“I would like to begin by thanking the Organization of the Islamic Conference
for the invitation to participate in this forum and share some ideas with such
qualified speakers and delegates.
“Of course there is little that a non-Muslim journalist can add in relation
to the Muslim faith at a meeting of Islamic thinkers, intellectuals and religious
persons. So that is not my intention, but rather to share with you some aspects
of the stereotypes that have been formed and are still being formed about Islam,
as well as the active involvement of western journalism in perpetuating such
“Never has the religious factor been as present in the discussion of ideas
and policies as it is now. And never have the relationships with the so-called
Islamic world been the subject of so many analyses as they have been since September,
2001. We are facing a period of global violence which combines fanaticism, geopolitical
conflicts and interests, and in which stereotyped and Manichaean views of the
models that differ from one’s own culture prevail. The political agenda,
basically monopolized by the United States, not only uses economic pressure
or military strength, but also has an extraordinary propaganda system that is
gradually demonizing (until now, with a certain level of success) the image
of Islam in general, and of Muslims and the Arab world in particular.
“Of course, the press plays a key role in the formation of this stereotype.
I am a journalist, so I can allow myself to have a critical view of the manner
in which large media organizations treat the subject of Islam.
“I would first like to say that when people talk about freedom of the
press or of journalism in an abstract or theoretical sense, they usually omit
(most of the times deliberately) that behind the information, the defence of
values, and the supposed or actual callings and devotions, there is an extraordinary
business that, of course, is much less romantic than the immaculate image that
journalism has long had.
“This is obvious, but as the press, for basic reasons, has good press,
many times the people who are not involved in this activity do not take this
point into consideration.
“The press is the only commercial product that is sold at half its production
cost, and this is possible because the real business is not selling information
to the public, but selling the public to advertisers. As a consequence, from
a strictly commercial point of view, the reader or TV viewer is the product that
the media offer their advertisers.
“On the other hand, ever since the mid-nineties, journalism has been affected
by the phenomenon of great power concentration that is characteristic of globalization.
Some analysts maintain that journalism is the sector that has experienced the
greatest concentration, together with the oil sector, weapons trade and the
air travel industry.
“In order to understand this situation, it is essential to discuss some
information regarding the control of the media.
“In the United States, in 1945, eight out of ten newspapers belonged to
independent owners, whereas nowadays 85% of the newspapers are owned by large
groups that tend to absorb each other. This causes an increasingly lower number
of groups with more power. In Europe, the concentration is even greater and
only a small number of media empires are surviving it: Berlusconi, Bertelsmann,
Murdoch, Hachette, Hersant…
“This phenomenon is simultaneous with another equally important event:
the increase in the capital necessary to create new media. Thus, when we talk
about the free press in the Western world, we should say that it is free as
long as it has enough resources to exist. Consequently, the North informs the
South, which remains silent. The visibility or invisibility of the South is
hence subject to the will of the North. In this way, a modern system of colonization
of ideas is reproduced. Perhaps the future battle to be wagged for a fairer
world will be the “decolonization of information”.
“I will cite some information to show where we are standing when we talk
about the media:
- The US, Japan and the European Union control 90% of the world’s information
- Only five news agencies distribute 96% of the world news.
- For the last 25 years, four out of every five messages sent in the world
came from the United States or from US-owned companies. Investment in new technologies
and in the image sector is a relatively new phenomenon: currently, 80% of the
world’s audiovisual programmes (whether TV programmes, videos, or films…)
are made in the United States.
- The US controls 71.5% of all TV programmes broadcasted in Europe and 80%
of all movie theaters.
- 90 out of every 100 words of international information spread in Latin America
come from 5 international news agencies – Associated Press (American),
Reuters (British), France Press (French), EFE (Spanish), and
ANSA (Italian). 70% of that 90% comes from only two agencies: AP and Reuters.
- 144 of the main 300 international information and communication companies
are American, 80 come from the European Union, and 49 are Japanese. That is
to say that out of the main 300 information companies, 293 come from the United
States, Europe or Japan and only 7 from other countries.
- As regards audiovisual media, TV tycoon Rudolph Murdoch controls, either
directly or indirectly, the visual information and entertainment consumed by
3 billion people, that is, almost one half of the world’s population.
“Who decides what the media should say? Who gives the journalist his raw
materials? As a matter of fact, almost always the same sources: government,
administration and companies. As feeding from institutional sources is cheaper,
every day there are several pieces of information prepared beforehand, taken
from the public information services offered by every government, company or
organization, including the army. The influence of the press on the decision-making
process is so obvious that in recent years institutional or company journalism
has acquired great importance. When we talk about “giving good press”
to a product, a politician or a book, we mean giving the media a previously
processed piece of news that may help impose our product on public consideration,
whether it is an object, a policy or an idea.
“In this context, independent journalism must surmount many obstacles
to stay away from the needs and operations of the powers.
“Once the United States had decided to start its military offensive in Afghanistan, the US Secretary of Defence was clear enough when he announced that the journalists accredited by the Pentagon would not be allowed to join the troops, at which time he quoted one of Churchill’s phrases: “sometimes the truth is so precious it must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies”. This is an evident legitimation of lies for patriotic purposes. Churchill is also attributed with another deeply cynical phrase: “the responsibility for assuming that politicians’ promises are true lies with those who believe in them”.
“In conflict theaters, even if journalists make an effort to remain distant
and neutral, they cannot help facing real operational difficulties in the field,
especially the dilemma of exposing themselves to the manipulation of the individuals
involved, if they work in any of the ranks, or to great risk to their lives,
if they choose to act on their own.
“The media often act as true weapons of social control. Sometimes because
they want to and sometimes because of pressure or manipulation by the powers
“There is an actual persuasion engineering, so if we wish to overcome
this type of illiteracy that is many times imposed on us, we must learn how
to decode the language of the media and the selective hierarchy imprinted on
the news. A critical reading of the information from the powers that be is an
essential exercise, first for journalists themselves and then to recipients
“The manipulation of public opinion is certainly quite old, but I would like to refer briefly to the modern era and to where the media and disinformation are positioned in this context.
“As highlighted by American semiologist Noam Chomsky, the first modern
propaganda operation carried out by a government took place in the United States
while Woodrow Wilson was in office. Wilson was elected president in 1916 as
the leader of an electoral platform that could be described as pacifist, halfway
through the First World War. The American population was mostly opposed to the
idea of participating in the war, but the Wilson administration had decided
that the United States would take part in the conflict. As a consequence, the
idea that there was an obligation to engage in combat had to be induced, for
which purpose a governmental propaganda commission, known as the Creel Committee,
was formed. In only six months, the Committee managed to eliminate the population’s
pacifist tendency and turn the American people into a highly hysterical society,
willing to fight against the danger posed to the world not by wartime Germany,
but by Germans in general.
“The Creel Committee achieved extraordinary success, which would lead
to an even greater accomplishment: by using the same methodology, at the end
of the war, the Committee managed to intensify the fear of communism, which,
in turn, allowed the destruction of unions labelled as communist friendly and
the imposition of restrictions on the freedom of the press and of political
expression. The financial and business powers and certain government friendly
media organizations promoted and greatly supported this operation, from which
they received all manner of benefits in return.
“Various methods were used, but the most outrageous and most effective
one was the fabrication of stories of atrocities supposedly committed by the
Germans, including tales of Belgian children having their limbs torn off and
all sorts of perversions invented by the American propaganda ministry, whose
true purpose at that time – as evidenced by the declassification of its
secret deliberations – was to control the thoughts of most of the world.
“The moral principle behind these policies is the belief, never admitted
by the authorities, that public opinion in general is incapable of fully understanding
the national interests, as a result of which it would be improper and immoral
to allow them to do so. The puzzled herd must be driven by using the same logic
that tells us it would be wrong to allow a three-year-old child to cross the
street on his own. Just as we do not grant this type of freedom to a three-year-old
because we assume he does not know how to use it, we deny the members of the puzzled herd their right to actively
participate in the discussion of ideas.
“Reinold Niebuhr, one of Kennedy’s favourite thinkers, stated that rationality is a skill which can only be acquired by a few and that most people are driven by emotions and impulses. Those who have logical capacity must, as a consequence, create necessary illusions and emotionally marked simplifications in order to direct an ignorant, defenceless mass. This principle has become a key element of contemporary political science.
“During the 1920s, the United States laid the foundations for the public
relations industry. As its main creators used to say, its function was to control
public opinion. Based on the success of the Creel Committee and the fear of
communism, as well as their effects, public relations underwent a massive expansion
and great results were achieved in terms of completely subordinating of the
people to the directions of the business world.
“Public relations make up an industry which currently handles budgets
of approximately one trillion dollars a year and their purpose has always been
to control public opinion, the greatest danger faced by corporations.
“In contrast to the significant concentration of large media to which
I previously referred, the growing irruption of new technologies (especially,
the Internet) has opened a crack in that big informative dike, with voices truly
independent from the great powers. The problem we must now face as recipients
is not the lack of information, but the excess of it and the way in which it
“The appearance of the Internet certainly facilitated the introduction
into the world of information from individuals that would have otherwise been
silenced. In this case, the problem does not lie in the possibility of adding
information, but in how to make it “visible”. Even though there is
a large number of search engines, in practice, the way in which they are used
evidences a worldwide oligopoly, since just a few of them – Google, Yahoo,
Lycos, Altavista – monopolize most searches. When we carry out any given
search, we get a list of Web pages in an order based on the search engine’s
own criteria, which results in a ranking of information that is not controlled
by the recipient. Furthermore, search engines do not allow us to access all
the information they say they have found. For example; if we ask Google to search
for pages referring to the “information society” in Spanish, it will
say that it has found over a million and a half hits, but will only give us
access to some 800, that is, only 0.05% of the actual number.
“I thought it necessary first to address the main instrument used in the
process of demonization of the Islamic world in order to talk about a number
of fabrications and stereotypes that are commonly used to put anything resembling
Islam on the enemy side.
“In the first place – and this comment may be unnecessary here –,
talking about the Islamic world is as broad a generalization as talking about
the Catholic world, which includes, for example, Italy and Bolivia. An approach
based on totals obviously responds to totalitarian views. If we consider that
approximately 1.2 billion people (20% of the world’s population) currently
practice Islam, the attempt to gather that large group under a single classification
is, at best, a display of ignorance and, at worst, a strategic axis fostered
by conservative fundamentalism which has found in Islamophobia the necessary
ally to support its social exclusion and economic domination policies.
“Another ridiculous association commonly used in the Western countries
likens Muslims to Arabs. Such association is incorrect because even though Arabs
are mostly Muslims, they only make up 20 per cent of the world’s Muslims.
“If we go back 50 years in the Western countries, the words “Muslim”
and “Arab” had absolutely different connotations than today. For our
parents and grandparents, women, for example, were associated with the idea
of refinement, sensuality, the climate of the book of one thousand and one nights,
harems, and the belly dance. Curiously enough, nowadays the image of Muslim
women is associated with submissiveness, darkness, and repression. Between those
two images there is only a great amount of prejudice and a stereotyped and ethnocentric
view. Probably both images are equally far from the truth. The main issue is
that the image in those days was harmless and the current image is clearly offensive
“The subject of the weapons of mass destruction falsely attributed to
Saddam Hussein is so widely known that I do not need to go into details. Furthermore,
those accusations were so preposterous that they were bound to collapse under
their own weight.
“Nevertheless, there are more subtle aspects. For example, most of the times the press refers to a Shiite clergyman it adds the adjective “radical”, as if there were no Shiite clergymen to whom that adjective does not apply. As is obvious, most journalists who repeat the alleged harangues of those clergymen do not speak Arabic or Farsi, so the interpretation of their sermons always comes from the same translator: the military press or the large news agencies which, as mentioned before, monopolize the international information market in the Western world.
“Throughout the 20 years of Israel’s military occupation of the Lebanon,
the main contenders were Hezbollah, almost always referred to as a “terrorist
group”, and the Southern Lebanon Army, which was an irregular militia financed,
trained and equipped by Israel, that is, a mercenary militia. The press reports
of this confrontation represented combats as if they had been engaged by terrorists
on one side and an army, that is, regular troops, on the other. Obviously, this
comment does not imply any value judgment with regard to the nature of the contenders
or their combat strategies, nor does it imply adhesion to their objectives or
view of the world.
“Yet another phenomenon that got a lot of press was the acts of suicidal
terrorists. The press systematically tried to associate them with the nature
of Islam, according to which fanatics who sacrificed themselves were promised
by their religion that they would find virgins in Heaven. This argument started
to crumble when there appeared non-religious voluntary suicidal terrorists.
Besides, nobody could explain why other devout Muslims were not committing suicide
in other parts of the world where there were no armed conflicts.
“If we break down the language used by the media when referring to the
Iraq war, we will find that most confrontations take place between “terrorists”
and “military men”. When the conflict is referred to in those terms,
such language involves an underlying value judgment that clearly favours the
interests of the North. If the parties involved were described as “invading
troops” and “resistance militias” the impression on public opinion
would be completely different.
“Everybody seems to know precisely what we are talking about when we use
the term “terrorism”. However, the United Nations has not yet been
able to establish a definition that is universally accepted by its Member States.
As a consequence, such lack of an established definition allows the term “terrorism”
to be a political definition, rather than a legal classification, which will
always depend on the people in power or the people who determine the international
political agenda. Therefore, it will be political interests, and not actual
facts, that will tell us what terrorism is.
“In the case of Iraq, another class of soldiers appeared that was not
known until then: “contractors”. Contractors are private soldiers
who are not subject to the rules that govern military actions but who are subordinated
to regular commands. These contractors (or mercenaries, to be more accurate)
are generally military men or former military men recruited in third world countries.
“In wars, words are a substantial part of the booty the parties intend
to take over. Controlling words allows for the imposition of euphemisms such
as “preventive war”, which could be translated as “war, just
in case”; “sleeping cells”, which has no formal meaning, since
a cell is only a cell if it is active, otherwise it is nothing; “selective
killing”, which is a way of toning down the plain concept of killing; “collateral
damage” which is a way of justifying the killing of civilians.
“Recently, the Spanish press made it known that Moroccan authorities had
detained “illegal immigrants”, but omitted the detail that they were
not immigrants, since they had not left their country, and they were not illegal.
In this case, the word “illegal” was used as a synonym of “Moroccan”.
“In the United States, a recent survey by Gallup showed that 39% of the
American population admitted to holding prejudice against Muslims, a third admitted
to believing that Muslim-Americans sympathize with the Al Qaeda terrorist network,
and nearly a quarter admitted to not wanting a Muslim as a neighbour. Another
study, published in the Journal of Human Resources, shows that the wages for
persons of Arab or Muslim origin have dropped 10% in the years following the
September 11 attacks.
“Likewise, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia has
shown how veils, turbans, mosques and immigrants are reference points of Islamophobia,
of an extreme intolerance that combines religious rejection, xenophobia and
“Even though I do not have profound knowledge of the use of these persuasion
mechanisms in propaganda developed in Eastern countries, I could venture to
say that it does not work in a very dissimilar way.
“Apart from the use of discourse defined as “antiterrorist”
by those who promote Islamophobia, there is another discourse that criminalize
Muslim immigrants, who are associated with offences, drug trafficking, and the
loss of jobs for the local workforce. Of course, it is not revealed that for
each Euro that Europe uses in aiding those immigrants, it receives three Euros
as a result of their work. It is not Europe that helps these “illegal immigrants”,
but the “illegal immigrants” who contribute to European prosperity.
Governments omit, and the press has failed to properly communicate, the fact
that illegal immigration is necessary for the economy of the developed world,
which gets cheap workforce for tasks that local workers do not want to perform.
Illegal immigration makes it possible to bend, and even ignore, the laws that
govern work conditions. The developed world is home to millions of undocumented
workers who are driven out of their countries by poverty. Every now and then,
hundreds of them are returned to their countries of origin so as to keep the
illusion that illegal immigration is not approved of by first-world governments
alive in the eyes of the public. It would be absolutely impossible for those
large numbers of immigrants to stay in such countries without the decision of
the governments, the business sector’s thirst for cheap workforce, and
the complicity of large media organizations.
“What is really striking about to these phenomena is how easily they can
be established and how illusion resembles reality. Those who work with these
perceptions usually think of what happens when someone drives a car on a deserted
road. That person is bound to see water on the road, in the horizon. We all
know this is an optical illusion. What is really remarkable is that we al “see”
the same thing, regardless of our system of beliefs, our culture or our education.
“Knowing that these optical illusions exist must help us to avoid introducing
“thought illusions” into our system of ideas.
“Thus, the association of Islam with fundamentalism as a general rule
is an illusion of the realm of ideas applicable to both the discourse that prevails
in the Western countries and to radical Islamists, who consider themselves to
be the sole repositories of the revealed truth and who intend to represent Islam
as a whole.
“The Western press, except for honourable cases in the printed press,
has not been sufficiently inclined to reflect the range of different analyses
that represents today’s Islamic thinking. Furthermore, it usually fails
to take into account that Islamic countries themselves are the first to be affected
by terrorism and, most of the times, by the reprisals taken to fight it.
“Nowadays, journalists are faced with increasingly complex challenges. The communications revolution has shortened the distance between different worlds, which has made differences more evident. But although such differences appear as something that cannot be likened to one’s own identity, they should not be seen as something hostile. According to Javier Melloni, a theologian, the different bears the signs of the alien, and the sense of its irruption is that of an alterity which appeals to one’s own identity. Is it possible to respect the different? Is it possible to appreciate the different and its value as something different? It certainly is possible and it is also the only way to understand human relationships. Thank you very much.”