Friday, August 10, 2007

Channel 4 and the 'Bad' Orient

Channel 4 have got themselves into a bit of trouble over their 'Undercover Mosque' programme which sought to demonstrate that Muslim preachers are spreading a "message of hate" in mosques run by reputedly moderate organisations, all sponsored by Saudi Arabia. Well, Saudi Arabia funds reactionary Sunni groups all over the world, but usually of the status quo kind unless they are operating in a state that Saudi Arabia considers an enemy. And at any rate, the Saudi regime has been wholly annexed by the US and Britain. However, this particular programme ran into trouble because the West Midlands police decided to investigate their claims to see if anyone could be banged up over it. What the police appear to have found is that statements were spliced together to fundamentally distort what most of the speakers they quoted were actually saying. A CPS lawyer reviewing the footage agreed.

Naturally, the right-wing papers are whinging that the police should be 'doing their job', which as they see it involves arresting Muslims and spying on their meetings. The fascists are obviously howling with indignation as well. However, if the police are right, then Channel 4 is possibly guilty of incitement to racial hatred. That has certainly been the effect, as Muslim-hating bloggers and commentariat have combined in a mass circle-jerk over Dhimmitude and so on. What is more, Labour and Tory MPs were very quick to demand precisely the inquiry that the West Midlands police carried out. As usual, the newspapers were filled with phrases like "revealed" and "preachers of hate". C4's defense is that the statements they quote speak for themselves - but of course, they don't. That is precisely what is at issue: anyone can edit someone else's statements and produce a fundamentally different meaning, and then try to claim that the edited statements speak for themselves.

There has been a swathe of programmes by all the UK television channels devoted to exposing, examining and investigating Muslims of various stripes. It would hardly surprise you if I told you that studies of the British press revealed that by far the largest portion of all news items discussing Islam were related to terrorism. But perhaps I should refine that because the study I'm referring to, reprinted in 'Muslims and the News Media' edited by Elizabeth Poole, discussed The Guardian and The Times in particular. The supposedly serious broadsheets, one of them purporting to be liberal, have done their bit to convey the impression that Islam is mainly about terror. Obviously, 9/11 had an impact on this, but it's worth mentioning that even before that date, Islam was a big issue for the UK press, although it then was more likely to be cast in terms of 'Islamic fundamentalism'. Indeed, one of the biggest issues throughout the 1990s for these papers was 'honour killings', which was usually interpreted as something specifically Muslim. From these, you would get the impression that Muslim families are dysfunctional, inherently repressed, unusually patriarchal, riddled with misogyny etc. What is more, although there is now a rash of complaints from neoconservatives and Muslim-bashers about the use of the term 'Islamophobia', the study finds that it was barely visible in the UK press as late as 2003. The current framework for news or television items discussing Islam is as follows, then: 1) Muslims are a threat to security; 2) Muslims are a threat to 'British' values; 3) Muslims possess inherent cultural differences that create community tensions; 4) Muslims are increasingly assertive in national politics. You see where that's going. Another study published in the same volume found that in news stories concerning Muslims, where Islam was cited as an explanatory factor, it was highly likely to be in the instances of terror or crime, although it was also raised as an explanatory factor in the case of cultural issues (the writing of fiction, for example, or academic work). For the record, the most dispassionate and least partial reporting was found in the Financial Times.

These findings advert to the media's central function in the (re)production of ideology: it isn't simply a matter of reporting things which may or may not be true, it is an ordering of facts and claims in a particular way. In this case, the ordering is regulated by something called 'Islam', whose existence as a coherent 'thing' is taken for granted. And this 'Islam' is constructed from the mechanically recoverable refuse of older Orientalist doctrines: that Islam is part of the 'bad' Semitic Orient; that it is a doctrine of conquest; that it is unusually political and not merely spiritual; that deception is integral to it (think of the 'taqiyya' theme beloved of neocons); that it is obsessed with issues of shame and honour; that war is a normal state of affairs for it; that rationality is not a value for it. And so on. I simply cribbed those from Said's Orientalism, but they are as persistent today as they were among the 19th Century authors that Said studies. Importantly, this doctrine was developed in connection with 'race' theory in which the European colonist produced himself as 'White Man' (freedom-loving, peaceful but prepared for war, lofty, adventurous, civilised, progressive). While 'race' theory was gradually eroded after white Europeans found it turned on them by Nazi savagery, and especially after a series of anticolonial rebellions finished off Europe's old empires, its dreck has been conserved as far as possible as an ideology appropriate to managing a postcolonial racial hierarchy. So, when immigration was encouraged from South Asia and the Carribean to solve a labour supply problem, the intellectual equipment was copiously available to legitimise their subordinate position not only in the labour market, but in society as a whole. In its way, the 1990s obsession with Islam and integration was complementary to the other obsession with British Asians and the increasing tendency to depict them as criminal and deviant, with a gang-oriented male youth, non-English speaking parents, and values that somehow sit uneasily with a 'Britishness' recalibrated as relaxed, modern, tolerant and so on. The current priorities of the 'war on terror' have shifted the discourse and added some new functions to it, but it is continuous with older forms of racism.

I raise all this because perhaps anti-racists are sometimes blindsided or taken aback by a sudden spate of 'revelations' about 'moderate' Muslims, and are put on the defensive. Some responses focus on the empirical validity of the 'revelations', but while that is important, it is actually far more important to examine the underlying ideological assumptions of the documentaries and reports. In the same way that it used to be easy for racists to cite a random report of a 'black mugger' or something like that, the anecdotal focus of Muslim-bashing and the refusal to countenance serious analysis of the structural repression and oppression in British society is specifically arranged for the purposes of generalised obloquy. The disavowal involved, the tacit or explicit claim that we don't mean all Muslims and we only want to highlight a genuine problem, is as old as the hills. The distribution and emphasis of the British media's reproduction of 'Islam' makes a nonsense of it. The fact that Channel 4, with its self-serving claims of being off-message and insubordinate, is one of the main contributors to this obnoxious trend, is no surprise. Media stars and intellectuals are disproportionately prone to the belief that their particular form of subservience and orthodoxy is actually no-bullshit, cutting edge, hard to the core, strong-headed realism that goes - oh dear me - 'against the grain'.