The word propaganda first appears as the name of the Roman Catholic congregation or College of Propaganda, founded in 1622 for the propagation of the Christian faith and the care and oversight of Christian missions abroad. This included contacts with Catholic and Uniate Christians in the Middle East. Christian missionary propaganda in the region has continued without interruption from then until the present day. It has been directed principally not toward Muslims but toward Christians and Jews—to convert Jews to Christianity and to convert Eastern Christians to a Western church. The great struggle between Protestants and Catholics in Europe aroused a new interest in the Eastern Christians who, since they belonged to neither of the warring Western camps, were seen by both as potential allies or even recruits. This new interest expressed itself in study, including the study of Arabic, the main language of the Eastern Christians, and also in propaganda campaigns to gain their support. Enticed by this propaganda, a number of Arab Christians traveled to Europe, where they played an important part in the development of Arabic studies in the universities and the creation of new links between the Western and Eastern churches.
In the meantime, the art of propaganda was itself undergoing major changes. The Thirty Years War (1618–1648) in Germany, between Protestant and Catholic Christians, gave rise to an extensive and increasingly complex political and ideological warfare, in which both sides made the fullest use of the printing press to produce and distribute propaganda material.
The French Revolution of 1789 and the wars that followed brought a new development in the scale and sophistication of propaganda, particularly propaganda for the purposes of war. Until then, war was waged, in the main, by soldiers who were involved by choice. Some were volunteers, responding to the call of kinship or faith; others were professional soldiers serving their government or even—as mercenaries—some foreign government or ruler. In the past, in the West as in the East, forced military service was rare and brief, limited to the time and place of a dire emergency. The Shari'a, for example, defining the military obligation of jihad, makes it a collective duty of the community as a whole, which can be discharged by professionals and volunteers; it becomes a personal duty of every Muslim only when the community is under attack. Universal compulsory military service, as introduced by the French Republic, was something new in military history.
Already in the eighteenth century, the industrial revolution and the resulting mechanization of warfare made the old volunteer and mercenary armies inadequate. The government of revolutionary France, standing alone against all the monarchies of Europe, introduced a new method of recruitment—conscription. A law of December 1793 laid down that "every citizen of France must be a soldier, and every soldier a citizen." A few years later this law was given practical effect when compulsory military service for all became part of the law of the state. Without conscription, Napoleon's wars would not have been possible. Under his rule, conscription was vastly extended, not only to many categories of Frenchmen but also to the men of the conquered and occupied countries.
Enforced enlistment brought, as its inevitable corollaries, obstruction and desertion. In a volunteer and professional army, morale only becomes a problem in exceptional circumstances. In an army consisting largely of conscripts, many of them forced unwillingly into service, morale can become a major problem, and intensive propaganda activity is needed to maintain loyalty. The French Republic and later Napoleon created propaganda of a new kind, designed to bring their message to their soldiers, both French and foreign, to their subjects, and to the peoples of the countries that they invaded and occupied. The combination of revolutionary zeal and compulsory enlistment created a new type of army, which in turn necessitated a new type of propaganda to build and maintain morale.
The French practice of conscription was adopted in a modified form, by Prussia, which imposed a short period of compulsory military training for young men. This practice was followed in time by most other European countries. The English-speaking countries alone remained resolutely opposed to compulsory military service in peacetime and only adopted it, under extreme pressure, during their wars.
In 1798 a French expedition to Egypt, commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte, then still a young general in the service of the French Republic, brought a modern conscript army to the Arab world and, with it, the new style of modern European political propaganda. The lesson of conscription was quickly learnt and applied by both the sultan in Istanbul and the pasha in Cairo. The lesson of propaganda took a little longer.
Revolutionary governments, for obvious reasons, have a particular need of propaganda to justify their activities and indeed their very existence. This point was well understood by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who made the Russian Revolution of 1917. Combining the functions of agitation and propaganda, they created, probably for the first time since the College of Propaganda, a structured institution officially and effectively dedicated to this purpose. Its function was defined as "Agitprop," and it was concerned not only with politics but also with the propagandist use of literature and the arts, notably the theatre. The Nazi regime in Germany established a whole ministry, officially designated the Reich Ministry of Propaganda, headed by the notorious Dr. Joseph Goebbels, to direct and conduct its vast and ramified propaganda activities.
In modern times, the word propaganda has changed its content and has, to a large extent, been discarded by the men of religion, who prefer to denote their activities by the word mission or its equivalents in other religions. The term propaganda has been virtually restricted to the dissemination of political ideas or the promotion of a political agenda—by the state, the party, the faction, or any other such group. Largely as a result of its use and misuse by authoritarian states with extremist doctrines, specifically by the Soviets and the Nazis, propaganda has fallen into disrepute and is now mostly used with a negative, even a dismissive, sense. In most countries and circles nowadays, propaganda is what our opponents put out; what we provide is "information," "guidance," and the like; a form of words sometimes used in modern Muslim states is "department for the guidance of public thoughts." A current American term is "spin"; its practitioner is called a "spin doctor." To describe a statement as propaganda is tantamount to condemning it as a falsehood.
A parallel development may be observed in Arabic. The modern Arabic term is di'āya, which has the same negative implications as propaganda. Like propaganda, it also has a religious origin and derives from the verb da'ā . This includes, among its meanings, to call, to summon, to invoke, to appeal, and, in a religious sense, to try and convert another to one's faith. Particularly, but not exclusively, in Shiite circles, the dā'ī was the equivalent of the missionary, the da'wa of the mission. All these terms have been and are still used with a positive connotation. There are however also negative terms derived from the same root, notably da'ī, a braggart or impostor, and the verb idda'a, to allege or arrogate or put forward a (normally false) claim. Di'āya is a modern neologism and is used only in a negative sense. It is thus the exact equivalent of the present-day use of the term propaganda. The positive terms for the same activity are the relatively neutral akhbār, information, and the more purposeful irshād, guidance.
Propaganda in its Christian religious sense also has an Islamic equivalent in Middle Eastern history. The Isma'ili Fāṭimid caliphs in Cairo attached great importance to the propagation of their doctrines. This task was entrusted to an organization known as theda'wa, which maintained a network of emissaries called dā'ī , both in the Fāṭimid dominions, to preach to their own subjects and also, beyond their frontiers, to win over the subjects of the Sunni 'Abbasid caliphate. The Cairo caliphs, it should be remembered, were not merely rebellious rulers achieving some kind of local autonomy or independence, as happened in many places during the decline of 'Abbasid power. They were challenging not just the suzerainty but the very legitimacy of the 'Abbasid caliphs. For them, the 'Abbasids were usurpers, and their Islam was corrupted. According to Isma'ili teaching, the Fāṭimid represented the authentic line of heirs of the Prophet, and their Isma'ili doctrine was the true Islam. The tenth and eleventh centuries thus saw a major struggle for the control of the Middle Eastern Islamic world between two competing caliphates, representing two rival versions of the Islamic religion. Occasionally this conflict took military form. More often, it was carried on by means of economic and more especially propaganda warfare.
The propaganda of the Fāṭimids was very elaborate and very well organized. It amounted to a third branch of government, alongside the military and the financial establishments which were customary in Middle Eastern states; a kind of ministry of propaganda and almost, one might say, a kind of church, in the institutional, not the architectural, sense of that term. Its head, the chief Dā'ī, was one of the highest and most influential officers of the Fāṭimid state. In Isma'ili documents, he is often given the title of Bāb, Gate, orBāb al-Abwāb, Gate of Gates. We have a very remarkable document—the autobiography of al-Mu'ayyid, one of the leaders of the Fāṭimid propaganda in Iran—which describes his adventures there, his journey to Cairo, and his subsequent activities as leader of the Da'wa. When he arrived in Cairo, in about 1045, he found that the mission which he had served, and in which he had placed such high hopes, was in a bad way, and "the product was unsaleable," a remarkable use of modern public relations terminology. The Arabic phrase he uses is "Al-biḍā 'a bā'ira kāsida." "The product is unsaleable" is a fair, if approximate, translation. The Fāṭimid da'wa also had an elaborate system of training, hierarchy and financing.
The 'Abbasid caliph and the Sunni ulema, confronted with this double challenge, both political and doctrinal, had no choice but to respond. It is in this period that the Islamic institution of higher education, the madrasa, was rapidly developed and expanded and assumed the central position that it has retained ever since. In its origin, its immediate task was counter-propaganda—to devise and disseminate an answer to the challenge of Isma'ili doctrines and of Fāṭimid power. As the historical record shows, it was completely successful in both.