Modern history


Islam, like Judaism and unlike Christianity, bans the use of images and makes only limited use of symbols. Because of this tradition, the Middle East has been much less responsive than the countries of Christendom to visual imagery and evocation. Nevertheless, visual propaganda, usually relying on living beings rather than on images and symbols, has often been used to arouse sympathy, to gain support or to project power.

The use of display, of pageantry, of processions, of ceremony, to convey religious and political messages has been familiar in the region since antiquity. It was widely used in the 'Abbasid period and still more in the time of the Fāṭimids. Some emblems and symbols are primarily religious; others are more specifically related to power, and their use, display and flourishing is intended to strike fear, to overawe or, at the very least, to impress. The spear—the short spear or sword—is used in a variety of contexts, for example by theKhaṭīb when he goes up to read the Khuṭba. Pictures of birds and beasts of prey, a panther or tiger seizing a deer, a hawk pouncing on some bird such as we can see in the mosaics and frescoes of the Umayyad Palace in Jericho obviously project an image of power, authority and ferocity. The subliminal message is very clear: this is what will happen to you if you do not behave yourself, if you are disloyal to the ruler.

An interesting case of visual propaganda occurred after the battle of Varna in 1444, when a Crusader army sent to fight the Ottomans was defeated and the Ottoman sultan Murad II captured a whole group of Frankish knights, gorgeously attired and caparisoned. He sent them all the way across the Middle East, to Afghanistan and back. The propaganda purpose is obvious: there was the Ottoman sultan, still in an early stage of Ottoman greatness, saying to all his neighbors, colleagues and, of course, rivals "Look at what I did! Look at what I got!" These Frankish knights in full war-kit must have been quite impressive, though they were probably a bit tattered by the time they got to Afghanistan.

The prisoners from Varna were of necessity silent—or at least could not speak in any language which their captors and spectators would understand. Modern technology has added new possibilities, and visual propaganda has become audiovisual. In the twentieth century a victorious ruler does not need to parade his trophies and his captives in person to persuade others of his glory and his greatness. It is sufficient to film them and display the films—in the early twentieth century in cinemas, in the late twentieth century also on television.

Even in the nineteenth century, the invention of photography placed a new and powerful weapon in the hands of the propagandist. Scientists in Britain, France and Germany had been experimenting for some time to find ways of projecting images onto paper by the use of light and chemicals without recourse to drawing or painting. In 1839 they finally succeeded, and thereafter the science and art of photography spread very rapidly all over the world. As with other European innovations, photography in the Middle East was at first in the hands of foreigners, then of members of religious minorities, finally of the majority cultures and their rulers. Armenian photographers in particular played a major role in the development of photography, both as an art and as a business, in the Ottoman lands.

At first it was these two aspects—art and business—that were the main concerns of the producers and consumers of photographic pictures. But other aspects soon developed. The introduction of a postal system toward the midcentury made possible the picture-postcard, bringing images of places and people, and the messages that these could convey, to recipients all over the world.

An even more powerful factor was the newly created newspaper press. Editors soon learnt the value of pictures, with their immediate appeal and direct impact. Pictures, it is said, speak louder than words, and their persuasive power was soon understood and exploited. Such pictures were not limited to photographs in the traditional sense—photographic images of places and of people, from life. Middle Eastern editors soon learnt to adopt another European innovation—the newspaper cartoon, that is, a photographic reproduction of a line drawing. Probably the first cartoon in the region was published in the Turkish newspaper Istanbul in 1867; the first cartoon in the Arabic press is probably one published in 1887 in the Egyptian humorous and satirical newspaper Al-Tankīt wa'l tabkīt (Joking and Blaming). Thereafter, the political cartoon, quickly and cheaply reproduced by photography, became a major instrument of propaganda all over the Middle East.

Meanwhile, interest in the more conventional photograph grew and expanded. Sultan 'Abd al-Hamīd II was an avid collector of photographs and built up an enormous collection which was preserved in the Yıldız palace and may now be consulted in the library of the University of Istanbul. Many of these photographs were made to order and were used by the Sultan to demonstrate to the world the progress and modernization of the empire. In 1893 he had them assembled in a set of 58 albums, morocco bound and gold-tooled. Copies of these were sent, with the Sultan's compliments, to the Queen of England, the Emperor of Germany, and the presidents of France and the United States. Their purpose was unashamedly propagandist. Including photographs of industrial developments and military installations, roads and bridges, schools and hospitals, they were intended to show a different face of the Middle East from the familiar portrayals of veiled women, exotically clad men, and strange and picturesque places that had predominated in Western prints and photographs of the Middle East.

Photographs are still extensively used for propaganda purposes, to convey a message, to persuade or to impress. The most convenient and extensive use is in print, in newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, leaflets and handouts of various kinds. Another use is in special exhibitions, arranged for a particular purpose or occasion. Such, for example, are the showcases that some countries display outside their embassies, showing pictures, variously, of their leaders, their peaceful intentions, and their warlike capabilities. Sometimes, after a war, governments arrange an exhibition of photographs of captured weaponry and other trophies, elated soldiers in their own uniform, and downcast prisoners in that of the enemy. Some go further and add stills from enemy newsreels showing burials and funerals of dead soldiers on the other side, with mourners weeping and tearing their hair.

The other great medium of live communication and direct influence through the movement of living persons is of course the theater. In its earliest and most primitive form, the theatrical performance, with costumed performers surrounded by spectators, had a magical purpose: to influence the forces of nature so as to achieve the desired result—usually good weather and good hunting. In classical antiquity, the theater, in a more refined and complex form, had a civic and public role; the message to the audience was often religious and sometimes political.

The three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, initially had little use for the theater, with its pagan connotations, and for centuries it disappeared from the Middle East. Some time passed before it reappeared in Europe and achieved new heights in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Shakespeare was certainly no mere propagandist, but his plays, particularly the historical dramas, surely conveyed a message to their contemporary English audiences. The religious dramas staged under church auspices had a more explicitly propagandist purpose, in the original Christian sense of that term.

Theater was reintroduced to the Middle East from Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by Jewish and Christian immigrants but had very little impact until the nineteenth century, when it was taken up by modern-minded dramatists who used it as a vehicle to bring their ideas directly to the public. An example was the performance in Istanbul in 1873 of a play called Vatan yahut Silistre (Fatherland or Silistria) by the Ottoman liberal patriot Namik Kemal. Dealing with a new and explosive subject—patriotism—it was performed before an enthusiastic audience and touched off a crisis which led to the arrest and deportation of the author and several of his associates, under close arrest, to Cyprus. One does not know what the audience made of the play, but its potentially disruptive message was well understood by the authorities. A similar fate overtook the Egyptian playwright and journalist Ya'qūb Sanū'a (pen name Abū Naddāra), whose dramatic and literary satires against the Khedive and his advisors forced him to leave Egypt in 1878. A famous example from Iran was the one-act comedy Ja'far Khan Returns from the West by Ali Nōrūz. First performed in Tehran in 1922, it dealt satirically and effectively with the reciprocal ignorance and prejudice with which Iranians and Westerners regarded each other.

A well established form of theater with a serious religious message and apparently indigenous inspiration is of course the Shiite passion play, commemorating the martyrdom of the Prophet's kin at Karbalā in the year 680. The impact of this play on Shiite audiences everywhere is immense. But though it has become traditional in modern times, this passion play is not attested before the eighteenth century and may itself be due to foreign influence or example.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!