& the Arab-Islamic World
By TBS Publisher and Senior Editor
S. Abdallah Schleifer
This paper was presented
at a seminar on "Media and the Muslim world" held at George Washington University's
Department of Religion in April 2002.
Our topic-Media and the
Muslim world-is broad enough to support a two-day conference and susceptible enough
to change, given the nature of media and the circumstances of the Muslim world,
to be repeated on an annual basis.
And in the end all I am
really to do here today is to introduce a film-a video documentary-in the context
of our topic. The video, for those of you who have managed to find your way to
this room without quite understanding why, is "Rumi: Wings of Love," written,
directed, and produced by Shems Friedlander, my colleague at the American University
in Cairo and a dear friend. We are New Yorkers and, in homage to our city and
its once great garment industry, you might say that today I will mark and Shems
So what I will try to
do today in the very limited time that we have is to introduce some concepts that
I consider basic in trying to fathom the nature of media, and then focus those
concepts on one particular branch-television-and in particular on satellite broadcasting
and the related formats of television journalism and video documentaries as these
relate to the Muslim world and, finally, to the video we will be watching today.
When we say media we mean
"mass media"-in other words messages mediated by technology, or, in transmission
terms, messages that are impersonal in their transmission or potential transmission
to large undifferentiated audiences. "Undifferentiated" is an academic way of
saying that the audience is any Tom, Dick, or Harry who might be reading, or listening
to, or watching a media product mediated by technology, and not somebody I know
or could easily know in the way that the Imam of a mosque giving a khutba or a
priest giving a sermon knows or theoretically could know anyone in his audience.
I've chosen this example because the khutba or sermon most closely approximates
mass media but, as long as it's not on TV, radio, or even conceivably a public
address system, it's not that; which is probably one of the reasons why the PA
system in the mosque-to the degree we are conscious of it, meaning it's a bad
one (and I can assure you that in Cairo, almost all of them are)-is potentially
so disruptive. In other words, to the degree we become conscious of technology
imposing itself between the Imam and ourselves, the acoustically nasty intervention
becomes not only offensive to those with an ear for beauty but ruptures the potentially
personal relationship between ourselves and the Imam or myself and the priest.
When we say media but
mean mass media - communication mediated by technology that turns it into a mass
communication-we are saying "modern." I would argue that the phrase "modern mass
media" is a redundancy; indeed, Eisenstein-not the film maker but the most interesting
historian of mass communication-suggests this is true to such a degree that the
printing press should not be perceived as the product of the industrial revolution
as is typically done in formulations of the causal equation that is made for the
modern age. Rather, Eisenstein says, it is the invention of the printing press
that so shifted the context of Western culture as to facilitate the Protestant
Reformation and the industrial revolution.
Here is an aside: for
those here who might be considering graduate work in Islamic, Arabic, or Middle
Eastern studies, I would suggest considering, as a research area, the role of
the printing press in rupturing the transmission of traditional knowledge in traditional
Islamic civilization. For that civilization was preserved and passed on to a far
greater extent in the form of manuscripts - by what we call scribal culture-than
the equivalent traditional culture of the West, where manuscripts were far fewer
and far more restricted in readership and where the transmission of traditional
culture made far more extensive use of alternative mediums of communication, particularly
visual representations such as stained glass portrayals of New and Old Testament
events and the martyrdom of the Saints.
The impact of the printing
press in the West was stretched out over centuries and the relatively few manuscripts
were to a large degree reproduced in printed form in the first century, a century
that by Eisenstein's reckoning pre-dates modernity and its rival literatures.
Not so in the Arab-Islamic world: the first printing press was set up there in
the early 19th century and, while a small portion of the Islamic equivalent of
the "Great Books" were reproduced, a vast stock of modern literature, either imported
and translated or derived from such imports dominates the present-day Arabic library,
while more than a million manuscripts-the rich storehouse, so to speak, of traditional
culture-linger on neglected and gathering dust in national and mosque libraries
and in private collections.
Islamic architecture is
one of my concerns and I always assumed that the extraordinary break between the
product of most modern Arab or Muslim world architectures and the extraordinary
architectural product of traditional Islamic culture should be understood in psychological
and social terms. However, my own recent work indicates this can also be located
in the unread manuscripts-unread, let us assume, since the mid-19th century-that
had once played a role in the transmission of the methodologies and conceptual
understandings of Islamic architecture.
When we jump from print
to television we move into still another profoundly revolutionary cycle of communication.
Television is electronic-it is not photography (as we knew it up to the recent
introduction of the digital camera). Photography as we have known it in its 200
year old history is, like print, inseparable from the industrial revolution: it
is a mechanical form of reproduction. TV, video, DVD-whatever is electronic-is
inseparable from the electronic revolution of the computer, of IT.
Now the spiritual problem
in electronic media is that there really is no image out there, as is the case
with personal visual perception or even with the shadow of the image, which participates
Platonically, one might say, in the real image that it is the shadow of. The electronic
image doesn't exist - scrape the videotape and you won't find anything, no negative
prints - it's all electronic spirals that are at best digitalized and the image
is what we reconstruct from all the moving dots of electronic energy carrying
information. I think that is why baraka-spiritual grace-doesn't "track" (record
electronically), whereas in black and white photography of saints we can at times
more or less "see" the light that Saints are known to reflect or we can see the
otherwise invisible human aura in X-rays which Soviet scientists, of all people,
established as a direct manifestation of the power of faith healers.
Now religion, according
to Al-Ghazali, is belief in the invisible world, but in television only the visible
appears to be real, only the visible appears to exist. TV, more than any other
form of mass medium, intrinsically rather than formally denies metaphysical reality.
And all of this, of course, flies in the face of but can potentially overcome
that existential knowledge of the reality of baraka that has been experienced
by much of mankind over thousands of years in its response everywhere in the world
to the presence of saints and sacred sites. That is why in the Muslim world millions
of believers still visit the tombs of saints and experience baraka, or experience
it in the concentrated repetition of the divine Names (dhikr allah), none of which
experiencing of the sacred can be tracked.
On the other hand, those
of us who are TV professionals know that it is movement and visible emotion-close-up-that
makes the best TV picture.
That may be one of the
reasons, in addition to the market-share rewards of sensationalism and the secular
biases of the TV News networks' managerial elite, that sex and violence are such
attractive subjects for TV and why so little about religion appears on TV news
except when it provides images of violence. (To date we have been relatively spared
images of the sexual dimension in religion, though who knows how "reality TV"
will treat another Rev. Jimmy Swaggert, down the road).
Even in the modern Arab-Islamic
world, and particularly in the age of transnational broadcasting, how many still
read Al-Ghazali and how often are his concerns echoed on religious programs, which
have been tilted amazingly in the direction of the salafite tendency? Just as
public affairs debate shows on Arab transnational television are frequently debates
between a guest with an anti-American perspective and one with a super-anti-American
perspective, so too transnational Arab satellite religious discourse is often
between the salafite and the radical salafite. Perhaps that will now change given
the now obvious destination of radical salafite thought.
So what is to be done?
One possibility is the sort of video that Shems Friedlander has produced: it does
not hesitate to use the "talking head" because if the human voice is employed
as more than a sound bite, as more than a brief cutaway between images, there
is a possibility, as doors open, for the transmission of profound insight.
And it is through this
film's very harnessing of movement (movement for the sake of God and not for viewers'
titillation, but movement nevertheless) that so often characterizes the circles
of the lovers of God, of those who gather to "remember God," that TV's barriers
to spiritual insight may be overcome. TBS