyond their own community and what concerns themselves alone. This will be an achievement that will make political security measures, discrimination, Islamophobic behavior, and so on drift away downstream. In the end, the ball is in their court… unless they are determined to remain forever on the margins (emphasis mine).”3
Here, in his reflections, one finds the method for confronting the reality of “the management of public opinion.” Only with principled, well-informed, and persistent action can the misrepresented overcome their misrepresentation and work towards a truly human encounter with their neighbors and societies.
- Lippman, Walter. Public Opinion. Nu Vision Publications, LLC. 2007. Pg. 15. ↩
- http://www.lilith-ezine.com/articles/politics/Malcolm-X-February-14-1965.html ↩
- Ramadan, Tariq. Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. Oxford University Press. 2004. Pgs 6-7. ↩