Modern history

THE SPOKEN WORD

According to ancient traditions, the two arts which the Arabs most admired and in which they most excelled were poetry and eloquence—the first partly, the second wholly, concerned with persuasion. Classical Arabic literature in general and historiography in particular quote many examples of contests and of victories in which poets and orators exercised their skills in what a modern observer can readily recognize as propaganda.

The advent of Islam introduced a new and immensely important instrument of communication and persuasion—the bidding prayer or, to use its Arabic term, the Khuṭba: the Friday sermon in the Mosque in which the ruler is named. Being named in the Khuṭba is obviously one of the major symbols of authority, going back to very early Islamic times; it is one of the two standard, most widely and generally accepted tokens of sovereignty. Mention in the Khuṭba is the recognized way of accepting and submitting to the sovereignty of a ruler. Omitting the name from the Khuṭba is the recognized way of declaring one's independence of a suzerain in some faraway place.

Already in medieval times the Khuṭba was a major vehicle of communication from the rulers to the ruled. It was an accepted method of proclaiming the deposition or accession of a ruler, the nomination of an heir, and, more generally, the presentation of both the achievements and the intentions of rulers. It was also a way of making known, in suitable terms, such major events as the beginning or the end of a war and, more particularly, the winning of a victory.

In modern times, technology, starting with the loudspeaker and culminating in television and the Internet, has vastly increased the impact of the Khuṭba, while at the same time other technical advances, through increased centralization, have correspondingly increased the ability of the state to control it. In some countries the Khuṭba is centrally prepared and distributed, and the personnel of the mosques are required only to read it aloud.

But some freedom remains. Even in the most autocratic of regimes, there is one place where meeting and communication cannot be fully controlled, and that is the mosque. That is why the most powerful opposition movements in the region, since the ending of foreign domination, have been religious. The European-style dictatorships and traditional-style autocracies that rule in many countries of the region seek to maintain their power by the strict supervision and regulation of assembly and communication, thus ensuring a monopoly of propaganda. But even the most ruthless and efficient of dictatorships cannot fully control assembly, communication, and therefore propaganda in places of worship. Indeed, by eliminating competing oppositions, regimes have even facilitated the task of their religious opponents.

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