Of Shahid and Ghazees – Spin and the “explaining” of Islam

Nov 10, 2022
Retro old islamic kuran on wooden table in front of window.

Spin in all its forms is dangerous. Spin linking Islam with terrorism has become a part of everyday life for us – and it is difficult to recognise it as spin precisely because of that fact.

Spin is not new. Spinmeisters have been around for centuries. What is new is the power and the influence such people have come to wield in modern society. We have reached a point in time when policy has become less important in the political process than spin, and policy analysts have become subservient to those whose task it is to manipulate society in the marketing of policy. The medium has now well and truly become the message – and in the process the ramifications for cultural and economic imperialism are profound.

The well-known British commentator G.K. Chesterton noted in reference to the impending invasion of France by Germany in 1914 that the culture of the conquered could be injured or even extinguished simply because it could be “explained” by the conqueror. Should France fall, he warned, French culture would be interpreted or “explained” by the Germans to form an all-pervasive “German picture of France”. In more recent times the concept of “explaining” has become encompassed by the term ethnocentrism, and a subtly-evolved variation is now being played out in world realpolitiks. The American alliance, having experienced conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent decades, has become adept at “explaining” Islam and Islamic cultures to its own ubiquitous audiences. Moreover, such “explanations” tend often to concentrate on one rather dubious connection – terrorism. These two ideas – Islam and terrorism – have become inexorably linked in our minds by the unrelenting juxtaposition of them in the media and in our everyday discourse to the point where we now find it difficult to think of one without also thinking of the other.

A “Western-centric” view of Islam has been created that essentially demonises it and thereby supports (intentionally or otherwise and indeed sometimes subliminally) the West’s (or perhaps more precisely, the North’s) foreign and economic policy objectives. Moreover, and to be charitable, it seems that the inherent ethnocentrism of the spin associated with that process is sometimes invisible even to its very perpetrators, particularly when cultural and power differentials are greatest.

A common focus of such “explaining” in this post-9/11 era is the Islamic shahid or martyr – the suicide bomber – the hi-jacker of an aircraft, the driver of a bomb-rigged car, or the wearer of an explosive-packed vest. An exploration of the mind-sets of such people makes compelling reading because their actions are so counter-intuitive to the western tradition of individualism and liberalism.

For the same reason, Western commentators now make much of Islamic shahids’ ostensible conviction that their deaths as martyrs will send them straight to paradise where they will be attended by a host of virgins and experience everlasting happiness (for the eschatology is nothing if not patriarchal, even though some martyrs are female). A CNN report from August 2003 is typical:

“While there are many reasons young Muslims sacrifice their lives – including the honour and money bestowed onto their families after their death – it is the martyr’s afterlife that captures the imagination. (In the Palestinian fundamentalist group Hamas) candidates for martyrdom were told the first drop of blood shed by a martyr washes away their sins. They could select 70 of their nearest and dearest to enter Heaven; and they would have at their disposal 72 houris, the beautiful virgins of paradise.”

The focus in such reporting is on the strangeness of the belief to western eyes – and the commentator consequently inevitably indulges in over-simplification. It is always easier to dress cultural and political motivation in a cloak of religious zealotry. But such a focus is not new; it has been so for centuries. This writer’s Great Grandfather, the eminent “Special” war artist William Simpson, accompanied and sketched the British Army in many of its campaigns at the height of the Victorian era. Simpson was a Scot and proudly independent, and although attendant upon an army in which jingoism was the dominant paradigm, he had a rare understanding of, and empathy with, many of the other cultures he encountered (and he encountered many). Yet he too wrote in the 1890s in his autobiography:

“The Mohammedans of Afghanistan are apt to be dangerous in times of excitement …. It may be explained that a Ghazee (a religious warrior) is a man who has devoted his life for the benefit of the faith; if he is killed he goes straight to the bliss of heaven. To become a Ghazee he has only to say, “In the name of God I am a Ghazee!” An excitable man, on seeing a giaour or infidel, may, when only a yard or two away, pronounce these words. An Afghan carries a long sharp knife; this comes out in an instant, and the victim has no chance. When our troops first occupied Peshawur, Ghazees were in the habit of coming from the hills simply to kill in this way the first European they met.”

It is worth noting that both the commentaries cited above, although written over a century apart, were addressed to readerships whose knowledge of Islamic culture was scant. The morsels provided became writ large because any information on the subject was rare and therefore significant. In the minds of readers of both eras such extreme views became identifiable as integral to Islam and thus Islam was seen as strange and dangerous. In truth, however, shahid and ghazees are about as typical of Islamic dogma and culture as IRA bombers are of Christian dogma and culture.

Similarly, both commentaries were directed towards cultures of high patriotism verging on jingoism, and as such they served a propaganda purpose. Simpson’s account of ghazees could perhaps now be smiled over because of the credulousness of the Victorian era, and whilst CNN’s take on shahid was written to a supposedly more sophisticated and modern American audience, its readers are in reality little more knowledgeable of Islamic culture.

Propaganda is the objective of those who wield power and hence who seek to gain from influencing public opinion. Spin-doctors are employed by the powerful not the obscure – and the reality is that spin-doctors don’t have to lie to fulfil their function, they merely seek to create an environment in which the media are inspired to focus on “helpful” aspects of the subjects of their discourse at the expense of “unhelpful” aspects. Probably many shahid do have the beliefs ascribed to them by CNN, and martyrdom is indeed praised and urged in various places in the holy texts, even though suicide (qatlu nafsi-hi) is not mentioned in the Koran and it is forbidden in the Islamic Traditions (Hadith in Arabic).

The truth is that negative stories are more helpful to a government that is waging war against that nebulous entity “Islamic terrorism” than are positive stories. A positive spin could, for example, have highlighted the Koran’s exhortation to the faithful to control their baser instincts of greed, lust and cruelty (known as “the great jihad”) rather than to exercise their right to wage war against their oppressors (known as “the lower jihad”). Muslim scholar Imam Sulayman S. Nyang of Howard University in Washington, D.C. has characterised the true essence of the Koranic verses as – “to fight back if you are attacked by your persecutors”. But (he cautions) “don’t fight back indiscriminately. Follow the rules of engagement.” Nyang further notes that mainstream Muslim clerics advise that those “rules of engagement” are explicit: women, children, and innocent civilians are off limits. As with Christianity, it is all in the interpretation.

It could of course be argued that a less-sophisticated form of spin is used just as often by Islamic countries to demonise the West.

The West is certainly widely perceived in many parts of the less-developed realm as neo-colonial, hegemonic, culturally & economically imperialistic, self-serving and insular. Indeed, America, as the leading free-market antagonist, is itself often perceived in less-developed countries as a hubristic and brash civilisation with a greedy mercantilist motivation. Whilst the world could possibly forgive such perceived faults in a small powerless country, it is loth to forgive them in the biggest and most aggressive player on the field. World economics is after all a nil sum game in the long term – and the maths is pretty simple. America and other wealthy western nations (such as Australia) have historically been affluent largely because the less developed realm has been poor. Quod erat demonstrandum. And one is stretched to argue against such logic.

It can only be concluded that spin in all its forms is dangerous, and the more so because it is often least perceptible to those most exposed to it. And this is where the difficulties arise in our rich and apathetic materialistic society, for that means all of us. Islam is unfamiliar to most, thus creating fertile ground for the spin-doctors who wish to nurture the concept of “an enemy” within our midst. Spin linking Islam with terrorism has become a part of everyday life for us – and it is difficult to recognise it as spin precisely because of that fact.

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