POST 9/11 ENVIRONMENT
AND THE ROLE OF MEDIA IN SHAPING IT
President NDU, Director General ISSRA, Distinguish Visiting Fellow, Ladies and Gentlemen
It is a pleasure to be here. NDU is my alma mater and returning here is always a welcome change from the grueling routine of an official spokesman.
The events of 11 September 2001 - now simply referred to as 9/11 - were watershed events in the history of modern state. They caused a paradigm shift in the threat perception in statecraft by transforming the classic concept of state as "enemy". Now non-state actors such as terrorist organizations, and individuals, could pose grave threat to a state. The security of post 9/11 state is not challenged by a rival state alone but also by organizations that defy all state authority and have a reach much beyond their geographic location.
9/11 is unique in the briskness of its impact also. It took world days, even weeks, to learn about the outbreak of World War I or World War II. Then the distance mattered. But we saw 9/11 happen live on our TV screens. The second tower of World Trade Center in New York was hit twenty minutes after the first tower. By that time people were watching the events unfold across the world in real time.
What is post 9/11 environment?
There could be a long and a short answer to this question.
Long answer will take us to the great scare of terrorists that griped the Western mind. It will lead us to the crude manipulation of this trepidation by the US to put together an international coalition to invade Iraq and Afghanistan . It also points to deliberate efforts by xenophobic lobbies to generate an unprecedented Islamophobic reaction around the world.
The short answer sums up the description of this environment in a single phrase: The perception that all Muslims are terrorists!
The image of Muslims is tarnished. "All Muslims are terrorists" may only be a perception but it is stronger than reality. Not a single powerful voice in the world is renouncing this allegation. It seems Muslims will live with this image for a long time to come. To me this represents the post 9/11 environment.
To those who have any doubt about my assertion, I refer the excerpt from Robert Leiken of Nixon Center 's 2006 article in Foreign Affairs :
"The Pentagon wages war in the Middle East to stop terrorist attacks on the United States . But the growing nightmare of officials at the Department of Homeland Security is passport carrying, visa-exempt mujahideen coming from the United States ' West European allies."
Leiken is referring to Western born Muslims though the term he uses is "passport carrying, visa-exempt mujahideen". I rest my argument with these two sentences of Leiken. He represents the post 9/11 mindset of the West.
I will not talk of the talk of Eurabia or Londonistan. These terms have hit the covers of the most representative of the Western mouthpieces. They have been both in the headlines and in the minds of the West. To some it is a living nightmare to others it is the beginning of the end of their beloved civilization. This is all perception. But perception is reality; nay it is stronger than reality in this case.
We are not living in Samual Huntington's Clash of Civilization. Clash is between two parties that have a semblance of equality. It is simply the onslaught of one civilization against another. Islam is not clashing. It is under an ideological blitz. Its adherents feel under siege. They have neither the means nor the direction to meet this challenge. This onslaught is through media, through academia, and through manipulation of thought process. The least lethal weapon used in this war is the hardware that ends life and destroys property. In comparison to what is being done to the civilizational aspect of Islam, the military action will do the mildest damage to Muslims in this onslaught.
The conflicts of yesterday were between powers that were fighting through all the means available to them: Greeks and Barbarians, Romans and Egyptians, Muslims and infidels, Allies and Axis, colonials and freedom fighters, Capitalists and Communists all were clashing adversaries. Neither winner nor losers of these conflicts were bystanders.
In the post 9/11 conflict, Muslims are mere bystanders. The ones fighting in their name do not represent them. Their self appointed "soldiers" have become the biggest threat to the Muslims themselves. But to the perpetrators of the onslaught this is a non-issue.
The image has tarnished so much that the life and property of Muslims is expandable. It is arrogantly claimed that they do not count "the enemy" casualties. Muslim sates and societies are expandable. No tears are shed - not even the false one - when Muslim blood is spelled as 'collateral' damage or by the self-appointed Mujahideen. Just note how causally the thousands of dead are called collateral: it so clearly betrays contempt for Muslim life.
Media shaped the post 9/11 environment
The post 9/11 environment is a civilizational onslaught. It has decimated the image of Muslims with the deadliest arsenal of a variety of perception management techniques.
Media is the main platform of this weapon system. It has turned Islam and its adherents in an international pariah. And it is not a small people. They are about one fourth of the humanity.
Media not only informed the world of the events of 9/11 in real time it also instantly got down to build the pariah image of Muslims. Impact was brisk because Western media is omnipresent across the world. If it is not there directly, it gets picked up by the local media as if the latter is under formers spell.
A story from the inside pages of New York Times is happily reprinted with banner headlines on page one of all major newspapers in Pakistan the next day. It is immaterial if the NYT story is far-fetched and based on barely credible and admittedly anonymous sources. To the non-Western media, the dominance of Western media is unchallenged therefore applying logic against it is waste of time.
I am aware of the argument that media is merely a tool. But it was a tool. In this information age, media is a lead actor . It shapes policies because every media outlet has an editorial policy which runs this "tool". You can use this "tool" only if - and this is a big if - the issue under question is of no interest to the editorial policy.
The way the media influenced the attitude of common man in the West is no secret. Muslim communities in the West have bore the full brunt of it. Western visa policies and mind-set of their immigration officials towards Muslims is rationalized by the media imagery more than the legislation.
Why media did what it did?
Of course established media is guided by a well defined editorial policy but there are other elements that drive it to react in a certain way to a news story. These elements are part of its nature. So many a times media acts impulsively. We can blame these impulses on the nature of the beast. Consider this:
• Media is naturally inclined towards sensationalism. Objective reporting seldom sells. There is nothing more sensational than projecting Muslims as "barbarians at the door". It is a sure hair raiser every time. It makes everybody angry. Even the learned ones develop doubts or are forced into silence.
• Media glorifies or abhors. Analysis is not a news. Analytical items cannot have screaming headlines but disgust does make the best headline. Media-business is about circulation and anger sells. What is easier than making the reader or viewer angry about "Islamic terrorism"?
• Speed is order of the day. Electronic media is particularly susceptible to haste even at the cost of accuracy. The media's challenge is who got it first, not who got it right. Editors at TV networks are furious if a stinger is late. They, however, can live with inaccuracy. If you cannot verify, stereotype. Post-9/11-Muslim-stereotype is terrorism.
9/11 and media: Pakistan 's context
Since 9/11 media in Pakistan , particularly electronic media, has grown significantly. This commendable rise, however, is not without problems. Consider the following as the most significant of them:
• Lack of maturity: Our media suffers from serious lack of experienced journalists and technicians. For example, exodus - and mass exodus in case of TV channels - from one outlet to another is common place. Too many outlets seeking too few journalists. This will take time before enough experienced hands are available to satiate the media's demand for workforce. But till then the question remains: is responsibility possible without maturity?
• Following the beaten path: Our media follows the ways of not so upright Western media: quoting anonymous sources; promoting conspiracy theories; and aggressive anchor-posturing. Aggression is, however, the hall mark of our TV. All anchors copy Tim Sabistian of Hard Talk and Pat Buchanin of Crossfire. We seriously lack the expertise to research and politely question. We must shout and grill because we represent an angry people. Also, it needs no hard work, you simply need to be a jack of all trade and that we all are.
• Dependence on the government revenue: Despite all its independence, our media is heavily dependent on revenue from government ads. Media has become a great ombudsman of only those government departments who have no advertisement money to dole out. Unfortunately, the rule of thumb is if you control an advertisement budget, you are immune to the media scrutiny. This is also true in case of private companies also. Try locating a news item against mobile telephone companies. Are they perfect? Hardly, I think.
• It is business not profession or mission: Most of the media owners in Pakistan are mere businessmen and have little experience in the profession. They are in this business as they would be in any other business. In other words, money making is name of the game. It explains generally bad relationship between the owners and the working journalists.
However, these are teething problems. Some of them will be addressed with maturity; others will become permanent characteristics of our media's nature.
Why are we in trouble?
I do not believe in conspiracy theories but as they say that if you are not paranoid it does not mean that they are not out there to get you. We are not unflawed but I think most of our troubles emanate from four factors.
One, we can not ignore the ideological fault lines between Muslims and the West. Historically, for Christian states and societies - which transformed into Western civilization - Muslims remained a challenge for centuries. The animosity of generations refuses to go away. Colonialism in the not so distance a past and the conflicts of today have further ingrained this loathing in the psyches of the two sides. No wonder West is perplexed if a Muslim country quests for nuclear technology. It will accept a non-Muslim country going nuclear with way less apprehension. Similarly Muslim extremism is considered a threat to humanity but extremists and militants of all other shades are tolerated.
Two, there is complete lack of effort on part of Muslims to seriously address the weaknesses which have afflicted them collectively and individually for centuries now. We need to understand on thing very clearly all the problems we are facing, or think we are facing, will have to be addressed by us first and foremost. We should start with identifying them and addressing them at the state, society and individual levels. We need to ask ourselves why nothing changes in the Muslim world for better. Why we have no institutions of virtually any kind? Why our education systems are failing? Why free media is either non existent or under-developed in the Muslim world? Why do we lack social justice in our societies so completely? Why our economies and politics have failed the common man?
Three , w e do not have the required instruments to reach out to the world with our story. The kind of crude instruments, and expertise with which they are operated, will take us this far and no further.
Fourth, we are the worst self flagellators. We have weaknesses and we have strengths. But unlike most others, we are obsessed with projecting our weaknesses. We seldom talk about our strengths. For example, ask any foreign journalist or researcher who had worked in Pakistan . I know scores of them and see almost a consensus amongst them that Pakistanis are the worst self-bashers.
Conclusion: Where do we go from here?
I believe the world has changed. It is no longer possible, without damaging our own interest in a major way, to get into armed struggle of any kind. Most of what the Muslim world had spent on armament in last several decades is a waste. When did we win a war last time? Obviously war is not an option for us. And I am saying this without undermining the need to maintain the defensive capability which is a legitimate need of each state.
For us the only way is to project what Joseph Nye calls the soft power and define it as the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals in contrast with the hard power "which is the ability to use the carrots and sticks of economic and military might to make others follow your will".
Soft power is not propaganda. It is the projection of your values, the appeal of your way of life and the idealism that is attached to what you stand for. We can not attract the world to our values unless we know our values and are proud of them.
( 17 November 2008 )