On the Nexus Between Knowledge and Power in the Western Media

An Essay on Said’s Covering Islam

(Note: this essay was written a week before the UK’s last general election).

As the British people head to the polls this week, for a fair number of them, the general election will be more than party politics or an expression of their democratic liberty. Rather, in an unprecedented first, it is seen as a defence of their human rights; their freedom to practice their religion without discrimination, derision, and disdain. A BBC coverage of a Muslim tour group in London revealed a single dominant issue as their agenda and voting criteria: Islamophobia.[1] This fact is evident in the very electoral campaign itself, where the pro-Conservative mass media’s nemesis has been aligned with Islam; thereby sealing his electoral fate, while a sensationalist paper brands him a terrorist-sympathiser.[2] How has Islamophobia increased to a level whereby it has found its way within a political manifesto?[3] The answer may lie within the Western media’s portrayal of Islam and Muslims.

In 1981, when Edward Said’s Covering Islam was published, the work encapsulated the hidden power of this media with its ‘invisible screen’ that filters and selectively chooses what it wishes its viewers to see, in order to subvert public opinion, or rather, to present to them the only opinion they can form from such knowledge, thereby creating an illusion of choice and ultimately holding the reigns to power.[4]

                This article will draw on Said’s work in an attempt to evaluate how much of his postulations are still relevant in the current age of digital media by looking at the discourse of Islamophobia within the media and the wider literature, and will assess the extent to which the Western media distorts the image of Islam.

                The Western media can be traced back to the fifteenth century with the invention of the printing press which,[7] over the next two centuries, heralded in a new age with the first newspapers having an unprecedented power with the liberty of domestic coverage at a sensitive time of political upheaval and rebellion against the English Monarchy.[8] Indeed, following the Civil War of 1641, newsbooks were finally allowed domestic coverage following the breakdown of censorship laws and were seen as a republican libertarian movement in opposition to the secrecy of an absolutist control by the monarchy who attempted to maintain it in fear of the demystification of government and King.[9] In the following centuries, the media will go on to become even more powerful. Characterised by mass urbanisation and industrialisation, Queen Victoria’s reign and her relationship with the press was to become subject matter for many writers over the centuries and the symbiotic link between the monarchy and its representations, become fundamental in the creation of a populist sovereign.[10] Though the power of the media was utilised by Victoria to her advantage, the republican force of this liberty has now achieved realisation in the twentieth millennia as one generation of Royals after another, battle for their media image and the dignity it depends upon.[11]

                This discussion of power and knowledge seems to allude to a position that power is wielded by the few. On the contrary, Michel Foucault (d. 1984) challenges the traditional view and theorises that the discourse of power is ‘diffused’ rather than concentrated, and is embodied in discourse.[12] This discourse has been influenced by none other than those who implement an ‘invisible screen’ in the words of Said, to expose and suppress at will, thereby increasing overall diffusion, becoming discursive and embodying a ‘metapower’ of the interpretative community, or ‘regime of truth’ as further espoused by C. Wright Mills (d. 1962). Between consciousness and existence stand meanings – that which are signified – and has passed on through speech first, and later, by the signals or symbols themselves. These received symbols are further manipulated and interpreted, and decisively influence all aspects of the truth regime even so much as the existence of man himself, thereby guiding response, reaction, sensation, experience, and ultimately, knowledge itself.[13] Coverage becomes interpretation and is compounded to knowledge through this ‘cultural apparatus’. This is paramount not by weight of its central theme as posited by Said, but by the exponential growth of the diffusion of knowledge; institutional, scientific, journalistic, and political forms of knowledge have fused to form a newer and updated regime of truth and this truth has become accessible, as well as widespread at unprecedented levels and through increasing mediums of print and unbounded digital media in a globalised world where boundaries are blurred. Thereby, amplifying the very phenomena that were observed by Edward Said.

                These boundaries, though blurred, have remained very much ‘Western’. Though no true definition exists of the geopolitical borders especially in the contemporary world, the origin maybe better understood in terms of a dualistic perspective whereby the Western was not the Eastern, the Roman was not the Persian, and the Pan-Euro-American, was not the Soviet. This Manichean dualism that made Islam the new Red Menace following the collapse of the Soviet Union,[14] subsumes within it a multiplicity of issues including regime specific truths as a result of collective discourse, and ‘otherization’. This otherization that Said expounds upon, is the very notion that influences interpretation, with a vested interest compounded upon a coverage outside of the non-Western whose geographically and theologically distant interpretations will inevitably be defective and flawed. In the words of Michel Foucault, “‘Othering’ is the creation and maintenance of imaginary ‘knowledge of the Other”.[15] Cultural representations of the Other, as metaphor, metonym, and anthropomorphism, are manifestations of the xenophobia inherent to the European historiographies that defined and labelled non–European peoples as the Other; the European Not-Self. Supported by the reductive academic, commercial, geopolitical, and military discourses of the empire’s dominant ideology, the colonialist misrepresentations of the Other explain the Eastern world to the Western world as a binary relation of native weakness against colonial strength. Thus, the native Other is denied ethical priority by virtue of being other than the Self and the group.

                Though a cultural otherization became well known from the writings of Said, Kathleen Taylor, a research scientist, argues that the human capacity for evil and cruelty is within only intellectual beings as it requires a framework of morality whereby cruelty can be contextualised, and is therefore, dependent upon context and culture. This seeks to explain the anachronistic moral justification for example, of a targeted assassination with collateral civilian casualty, while condemning an act of violence perpetrated by others. Taylor locates the underlying mechanism within otherization which enables one to treat another as Untermensch – less than human. The perception of the ‘Other’ incites universal primitive responses such as fear, anger, and disgust – biological and evolutionary mechanisms entrenched within the physiology of man. This may very well be the raison d’être for Nazi metaphors describing Jews and Gypsies as disease vectors, just as is the case by perpetrators of genocide as far apart as Rwanda and Cambodia. Likewise, ideas regarded alien are also considered pathogenic, and must be purged. Taylor indulges how Richard Dawkins regards religion as a form of ‘virus’. [16]

                This form of dehumanisation is not only rampant in the Orientalism of the West, but is essential and was fundamental for colonial stability in order to transform the colonial subject into the subaltern native;[17] one in which the Western Europo-centric anthropomorphic man considers it a prerogative to not only manage the non-white world but also own it by virtue of the latter being Untermensch.[18] This false Manichean dichotomy results from the creation of a non-white Other that required education, conversion, and cultural assimilation into the imperial empire. The colonialist ‘Self’ believed that this was indeed a humanising mission. This would perchance explain anachronistic practices of the British Imperials such as Lord Cromer’s ‘Modern Egypt’ project as elucidated in his own words: “The position of women in Egypt, and Mohammedan countries generally, is, therefore a fatal obstacle to the attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilisation”, while in Britain, Cromer was the president of the UK ‘Men’s League for Opposing the Suffrage of Women’. It is unclear if the colonial ‘Self’ here is cognizant of the fact that the purpose of the Egyptian women’s’ liberation involved “material interests at stake” that “are too important”, as Cromer further clarifies in his “Modern Egypt”.[19] Egyptian women, therefore, endured a double-Otherness whereby they are first subhuman by merit of being a non-white, and a double-Other by their inequity in comparison to men. Pre-colonised Egyptian women, on the other hand, were seen as “the only free people” by the subjugated colonial-era Englishwomen.[20]

                Colonialism was consolidated upon the deep-rooted and immemorial premise that Islam was “a civilisation doomed to barbarism and backwardness forever, thus qualifying its subjugation, denigration, and domination”. [21]

                This Otherness, however, did not emerge with the colonialist era. Rather, Greek Christian polemical tracts as early as the seventh century have been found describing the Muslims as the heretical ‘Saracen’: a name that has since been attributed to the most virulent anti-Islamic meanings.[22] From here on through Pope Urban II’s Crusade where the threat of Islam was at its peak, until the Reconquista and beyond, Roman Christendom began to develop an understanding of Islam and Muslims in absentia.[23]

                With Elizabeth I’s alliances with Morocco and the Ottoman Empire, sixteenth century England was not insulated from external influence, certainly not in England’s national bard, William Shakespeare, whose twenty-one plays consist of some 150 references to Islamic motifs. Throughout the history plays, for instance, Shakespeare embeds a rhetoric of Crusade, of fighting for “Jesu Christ in glorious Christian field” against “black pagans, Turks, and Saracens”. The implication and power of such profusely extant literature can be best illustrated by the prevalence of the Shakespearean psychotic image of Richard III in contrast to his historically accurate persona.[24]

                Such historic perspectives give meaning, context, and elucidation to the modern institutionalised Orientalism that takes place throughout the far reaches of the modern Western power. Consider, for example, the requirement of ‘assimilation’ for prospective citizens of the United Kingdom including the various tools that are utilised in making sure this takes place such as the ‘Life in the UK’ test,[25] which requires knowledge of peculiar facts of the British Monarch and the British Lands. Prospective citizens need not know how to report a crime or register with a doctor, but must know the approximate size of the Lake District and about 278 historical dates including when the Roman emperor Claudius invaded Britain.[26] Here, Cromer’s exacting words resonate into the modern age when he declares, “the new generation of Egyptians has to be persuaded or forced into imbibing the true spirit of Western civilisation”.[27]

                Contemporary Islamophobia therefore, has been posited as a recurrence of historical anti-Islamism that so dominated the Western world.[28] However, this ignores the fact that Orientalism was not mere mythical Otherism as was found in the Jacobean Tracts, but rather, selective learning of an acquainted people and a religion.[29]

                Thus, the regime of truth is largely supplemented, and, one can argue, wholly dependent upon a dissemination by the Western mass media, which involves the printed as well as online, pedagogical, televised and radio broad casted, journalistic as well as scholastic, scientific, political, educational, fictional, ‘historical’, as well as mass produced informative leaflets and campaigns. The power thus stemming from such a collective truth can now never be divorced from the mass media by virtue of its very function. Such subverted dissemination and manipulative subversion of collective truths has come to be known as Islamophobia.[30]

                The discourse of Islamophobia, as a natural, social and consequential phenomenon, has no doubt been around since before the coinage of the term itself and attributed to varying authors from 1925 to 1991,[31] but its exponential rise to a form of liberalism, as is witnessed today, that has allowed high-ranking members of parliament to openly denounce Islam as “evil”,[32] “blameworthy”,[33] “the problem”,[34] “medieval”,[35] “a cancer”,[36] is a clear parallel to the false Manichean dichotomy of the past from which it emerged.

                In the two years since President Trump’s contentious “Muslim Ban”, incidents of Islamophobia around the world have escalated to a level hitherto unwitnessed, while there has been an intense focus on Islam and Muslims in the Western media, characterized by an exaggerated stereotyping, and belligerent hostility. [37] But Islamophobia intensified at a rapid pace even prior to Trump’s inauguration with an 82% rise within a mere four years (2010 – 2014).[38]

                The bigotry towards Muslims as displayed in the mainstream mass media can only be understood in light of a global Western conglomeration of power and subversion, where malevolent generalizations are the last accepted form of denigration to others who do not share their Western ideology; an environment of hate constructed to politically legitimise a disenfranchisement of constitutional rights.[39] What continues to persist, is a deliberate and systematic conflation of a monolithic Islam, void of development, diversity, and dialogue, that knows only fundamentalism in a deeply sinister manner that lacks the definition of what constitutes “fundamentalism” as the name of Islam alone is sufficient as a singular, static and staunch force of evil replacing communism in what was astonishingly elucidated by the New York Times when it headlined: “The Red Menace is gone. But here’s Islam”.[40]

                The Western media’s crusade against Islam knows no rules and is far from mere alienation and misrepresentation; it is sinister subversion, fabrication, and deception. The headlines in Britain are sufficient to paint a picture of their ominous content. Content that has caused a government inquiry to label a major broadsheet as “disgracefully dishonest”.[41] Examples of manipulative bias; of media tropes that have become so common, headlines are predictable;[42] of expectable prejudice following a crime based on skin colour alone, are enough to show how Britain has become a polarised anti-Islamic quasi-fascist state.[43]

                On the other hand, rising Islamophobia among international communities outside of the geography of but perhaps not the purview of the influential Western, have started to emerge; the ruling nationalist BJP party in India advocates a similar otherized rhetoric as that of the Orientalists. During its leader Narendra Modi’s campaign speech which became recurrent across the nation, the “they” were very distinct from the non-meat eating “us”; “they’ve taken up cudgels for a Pink Revolution [the modernisation of meat production processes[44]]. Do you know what that is? That is their game; they are keeping the country in the dark.”[45] However, data from India’s own government reveals the falsity of this dichotomy: approximately seventy and eighty percent of women and men respectively consume meat, fish or eggs; far more than the 14.2 percent Muslim population.[46] This political rhetoric of otherness may have become easily realised following the precedent that was set by President Bush’s campaign against the “War on Terror” which peaked a Manichean discourse that posited a monochrome binary of good and evil that interestingly was only common between Bush and his diehard fundamentalist Islamist nemeses.[47] In its prelude, Bush rhetorically asked: “Why do they hate us?”, cementing the Otherness in his discourse (emphasis mine).[48]

                Returning to the rightward shift in India, notwithstanding lynching and murder, the ascendance of Islamophobic politics in the garb of bovine protection and vegetarianism, was soon reflected in Bollywood.[49] Padmaavat retells the story of a mythical Hindu queen who chooses suicide over capture by a fourteenth century Sultan. In a particular scene, the manic Sultan bares his teeth as he masticates on masses of meat.[50] At home, its Hollywood counterpart has systematically utilised tropes so frequently that its occurrence no longer surprises. Furthermore, subtler more nuanced depictions have surfaced, such as Avatar, which portrays a Western power liberating an intellectually inferior indigenous Other.[51] John Rieder, a professor of English, argues that colonial history and ideology are crucial components of science fiction’s displaced references to history and its engagement in ideological production; that the profound ambivalence that pervades colonial accounts of the exotic Other establishes the basic texture of much science fiction, in particular its vacillation between fantasies of discovery and visions of disaster.[52]

                The power of instantaneous broadcasting media is limitless in its capacity to override bounds, borders, and geography, allowing different forms and platforms, such as Hollywood and Bollywood, an unprecedented power in its ability to ‘interpret’ Islam collectively.

                Elsewhere, Islamophobia has been documented in recent times from the daily American occurrence, to Western Europe, including France, Belgium, Germany, the UK, Czech Republic, Hungary, Greece, and Portugal, reaching the shores of China, India, and New Zealand; the latter being one of the most gruesome incidents of the decade.[53] In a rise of incidents whose levels and violence surpass those mentioned in Covering Islam, anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies have become dangerously normalized ― in institutions, politics, and in media. Increasingly, higher authority and government officials have started to peddle an anti-Islamic bigotry never witnessed on a public platform. The ubiquity and frequencies of such, have grouped together Ministers of Parliament in order to legally define Islamophobia so that it may deter racism towards immigrant Muslim communities in contrast to the belligerent American rhetoric,[54] such as by John Bennett, a member of the House of Representatives, who declared at a public forum that Islam is a “cancer in our nation that needs to be cut out.” Bennett defended himself by insisting that because Islam is not a racial category, his ideas could not be racist.[55]

                While right-wing Islamophobia is unconcealed, blatant, and deliberate, a new subtle form of Islamophobia has started to emerge within the past decade that is wrapped in the language of “progressiveness” and “freedom of speech” and is usually presented with a veneer of benevolence. This new form of Islamophobia is more dangerous than the former due to its inconspicuous nature, as well as its targeting of sensitive issues within the Muslim community that it seeks to exploit; issues of gender, of the hijab – the female headscarf, of feminine emancipation, all of which is still within the realms and descriptors of Said’s Orientalism, and hearken back to the age old colonial emancipation and education of the oppressed Muslim, albeit decorated to appeal to emotional and intellectual sensibilities.[56] Similarly, though at a much higher aggressive level, are the new brand of neo-atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Bill Maher among others who openly espouse a war with “Islam” and not with terrorism, under the guise of liberalism. Certain other figures, such as Majid Nawaz, also claim to belong within this so called liberty, though strictly any categorisation is problematic, as their actions and affiliations are anachronistic to their faiths, but nevertheless, they are often called as “insiders” to better represent Islam in the name of justification and consequential disenfranchisement of Muslim rights in the guise of the war on terror.[57]

                More than relevant, the themes and theses within Covering Islam have not only recurred but its historical analyses and examples can be understood in a new metaphorical light whereby the old colonisation subsists and festers within the globalising Western imperium through which a singular accepted narrative that has constructed the Western “truth regime” with its own body of experts, insiders, and policy makers, reign supreme, and all Others, are inferior and subhuman.

                So long as the elements of the thesis of Covering Islam sustain, which in themselves are part of a critical, theoretical, and epistemological phenomena, the otherizations of the ‘not-Self’ or the Orient in contrast to the Occident that so plague our discourses can only amplify as they pollute the extended regime of truth that surrounds a dominant Western society. But this can be thwarted, at least to an extent, by assessing the scope and nature of the phenomenon, and the narratives and flawed logic used in the attacks must be effectively deconstructed and challenged. Misconstrued narratives that circulate must be dispelled, while efforts to reconstruct mainstream ideas closer to the faith and practice of Muslims and Islam are required. In time, the truth regime may very well be reversed to reflect the diverse everyday experiences of Muslims and their faith.

[1] Barry Caffrey, “General Election 2019: Muslim Voters on Issues That Matter to Them”, November 22, 2019.

[2] Holly Christodoulou, “Terrorist Sympathiser Jeremy Corbyn ‘Helped Jailed IRA Bomb-Making Terrorist Pal Net Cushy Council Flat After Release’”, The Sun, December 4, 2019.

[3] Labour, The Labour Party Manifesto 2017.

[4] Edward Said, Covering Islam.

[5] Ibid.; Edward Said, Orientalism; Edward Said, The Question of Palestine.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Johannes Weber, “Strassburg, 1605: The Origins of the Newspaper in Europe”, German History, 24 (3) (2006): 387–412.

[8] Jonathan Hardy, Western Media Systems, 27–28.

[9] John Plunkett, Queen Victoria: First Media Monarch, 4.

[10] Ibid., 3.

[11] Katie Nicholl, ““He Basically Hates the Press”: Prince Harry’s Battle Against the Media Has Only Begun”, Vanity Fair, October 8, 2019.

[12] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of a Prison.

[13] C. Wright Mills, “The Cultural Apparatus,” in Power, Politics and People: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills, ed. Irving Louis Horowitz, 405–6.

[14] Elaine Sciolion, “The Red Menace is Gone – Here’s Islam”, New York Times, January 21, 1996.

[15] John Rieder, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, 76.

[16] Kathleen Taylor, Cruelty: Human Evil and The Human Brain.

[17] Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, 142.

[18] Said, Orientalism, 108.

[19] Evelyn Baring, Modern Egypt.

[20] Mary Fay, Unveiling the Harem: Elite Women and the Paradox of Seclusion in Eighteenth-Century Cairo, 125.

[21] Chris Allen, Islamophobia, 33.

[22] Ibid., 26.

[23] Ibid., 27.

[24] Matthew Dimmock, “Shakespeare and Islam”, OUPblog, December 27, 2015.

[25] “Life in the UK Test”, GOV.UK.

[26] Thom Brooks, The Guardian, “Good Luck with The British Citizenship Test”, March 1, 2018.

[27] Baring, Modern Egypt.

[28] Ziauddin Sardar, “Racism, Identity, and Muslims in The West”, 1-17.

[29] Allen, Islamophobia, 34.

[30] Ibid., 5.

[31] Ibid., 5.

[32] Peter Walker, The Guardian, April 2017.

[33] Boris Johnson, “Just Don’t Call It War”, The Spectator, July 16, 2005.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Nigel Farndale, “Is Islam Medieval? Of course, Darling”, The Telegraph, November 5, 2006.

[36] Erik Love, “Islamophobia: The Racial Paradox”, Political Theology, July 23, 2019.

[37] Massoud Hayounaug, “Islamophobic Incidents in California”, Pacific Standard, August 9, 2018.

[38] Islamic Human Rights Commission, “Government Responsible for Islamophobia”, November 11, 2015.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Elaine Sciolion, “The Red Menace is Gone – Here’s Islam”, New York Times, January 21, 1996.

[41] Martin Narey, [@martinnarey]. [Tweet] September 17, 2017, 18:41.

[42] May Bulman, “British newspapers accused of publishing ‘consistent stream’ of inaccurate stories about Muslims”, The Independent, January 19, 2017.

[43] Caroline Mala Corbin, “Terrorists are Always Muslim but Never White”.

[44] Reset, “India’s ‘Pink Revolution’”, December 14, 2019.

[45] Shoaib Daniyal, “Narendra Modi Helped Spread Anti-Beef Hysteria”, Quartz India, October 7, 2015.

[46] Swagata Yadavar, “Most Indians Non Vegetarian”, May 22, 2018.

[47] Douglas Kellner, “Bushspeak and The Politics of Lying”, 622-645.

[48] Derek Gregory, The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq, 21.

[49] Sohini Chattopadhyay, “Bollywood and the Politics of Meat”, New York Times, December 3, 2019.

[50] Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Prakash Kapadia, Padmaavat.

[51] James Cameron, Avatar.

[52] John Rieder, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction.

[53] Abdelaziz, Ahmed, and Robins-Early, “Islamophobia Is A Global Crisis”, Huffington Post, December 14, 2019.

[54] Lizzie Dearden, “Islamophobia Driving Myths About Muslims”, The Independent, November 27, 2018.

[55] Erik Love, “Islamophobia: The Racial Paradox”, Political Theology, July 23, 2019.

[56] Nathan Lean, The Islamophobia Industry, 163.

[57] Ibid., 175.


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———. The Question of Palestine. London: Vintage, 2003.

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