Terrorists and Muslims: the wholly unknowable.
In an unprecedented era of communication, the nature of war has shifted increasingly within the scope of the media landscape. Indeed, in the twenty-first century, wars often begin, continue and end with media war. More than ever, media institutions wield significant power in western society; particularly in the United States — shaping public opinion and informing how we interpret the world and those around us. Albeit conscious or not, it is sometimes manipulated by collectives or individuals to leverage power. This is one way that cultural and ideological hegemony manifests and exists within a society. A classic example of this was the media coverage in the months and years following the events of September 11, 2001. This day would significantly change the way the West would view and interact with the East for decades to come. In a speech on September 20, 2001 on national television President Bush told viewers that terrorists had targeted America ‘because we love freedom, and they hate freedom.’
This is a critical moment in American history because the definition of freedom was being re-imagined, and in turn, the way American cultural values compared to those of the Middle East. President Bush used his platform to do two things; exert power and authority, and in doing so, mould and influence public perceptions about Islam and the Middle-East. Indeed, it is not uncommon to see the dominate class using the ideational institutions of society to exert power, authority and influence over others. In doing so, they maintain the status quo in a way that is a classic illustration of Foucault’s definition of a discourse.
Moreover, this act demonstrated in part, an ongoing hegemonic discourse in American mass media regarding Muslims and Arabs that is largely formed and based on Orientalist ideas. The term Orientalism is a Eurocentric conceptual construct popularised by Edwards Said’s ‘Orientalism’ (1978). It is a discourse largely existent in academia as connoting both geography and ontology. As Said defines, ‘Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.’ Indeed, it is in this sense that viewing the Orient from a distance — as an outsider — the ‘other’ becomes wholly unknowable — merely observed, analysed and constructed into a seemingly impenetrable object who’s surface reflection re-affirms the Occident’s own self identity.
A constructed ‘other’ is evident in many remarks made from former President George W. Bush, as pointed out by Hank Green in his Crash Course video ‘Terrorism, War, and Bush.’ Critically, when America declared it would go to war with terrorism, President Bush made ‘no distinction between the terrorists, and the nations that harboured them’, and by January 2002 Bush proclaimed that Iraq, Iran and North Korea were an ‘axis of evil’ that harboured terrorists — despite these nations having no direct links to 9/11. While we know that parts of the Middle-East serve as training grounds for terrorists, it is over-simplified and sensationalised rhetoric of this nature that place Bushes comments squarely within the realm of Orientalist ideology.
From a Marxist perspective, with a platform as powerful as mainstream media, this rhetoric begins to ‘dominate and manipulate the cultural fabric of that society’ — that is to say, that institutions influence a subordinates beliefs, values and ideas until the the ruling-class worldview becomes the cultural norm. In the case of the Bush administration, Orientalist assumptions and stereotypes became arguably increasingly naturalised than ever before; sowing the seeds for a sensationalised — often at times black and white — far right-wing, nationalistic, culturally hegemonic discourse to continue in the west for decades to come.