Modern history

SOME THEMES OF PROPAGANDA

The most usual form of propaganda in the past, as one would expect in a region inhabited by Muslims, Christians and Jews, having obvious divergences between and also within these faiths, is religious. The ostensible purpose of the propagandist is to promote the religious beliefs of the side that he represents, to discredit differing, still more opposing, religious sects, beliefs and causes, and to win over their adherents. Very often, this simply means using religious arguments to promote—or oppose—a holder or seeker of power. In the past, Islam, unlike Christendom, had no organized churches or ecclesiastical institutions, and religiously formulated propagandist activities among Muslims tended on the whole to be sporadic and due to personal or sectarian initiatives. This is no longer true. In several Muslim countries, religious hierarchies have emerged, with the functional, though not the doctrinal, equivalents of a church and an episcopate. The most notable example in our own day is the self-styled "Islamic Republic of Iran," headed by a "Supreme Guide."

Another type of propaganda occasionally encountered is that directed against specific tribal, ethnic or other groups, to which the propagandist and his employers are opposed. Already in pre-Islamic Arabia, intertribal feuding found expression in intertribal propaganda contests in which the contenders were the tribal poets, who in a premodern society combined the professions of propagandist, promoter, and public relations expert.

In the first century of the Muslim era, we find a lot of literature reflecting a propaganda conflict between Arabs and non-Arabs, that is to say, between the conquerors and the conquered. At a later date similar propaganda wars arose between other ethnic and racial groups. Religious propaganda similarly could take the form of polemics against the followers of other religions, or, more commonly, against the followers of minority or deviant groups within Islam. At the present time, religious polemics are rare, and where they occur—as, for example, in the attacks on Judaism—they are political rather than religious in origin and purpose.

Unlike many other parts of the world, the central lands of the Middle East exhibit no significant racial conflicts, and through centuries of intermarriage the population has become thoroughly mixed. It is only at the edges—in Sudan and Mauritania, for example—that visible racial differences persist. But these have no relevance to the heartlands, where such differences have virtually disappeared and where the word racist has now become a generalized, meaningless term, part of a standardized, mostly Westernized vocabulary of abuse. It may be used to discredit political opponents in the same way that such other imported terms as bolshevik and Nazi have been used in the region to discredit political opponents. All these terms are equally remote from Middle Eastern realities, but nonetheless useful for propaganda purposes.

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