Modern history


A common form of propaganda in antiquity was through titulature. In earlier times, a ruler's titles were predominantly religious, often embodying a claim to a messianic role. Such for example were titles like al-Hādī and al-Mahdī, the messianic implications of which will be self-evident to anyone with a knowledge of Arabic. Less obvious is al-Manṣūr, literally one given victory by God, with an at least subliminal appeal to the old South Arabian tradition of a Yemenite savior. In the earlier days of the 'Abbasid and later of the Fāṭimid caliphate, the use of these titles was intended to persuade the subjects that the rulers had come with a messianic duty of establishing the kingdom of heaven on earth. After the first few caliphs of both dynasties, the claim began to wear rather thin, and the later titles adopted by both 'Abbasid and Fāṭimid caliphs have somewhat less ambitious formulations.

The reference however to prophecies, more specifically messianic prophecies of the kind that were in common circulation, continue to occur. They reappear for example with the Almohads in North Africa, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and some other dynasties that began as revolutionary religious movements whose immediate purpose was to overthrow the existing order and whose follow-up purpose was to establish another order in its place.

The titles traditionally used by Muslim rulers, in contrast to those of the Christian world, very rarely said anything about the entities over which sovereignty was claimed. In the traditional titulature of virtually all the monarchs of Christendom, they claim to be sovereign of somewhere and somebody: king of England, emperor of the French and the like. The same is true of the presidents who replaced the kings in all but a few Western countries. Such territorial and national titles were extremely rare in the Muslim world, where rulers used titles that were usually rather vague about whom, what and where the ruler claimed to rule. The primary Islamic title was caliph, khalīfa, an Arabic word that combines the meanings of deputy and successor. The office was commonly defined as successor of the Prophet of God, sometimes, more ambitiously, as the Deputy of God, Khalīfat Allāh. The latter title was rarely used by rulers and never approved by the religious authorities. The more common title was "Commander of the Faithful," implying authority over all Muslims, whoever and wherever they may be.

In later times, some rulers included ethnic and territorial names in a long string of titles, as for example those of the Mamluk and Ottoman sultans, claiming authority over "the Arabs, the 'Ajam, and the Rum" or over "the two lands and the two seas." They did not, however, in sharp contrast with common European practice now followed by most Middle Eastern rulers, define and delimit their authority in terms of nation or country. Territorial and ethnic titles were regarded as demeaning; they were therefore used by rulers not of themselves but of opponents or rivals whom they wished to belittle. So, for example, we find a great deal of interesting propaganda material in the great struggles between the Ottoman sultans and the Safavid shahs of Persia from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. Western historians writing of these events spoke of these rulers as the sultan of Turkey and the shah of Iran. They never spoke of themselves in these terms; they frequently spoke of each other in these terms. Each for himself and his subjects was the one universal monarch of Islam; his rival was a petty local ruler, unjustly disputing his claim, who might be seen as a rebel or at best as a local subordinate.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Middle East came under first the influence then the domination and then again the influence of the Western world. It was in particular the target of competing propaganda first from rival European powers, then from the rival superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union. During this period of intensive European influence, Middle Easterners changed even their perception of themselves. The most dramatic example is perhaps the case of Turkey. This name was used by Europeans as far back as the twelfth century. It was not used by the Turks themselves until after the proclamation of the Republic in 1923. Similar changes in nomenclature, expressing corresponding changes in self-definition, may be seen in other parts of the region. Thenceforth, Middle Eastern governments, like European governments, claimed authority over countries and nations and demanded loyalty from countries and nations. These loyalties are known respectively as patriotism and nationalism, both new words in the Middle East; they provide the frame of reference, the language, and most of the themes of modern propaganda both to and in the region. They also define the very nature of identity as self-perceived, sovereignty as exercised or at least claimed, and most forms of propaganda. They normally determine the self-definition of a regime or a country, often laid down explicitly—following another Western practice—in a written constitution. Many of these constitutions, as written, are concerned with programs and principles rather than with rules and realities and therefore belong more to the realm of propaganda than of law.

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