Friday, April 17, 2009

Researching Islamic Cyber Environments & Visual Media: Problems & Prospects

Researching Islamic Cyber Environments & Visual Media

On Thursday evening, I presented this PowerPoint, together with a 15-minute (and a bit scattered, stream of consciousness-type) talk that centered roughly on the questions raised by the title of this post. Some of the research questions that I am currently pursuing include those below. I plan on posting some initial thoughts in following posts.

My presentation was met with a mix of responses, some of them lukewarm. There were some concerns that some of this visual media "could have been" produced by "government agents." Fair enough. Qualitative research in cyber environments is quite new. I am presently reading theoretical and case study readings on the prospects and problems posed by such research. However, I do not believe that ALL of this visual media can be written off as some "plot" by this or that government intelligence agency. This is particularly true about the visual media that I have found on official web sites run by specific groups. There is a clear pattern in the visual media, which, I argue, makes the "conspiracy theory" explanation much less convincing. Nonetheless, I need to consider the issues raised carefully nonetheless.

(1) What are some of the possibilities that arise from the careful and contextualized analysis of the wide array of visual media, cyber and otherwise, produced by Muslim social and political movements?

(2) What differences and similarities are there between the visual media produced by these different groups?

(3) Do their visual media support the often-made claims that Muslim "militant" groups are "all the same?"

(4) How can researchers discuss the following issues:

It is often alleged that "Islam" is an inherently violent religion, and thus Muslims are inherently, or even "biologically," prone to violence in a way that other people are not. This is a ridiculous allegation, an allegation that has become the merchandise of bigots and the ignorant. Nor do I believe that "Islam" is a "religion of peace" as it often claimed by apologists. I reject the idea that one religion is more prone to "war" or "peace." Rather, we should speak about the diversity among its practitioners, who hold a wide array of views on politics, social issues, and religious practice. Yes, some are militant. However, the vast majority of the world's 1.3 billion (estimated) Muslims have not joined the so-called "global jihad" called for by radicals and obsessed about by bigots and conservative Western (North American and European) pundits and ideologues. The great French Islamicist, in his last book, Beyond Terror and Martyrdom, argues that the "grand narrative" of the transnational Sunni radicals extolling "jihad through martyrdom" has failed to convince the majority of Muslims. Given this fact, it is inaccurate to view Muslims as a group through the bloodshot lens held by both militant jihadi terrorists (those who intentionally target civilians or wantonly disregard civilians in their attacks) like those in al-Qa'ida, and Islamaphobic bigots and political "machiavellians."

(b) A "CULTURE OF MARTYRDOM" ? It is often alleged that certain societies, for example the Palestinians, have "cultures of martyrdom." In other words, there are some societies that promote and extol martyrdom and militancy/militarism. Those who make these allegations point to the rich visual, aural, and video media produced by groups within these societies in which members who have been killed in battle for "the cause" are commemorated as martyrs, as selfless defenders of their society.

On the one hand, I have certainly found a wealth of visual media commemorating martyrs. However, as I have been researching the theory and history of propagandistic and persuasive media, a key question that has arisen for me is: Are these representations of its martyrs by a particular "Muslim" or "Islamicate" (within the wider "world of Islam," but not necessarily "Islamic" in the religious sense, to use the late great Islamicist Marshall Hodgson's term) society, in this case the Palestinians, that unique?

Consider the following examples from U.S. government propaganda. Pay particular attention to the portrayal of the "Other," and the commemoration, and one could argue extolling of, military themes, "victories," and "sacrifice" (read: martyrdom) in these examples:

"Atrocity" propaganda from the First World War, showing a "brute" German impaling an angel. Similar "atrocity" media is produced by some Muslim activists, such as this example about the recent Israeli assault on Gaza:

The text reads: "Zionist [Israeli] Terrorism and Its Enablers:
The State [of affairs] in Gaza."

Japanese shown as monstrous beings, in a classic technique of formulating "the enemy" as barbaric and hostile...even non or sub human.

Anti-German propaganda from the First World War that acts in the same way as the previous propaganda piece.

Martyrs of the Vietnam War

I argue that the commemoration of "the martyrs" of a society, extolling of militarism with the aim of "victory," and the creation of a caricatured "Other" as a constructed "enemy," using gross stereotypes, is far from being unique to Muslim societies. Nay, these are common practices to all societies, though many would like to downplay or ignore this fact. In order to more fully understand Muslim visual media of "the martyr and the mujahid," and in the case of some groups, "the terrorist," we need to contextualize it within the larger histories and cultural backgrounds, particularly with regard to symbolism, of its producers. This should not be taken as an excuse or justification of barbaric acts, such as those perpetrated by al-Qa'ida (more often against Muslims than non-Muslims). This is a frequent charge made by polemicists interested more in promoting their own (often bigoted) ideology than in the pursuit of knowledge. Rather, I believe that without sober study and analysis rooted in a reading of history and culture(s), reductionism, simplification, and ignorance shall prevail, and this is to no one's benefit.

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