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new internationalist
issue 234 - August 1992

Maids and spirituals
Shots of Islam

From the Romantic painters of the eighteenth century to today's
photojournalists, the Western media has been obsessed with visual stereotypes
of Islam. Carla Power tries to take the veil from our Western eyes.

Recently I have been examining the way Islam is depicted in the Western media. It has been a fascinating study. One of the most telling images I came across appeared in the prestigious British weekly The Economist - and is reproduced here. The caption read: 'Seventh century meets twentieth'.

The intention - of both photo and caption - was to illustrate trends in the contemporary Islamic world. But it did a lot more than that. To Western minds it presented Islam as a monolithic entity at odds with the modern world.

Stock images have always been used to convey Islam to a Western audience. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Romantic painters used a minaret under a crescent moon or the palm-studded desert to depict The Orient. More recently these images have been replaced by the mosque, the rows of men bent in prayer, the turbaned sternness of the mullab, and, of course, the veiled woman.

These are all powerful visual stereo-types. Imagine trying to come up with equally powerful imagery of, for example, the European Economic Community, or the US Democratic Party, or the Catholics.

But the stereotypes about Islam are not only visual - they are verbal too. Let me give you an example. Recently the BBC approached Discovery Television, an educational cable channel, to discuss the transmission of a documentary series on the social and cultural aspects of Islam based on a book by a Cambridge scholar. Discovery refused, declaring: 'For us, Islam means terrorism, fundamentalism and the mistreatment of women. If you can't major on that, we don't want to know'.

Why is the image of an entire civilization restricted to these props? One explanation could be that since the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Islamic revival has been news. News is generated by public events: revolutions and elections, armed struggles and fatwas.

Media coverage of Islam is generally not of Islam as a religion but of Islam-related events. Obviously, the Western public should know of Islam's role in the Jordanian or Algerian elections. We should read of the religion's status as a potent force in the emerging Central Asian republics, and of the introduction of the sharia penal code in the Sudan. But these are public activities. To limit the discussion of Islam to this area is to reduce a civilization to a few activities of a number of its adherents.

Portraying a political brand of Islam or certain issues of Islamic public life - like the veiling of women - as the essence of the religion is like guessing the reasons for a couple's divorce from a vacation snapshot. One should read a photograph, but only in combination with other sources of information. An image can illustrate a manifestation of a belief - a veil on a woman, or a row of praying men. However, a photo can never provide an image of faith itself. An individual's relationship to her or his god is not a news event. Nor is the concept of social justice in Islamic thought.

The snapshots we receive of Muslim life often help to perpetuate the image that Islam stands outside the modern world. Exoticism is photogenic stuff. Most Western readers would be struck by the seeming incongruity of the picture in The Economist. Veiled woman meets fluorescent-lit laboratory, science meets faith, 'seventh century meets twentieth'. The caption implies that the veiled woman is a vestige of another time. Much like the images of Afghan mujahidin controlling anti-aircraft missiles, or of mullahs holding microphones, the impact of the picture relies on the shock of seeing 'their' world colliding with 'ours'.

In the United States and - to a lesser extent - in Britain 'multiculturalism' has spawned a celebration of the variety of cultures within our own society. Many have embarked on a revaluation of our culture by challenging the notion that it is straight, white, male and middle-aged. Reading the Qu'ran in a university course on Western Literatures is viewed as politically correct. But attempting to apply its teachings to the modern world is often seen as incongruous. Rarely, I think, do we conceive of other societies as being 'multicultural' in their own way - say, by mixing religion and Western standards of technology.

But the Islamic revival should force us to look at all these issues more carefully. It should make us examine what we mean by 'modernity' - and by 'development'. The Iranian revolution exploded the myth that there is a single path to development. No longer could Western analysts trumpet the inevitability of the march from industrialization to increased literacy to secular humanism and Western-style political institutions. That troubled them - but didn't necessarily make them think further.

In many ways Iran's revolution was entirely modern, even in the narrowest sense of the term. It was the world's first major 'cassette revolution', in which mass media and technology played a major role. While the Ayatollah Khomeini was living in exile in Paris in the days leading up to the Revolution, bootleg recordings of his sermons circulated within Iran and abroad and proved a useful tool for the Islamicists.

The growing strength of Islamic political parties in democratic elections demonstrates, yet again, that there are many roads to many modernities. Early this year, the projected victory of the Islamic Salvation Front in the first round of Algeria's general elections prompted the Government of that country to dissolve parliament, cancel elections, and ban the party. This won considerable sympathy from the 'modern' West. Yet which is more 'modem'? A party advocating the conflation of church and state elected by the democratic process? Or a secular dictatorship?

We in the West have not really begun to understand that the modern world is not necessarily Westernized, secular and industrialized. How much longer will it take for the dinar to drop?

US-born Carla Power is research fellow at the Oxford Centre of Islamic Studies.

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New Internationalist issue 234 magazine cover This article is from the August 1992 issue of New Internationalist.
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