Naureen Aqueel

Thesis: How the global press is framing “Extremism” and its variants

Posted on: February 8, 2010

A cross-national analysis of 108 non-news articles from nine newspapers across the world

Abstract

Extremism, fundamentalism, terrorism and other related terms are at the heart of global media discourse since the past few years. The press has been fundamental in shaping our attitudes and perceptions regarding these issues by effectively defining and redefining these concepts for us. This research attempts to explore how the global press is defining and framing extremism and its variants by using a quantitative and qualitative analysis of texts of 108 non-news articles picked up from nine newspapers across the world. Findings revealed that a variety of loaded terminologies were being used to define extremism and its opposing concepts and that media definitions were often influenced by dominant political discourse. Extremism was found to be talked about majority of the time in relation to Islam and Muslims. A growing trend of associating extremism to religious adherence, symbols and education was also found. Western newspapers from the U.S. and U.K were often found to associate extremism to being anti-West and moderation to being pro-West and had among the highest instances of association of extremism to Islam.

Introduction

The media play a fundamental role in educating audiences about various social realities. The question of how the media mediate between the external objective reality and our perception of social reality has been one of the major themes of Mass Communication research. There has been particular interest in the ‘reality definition’ function of the press. The press has been instrumental in educating readers, creating awareness about issues, defining our perceptions of reality and changing attitudes.

The role of language in reporting and discussing particular topics is also one of importance in media studies. How the use of terminologies and language in the media is in accordance with dominant political discourse in society and how this subsequently shapes media portrayals and definitions is another important aspect of this debate.

Of late, there has been a lot of focus on topics like extremism, moderation and terrorism in the media. The press has been at the centre of shaping our perceptions and attitudes regarding these issues. The media not only report incidents of terrorism and militancy, they have also come to define these concepts for us.

The purpose of this research is to examine how the global press is defining extremism and its various linguistic variations. The sample comprised a collection of 108 non-news articles (including columns and editorials) picked from 9 publications across different countries from different regions of the world. 12 write-ups were selected from each newspaper on the basis of a convenience sample with the criteria of selecting articles using one or more of a variety of terminologies relating to extremism.

The newspapers were selected on the basis of circulation figures as well as off-record hegemony. A further limitation that emerged in determining selection was the condition that the newspaper that was to be used had to have a website and subsequently, an online archive providing free access to the ‘Comment’ or ‘Opinion’ section of that publication for the period of time covered in the study. The comparative cross-national analysis allows for a study of differing perceptions and concept frames in different countries and different contexts. The study uses a combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis of the media texts selected in the sample.

Extremism, fundamentalism, radicalism, fanaticism, terrorism etc are elusive terms and it is difficult to attach one single meaning to them. We know that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter and we have also seen that yesterday’s terrorists can be today’s statesmen.

While a search fails to bring up much about the origins of the term ‘extremism’, there seems to be some amount of material available on the origins of the term ‘fundamentalism’. The term ‘fundamentalism’ has been used in so many contexts that its origins have been obscured. Like other scholarly terms that have entered general usage (‘Charisma’ for example), popularity has resulted in a degradation of the meaning of the term as well as questionable applications (Weinberg and Pendahzur, 2004). The origins of the term ‘fundamentalism’ lie firmly in American Protestantism. After a lengthy debate about evolutionary biology and creation, the Protestant denominations gradually separated into ‘modernists’ who argued that believers needed to adapt to the findings of science and scholarship, and ‘traditionalists’ or anti-modernists who insisted upon maintaining the older views of revelation and biblical inerrancy. As the struggles between the two groups progressed, the views of anti-modernists were articulated in a set of pamphlets published between 1910 to 1915, under the title of ‘The Fundamentals’. Gradually, those who supported this position began to term themselves ‘fundamentalists’ (Weinberg and Pendahzur, 2004).

The absence of one agreed meaning for the aforementioned terms in current usage is readily apparent. But in the presence of such a case, these terms lend themselves to more manipulation and engineering by the dominant political and media elite of a society. In the post September 11 scenario, these terms have acquired more political connotations and are actively being defined and redefined by the media. These definitions are not always correct as the media have a tendency to be shaped by dominant political discourse. In the present day scenario, these terms have in fact become political terms to create hysteria against certain groups.

Well-known journalist, Robert Fisk, the London-based Independent’s Middle East correspondent describes this quite well when he writes:

““terrorism” no longer means terrorism. It is not a definition; it is a political contrivance. “Terrorists” are those who use violence against the side that is using the word. The only terrorists whom Israel acknowledges are those who oppose Israel. The only terrorists the United States acknowledges are those who oppose the United States or their allies. The only terrorists Palestinians acknowledge—for they too use the word—are those opposed to the Palestinians.” (Fisk, 1990)

The content of newspapers is not really facts about the world, but in a very general sense ‘ideas’ and in this, language is not neutral but a highly constructive mediator (Fowler, 1991). The language the media use can help shape opinions and perceptions and consequently influence action against certain groups in society. By repeatedly associating certain phenomena through use of language and terminology, the media are able to shape definitions of phenomena. And with the immense power and ubiquity that the media have acquired today, it becomes increasingly important to monitor how the media are defining certain terms and what stereotypes and notions they are creating.

A principle that has been long understood by propagandists is that a lie which is repeated often enough becomes widely accepted as truth (Rampton and Stauber, 2003) and that by repeated associations of two or more phenomena the desired concepts tend to acquire commonsense status in a society.

Walter Lippmann’s concept of ‘manufacturing consent’ (a term popularised by the works of Noam Chomsky) is an interesting angle that can be applied to this debate. The concept contends that in democratic societies, the less the state is able to employ violence in the interests of the elite groups that effectively dominate it, the more it becomes necessary to devise techniques of “manufacture of consent” (Chomsky, 1986).

Chomsky (1986) puts forward that one way of “manufacturing consent” is to devise an appropriate form of “Newspeak” in which crucial terms have a technical sense divorced from their ordinary meanings. The term “newspeak” was coined by George Orwell to describe words “deliberately constructed for political purposes: words, that is to say, which not only had in every case a political implication but were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them.”

Orwell was an ardent observer of the relationship between politics and language. In one of his collections, he wrote: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of atom bombs in Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness” (Orwell, 1970).

Chomsky (1986) uses the example of the phrase “peace process” to explain the idea of “newspeak”. According to how the term is used in the mass media and the U.S. scholarship, “peace process” means peace proposals advanced by the U.S. government in the context of the Middle East crisis. If the Palestinians, for example, refuse to accept the U.S. terms of the peace process, they are in effect described as rejecting peace in accordance with the “newspeak.” The desired conclusion follows, whatever the facts (Chomsky, 2007).

Similarly, Chomsky (2007) uses the example of another pair of “newspeak” concepts very relevant to the current study: “extremist” and “moderate”. U.S. policy is by definition “moderate” so that those who oppose it are “extremist” and “uncompromising.” The Israeli Labour coalition position then (in 1986) according to Chomsky’s description of “newspeak” was also “moderate” as it conformed to the position of the U.S.

“The terms “terrorism” and “retaliation” also have a special sense in U.S. “newspeak.” “Terrorism” refers to terrorist acts by Arabs, not Israel or the U.S.” (Chomsky, 1986). Terms like “preventing” or “reducing” violence also have another special sense in the context of Arab-Israeli conflicts. In one case for example, the Israeli and U.S media defined the attempt by villagers to run their own affairs as “violence” and a brutal attack to teach them who rules as “reducing violence.”

In his book ‘Imperial Ambitions: Conversations in the Post 9/11 World’, Noam Chomsky (2005) gives another example of an American journalist (a Middle East correspondent with tremendous experience) who writes in his article that the U.S. must be the only country in the world where someone can be called a terrorist for defending his own country from attack.

Media portrayals of concepts in many cases are influenced by the dominant cultural meanings attached to them, what in other words Orwell described as political language. People’s opinions and conceptions are often shaped by the mass media and the mass media themselves often follow dominant political discourses that support the actions of hegemonic powers. At the same time, media discourse often plays an important role is establishing and maintaining power relations in societies.

The media often have set conventional patterns of reporting and even opinion and analysis that they follow in covering events. Van Dijk (1988) calls these set patterns cognitive scripts and models of behaviour shaped by the experience and narration of previous events. These cognitive structures are shaped by dominant cultural, political and religious worldviews and the media often follow them even when covering some of the most atypical of occurrences.

The media play an important role in lending salience to various issues. We have all heard of terms like “media frenzy”, “media hype” and “moral panic”. While popular mass communication theories like Agenda-setting theory contend that while the media may not be successful most of the time in telling us what to think, they are stunningly successful in telling readers or audiences what to think about (Cohen, 1963), there are other theorists who are now arguing that media are stunningly successful in telling us not only what to think about, but how to think about it (McCombs, 2003).

We see that certain events and issues tend to become fodder for newspapers and the electronic media with reporting, commentary and analysis about them being done at unprecedented levels. In this way, the media become active participants in the course of events, shaping and creating events as they report. At many times, media involvement in the sense of reporting can have a significant effect on the event itself and even the outcome. The media therefore, are said to be actively involved in what Thompson (1995) called “constituting the social world.”

The media thus often generate news waves by lending an issue increased attention, amplifying it and creating ‘hype’ about it, subsequently influencing action regarding it. Pakistani society has often seen this sort of media generated news wave at incidences of violence in the city and those relating to threats to law and order etc.

The Pakistani media just like the global media have been giving a lot of attention to extremism, fundamentalism and terrorism. If one takes a look at any edition of any newspaper in this day and age, one will undoubtedly come across some mention or the other of extremism and terrorism. In this age of the ‘looming threat of terror’ and increased focus on the fanaticism and extremism that causes it, it is almost impossible for a day to go by with no mention of these phenomena in the media.

A Google search of Dawn’s (Pakistan’s topmost English daily newspaper) website turns up some 5400 results for ‘extremism’. A similar search for ‘fundamentalism’ turns up some 782 results on the Dawn website. Similarly, a Google search of the website of The News (Pakistan’s second most prestigious English daily) turns up 1490 results for ‘extremism’ and 203 for ‘fundamentalism’. A Google search of the American most prestigious daily, New York Times, turns up 61800 results for ‘extremism’ and 4950 for ‘fundamentalism’. A similar search done on Britain’s prestigious daily, Telegraph, turns up 3450 results for ‘extremism’ and 1790 for ‘fundamentalism.’ The amount of press coverage and mention given to these issues then is readily apparent.

What propelled the researcher to take up this topic for research was the relatively new debate in Pakistan about progressive liberalism versus religious adherence and conservatism and the tendency among the media and intellectual elites to label all signs of religion as ‘extremism’, ‘fundamentalism’ or ‘radicalism’ etc. The elite press and media of the country have relatively recently engaged themselves in this debate which tends to label all signs of religion as extremism and radicalism. This is done either directly, or indirectly, by associating religion and religious practice and conservatism with the aforementioned terms.

As an example, consider two articles that appeared in the year 2009 in one of the top monthly newsmagazines of Pakistan, Newsline: ‘The Power of the Pulpit’ and ‘The Saudisation of Pakistan’. Both these articles are representative of the popular intellectual discourse about extremism and fundamentalism that is prominent in the elite media of the country.

‘The Power of the Pulpit’, the cover story for that month, by popular journalist and novelist, Muhammad Hanif, stands critical of the growing trend of religious adherence in the society and associates it to ‘Talibanisation’, a neologism that is said to have been coined by the media to describe the increasing influence of the Taliban in the society. He calls the growing trend of religious preaching on Television as a precedent to the rise of militancy in the country. He writes:

“In Karachi, there are frequent warnings that the Taliban are headed this way. There are posters warning us about Talibanisation. Altaf Hussain thunders about them at every single opportunity. But nobody seems to warn us about the preachers who are already here: the ones wagging their fingers on TV always tend to precede the ones waving their guns, smashing those TVs and bombing poor barbers.” (Hanif, 2009, ‘The Power of the Pulpit’, Newsline)

The article, ‘The Saudisation of Pakistan’, by Pervez Hoodboy goes along the same lines, arguing that radicalism is not only a problem in FATA and that Madrassas[1] are not the only “institutions serving as jihad factories”, rather “extremism is breeding at a ferocious rate in public and private schools within Pakistan’s towns and cities”. Hoodboy associates this to the ‘Saudisation’ of the country, its educational curriculum, the building of hundreds of mosques, and the rise in the trend of women wearing the abaya[2] or burqa[3]. By linking religious practice and symbols repeatedly to the debate about rising extremism and militancy, Hoodboy like many other writers in this dominant intellectual discourse in the elite media of the country, includes these elements into the definition of the term extremism and its variations. He writes:

“While social conservatism does not necessarily lead to violent extremism, it does shorten the distance. The socially conservative are more easily convinced that Muslims are being demonised by the rest of the world. The real problem, they say, is the plight of the Palestinians, the decadent and discriminatory West, the Jews, the Christians, the Hindus, the Kashmir issue, the Bush doctrine – the list runs on. They vehemently deny that those committing terrorist acts are Muslims, and if presented with incontrovertible evidence, say it is a mere reaction to oppression.” (Hoodboy, 2009, ‘The Saudisation of Pakistan’, Newsline)

As another example, we can consider an article by popular columnist, Nadeem F. Paracha, in the most prominent daily of the country, Dawn. In his article titled ‘Nauseous mumblings’, Paracha is again critical of the trend of religious preachers on television and the growing trend of young men and women adorning beards and hijabs[4] respectively, and practising religious rituals. He calls these trends an exhibition of ‘extreme beliefs’. He writes:

“There have been recorded cases against many petty-bourgeois shop-owners and traders of financing jihadi[5] organisations; whereas many sections among the more ‘modern’ bourgeois class have largely exhibited their own version of extreme beliefs by passionately patronising (as supporters and clients), a number of Islamic televangelists and drawing-room preachers whose number has grown two-fold from 1990 onwards.

Consequently, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of young men and women from the middle-class now preferring to adorn beards and hijabs, and taking religious rituals a lot more seriously (compared to the situation till the late 1970s). But this class still constitutes a large number of westernised youth as well.” (Paracha, 2009, ‘Nauseous Mumblings’, Dawn, Images on Sunday)

This trend in the dominant intellectual discourse however is not a feature limited only to Pakistan, although it does come somewhat as a surprise that it is dominant in a majority Muslim country like Pakistan. Karim (2002) in his paper ‘Making sense of the Islamic Peril’ notes how the Northern mass media have the tendency to declare manifestations of Muslim belief such as wearing the hijab and performing the communal Muslim prayer as certain signs of “Islamic fundamentalism,” whereas the wearing of Christian religious apparel or attending church in their own countries are not usually considered signs of fanaticism. “The generalisation and polarisation of all Muslims as “fundamentalists” and “moderates,” “traditionalists” and “modernists,” “fanatics” and “secularists” serve to distort communication. They tend to make the Muslims who are interested in constructive dialogue with non-Muslims apologetic about their beliefs or, contrarily, disdainful about any interaction.”

Karim (2002) also discusses how such situations have been a recurring feature of crisis situations in the relationship between Northern and Muslim societies. He quotes Ahmed (1992) on the example of the “Rushdie Affair” when Muslims who dared criticise any aspect of Salman Rushdie’s controversial book, The Satanic Verses, risked being branded an “Islamic fundamentalist.” After the September 11 terror attack many Muslims living in Western societies were fearful of wearing traditional clothing in public, let alone engaging in discussion with others for fear of being labelled extremists or fundamentalists.

Although some Northern journalists, academics, and politicians do go against this dominant discourse and state repeatedly that Islam is not synonymous with violence or terrorism, their alternative discourses are usually overshadowed by many other opinion leaders who continue to frame information within dominant discourses (Karim, 2000). With such repeated media associations of terrorism, fundamentalism and extremism with symbols of Islamic practice like the hijab and beard, it came as no surprise then that journalists who had made much of turbans and hijabs being symbolic of “Islamic fundamentalism” were baffled that a number of people whom the Taliban had oppressed chose to continue wearing these traditional garments even after the regime was deposed (Karim, 2002).

The purpose of this research, however, is not to come up with a definition for the term extremism or other related terms. It is merely to explore how the global press is defining the term and what meanings are being associated to this concept. Although it may appear that this research is focusing only on the definitions of extremism, fundamentalism and radicalism in the context of Muslims, the research was not designed only with this aspect in mind. The plan was to examine how extremism and other related terms are being defined by the global media in the context of all religions and nationalities. However, a point worth noting—and one having other implications as well—is that most articles found discussing extremism focused on Muslims and most research literature found on the subject was also in the context of Islam and Muslims.


[1] Maddrassa, literally meaning place of study, refers to a traditional Islamic school of higher study  where the Quran and other related sciences are taught.

[2] Abaya refers to a cloak covering the body and clothes worn by Muslim women in public

[3] Burqa refers to a cloak and head-covering worn by Muslim women which often covers the face too

[4] Hijab, literally meaning veil, refers to the adherence of certain standards of modest dress by Muslim women, often referring to the head-covering

[5] Jihadi, literally meaning struggle, in popular discourse has come to refer to those who take up war for Islamic causes

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