Today's date:
Spring 2006

From Media Mongols to Muslim Rambos

Akbar Ahmed holds the Ibn Khaldun chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. He is a former Pakistani ambassador to Great Britain and author of the seminal study, Postmodernism and Islam. He sent these comments on the turmoil around the Danish depictions of the Prophet Muhammad from Istanbul.

Istanbul —The West does not understand the “insult” Muslims feel. Worse, the West appears to deliberately look away from trying to understand why Muslims feel so upset about the Danish cartoons—in this case they were not only insulting but deliberately insulting.

Neither the West nor the Muslims have learned any lessons from the Salman Rushdie controversy more than a decade ago. The West repeats its mantra of freedom of expression and Muslims react emotionally and angrily in frustration. Both positions lack nuance and feed into the ongoing simplistic clash between the two. Both sides are showing a juvenile irresponsibility that the world just cannot afford.

Western print and television journalists as well as Hollywood producers have still not understood the power they wield in this age. They have deliberately added fuel to the fire between the West and Muslims by their constant depiction of negative stereotypes—with some notable and honorable exceptions. (I need to point out for the record that I found American media more restrained and even understanding than the Europeans. There has been a great deal of interfaith activity in the United States, and this may have something to do with the greater understanding of religious sensibilities.)

They need to understand that a television discussion or Hollywood film is today seen globally and can help to move the discussion one way or the other. They need to also understand that the popularity of the US is lower than any point in history, even among its allies—just look at the polls in the United Kingdom or in the Muslim world like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

I have been watching the situation in Pakistan with some concern. Pakistan is a key ally on the war on terror. Without its support American troops would flounder on the eastern borders of Afghanistan. Those talking so glibly about freedom of the press need to connect these dots.

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was right when he recently said the US was losing the battle for hearts and minds in the Muslim world. People in the Muslim world are now getting their news through satellite dishes from local channels such as Al-Jazeera. When I wrote in Postmodernism and Islam about the sense of civilizational assault created by the pervasive presence of the Western media in the Muslim world I said it felt like “media Mongols” were poised at the gates of Baghdad, an analogy with the Mongol attack in 1258. A decade ago there were only the Western media. Today that is not the case.

Here in Istanbul the most popular big-feature film now showing is called The Valley of the Wolves—Iraq. It captures the sentiments of ordinary Muslims throughout the region. It is about a Muslim Rambo who sets out on a mission of revenge against Americans in Iraq who are shown as looting and raping sadists. There are strong doses of anti-Semitism in it as well.

The problem is the dialogue between civilizations cannot be conducted between two stereotypes and false positions. The media on both sides appear to be more interested in sales and ratings than objectivity and the truth. This is highly irresponsible. I am afraid we will all be paying for it for much of this century.