Ethics and Civil Society

Violence, Spin, and “Otherness” in Arab Civil Society

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 10, Issue 2, April 2008

Ibrahim Saleh1


Civil society is supposed to be composed of self-organizing groups, movements, and individuals, relatively autonomous from the state, operating as an integral part of political liberalization. Such civil society is vibrant in articulating values and enhancing civic engagement. However, Arab governments control and manipulate these groups, by allowing them only marginal autonomy while retaining surveillance of their operations.

The attempts to stifle civil society can have unintended consequences. Many desperate people are ignorant, afraid, and vengeful. Sometimes they just want attention and will do anything to get it. Denied the opportunity to deliberate in the civic sphere, some actors resort to violence.

In addition, Middle Eastern governments have accused many independent organizations receiving foreign financial aid of espionage. This situation has deprived the players in civil society in most Arab states from contributing to political liberalization, which in turn has created a vacuum that has been filled by violence.

In that context, three events are closely linked: the cartoon controversy, the bombing of the United Nations building in Algeria, and the attacks during the Muslim Pilgrimage (Hajj).The first took place on February 5, 2006, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, which led to Muslim anger and protest, including the torching of Denmark’s embassies in Beirut and Damascus. The second event occurred on December 11, 2007, when car bombs in Algeria killed staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the UN Development Program, as well as university students in a passing bus. The third occurred on December 21, 2007. Saudi security forces arrested suspected Al-Qaeda militants planning attacks during the pilgrimage (Hajj), as Muslim pilgrims performed the last rituals in Mecca. The suspects purportedly aimed to cause “security confusion” during the annual pilgrimage in which more than two million Muslims were taking part.

Those who resort to violence may unwittingly serve the interests of their rulers. So-called spin doctors in the Arab world use the violent acts to perpetuate stereotypes and heighten polarization. Moreover, the Arab governments use the violent events as an excuse to further limit the public space by restricting freedom of expression and association. Suppression is justified on the ground of national security, which limits the role of peaceful Islamist activism even further. Western scholars, politicians, and journalists reinforce the process of stereotyping by characterizing the violence as religious in nature, when in truth it is political.

Political violence is a weapon of the weak. When they feel overwhelmed by hegemonic powers, they realize that there is no way to get their voices heard in politics except through violence. This makes violence a kind of struggle for meaning (Luow, 2001) to grab the attention and build up counter-hegemony.

Political violence is therefore a tool for communicating with governments and for triggering responses that attempt to mobilize constituencies. Such violence stems from competitions for “will,” “popularity,” and sometimes “authority.”

In this regard, Islamic terrorism against western targets makes sense to its perpetrators, and the violence in Iraq has its own grisly logic. Muslim clerics do not hesitate to supply the media with headline-making statements, while some western politicians and commentators embrace an extreme tone.

The real controversy here is the motivation behind the escalation of violence. It is not religious, as it may appear, but rather political, acts of manipulation designed to serve the causes of the radical imams for scope enlargement, validation, and mobilization. In an enigma of human agency, the imams have used political spin to leapfrog from being insignificant in importance and influence to being the de facto leaders of many Muslims, who advocate a strong stance of defending Islam.

The three events signify a tragic turning back to a time of “propaganda of the deed.” (Selnow, 1994, 178).

Spin Doctors

Global politics has become a media activity, with politicians increasingly transformed into media performers. This has given rise to a new industry of communication professionals known as spin doctors (Nicholas, 1998), who stage-manage events in media discourse to affect public opinion. Mass-mediated politics involves five sets of players: politicians as performers, the spin industry, media workers (journalists and researchers), media audiences, and policy makers.

The manipulation of media and public creates a conflict with basic notions of democracy. The “pernicious influence” reduces transparency and creates a distorted news frame. (Louw, 2005, 311).

One symptom is the new language that aims to obscure events in what is described as “terminological fog” (Taylor, 1992, 45). For example, civilian deaths become “collateral damage.” Acronyms as well as such euphemisms attempt to sterilize the horrors of war.

Political violence is the weapon of the weak. Dominated groups facing overwhelming hegemonic powers realize that the only way to get their voices heard in politics is violence. The oppressed groups take part in the struggle for meaning (Louw, 2001) to grab the attention and build up counter-hegemony. Political violence is therefore a communicative tool that attempts to mobilize a constituency.

The motivation behind these acts is not religion but politics. The acts are undertaken to serve the needs of radical imams for scope enlargement, validation, and mobilization. The imams thereby leap from insignificance to de facto leadership of stagnant civil society in the Muslim world. They represent a strong stance of defending Islam. This dramaturgy creates news frames that cater to Muslims who are already angry over the disdain that they subjectively experience from the West.

Importantly, this anger predates the Danish cartoons. It divides the societies inside and outside the Arab and Muslim worlds into good and bad. As William Green (1993) emphasizes, a society does not simply discover its others but fabricates them, by selecting, isolating, and emphasizing particular aspects and making them symbolize their difference. Green points out that “otherness” concentrates on the life of the collective and stigmatizes the group according to one major characteristic.

With the Danish cartoons, western media condemned the protests based on the notion of freedom of expression, whereas most Muslim and Arab media compared the fight to that of Prophet Mohammad in Medina, who, with limited power, formed alliances with tribes of polytheists and Jews for the greater good of Muslims. This troubled environment was described by Wallerstein (1999) as “utopistics,” which takes the terminal crisis of the current world system and extrapolates even more extensive, politically motivated religious wars and cultural violence over the next fifty years.

Media Coverage and Spin

In Pakistan, news coverage of the cartoon controversy focused on Muslim rage and “street power.” The overall news frame, by contrast to the western interpretation, referred to the cartoons as “blasphemous,” “provocative,” and “sacrilegious.” Though this struggle was orchestrated by relatively small elite, it consisted of intellectuals and people in powerful positions, which gave weight to the news coverage. (Eide, 2007, 142).

Egyptian news coverage relied more heavily on exaggeration and disproportion. Symbols, labels, and intentionally created images of “folk devils” were used to characterize the western role and heighten public anxiety. A dichotomy was further punctuated by the state’s insistence on the need for control and on the legitimacy of the actions taken. Such escalation reflected religious fundamentalism, a new twist in the intersection between politics and religion. (Saleh, 2007).

Here, political spin worked to alter the perceptions of Arabs/Muslim and westerners. All sought to impose their favored meanings on the events. The Arab governments used the controversy to fuel the campaign against the West, with theories about conspiracies to disintegrate society and marginalize religion. The governments’ main motive was to preserve the oppressive political status quo, though they claim to derive their legitimacy not from divine commands but from the will of the citizens whom they purportedly represent.

Westerners, meanwhile, construed the violence as an outgrowth of religion. The wrongheadedness of this position was underscored by a research project on which I collaborated. Between January and March 2007, 300 university students in Egypt, Dubai, and Kuwait were questioned. Asked about the factors underlying the Danish cartoon controversy, 44 percent cited a clash of civilization, 37 percent said politics, and 18 percent named religion.

The media disseminate stories serving the spin doctors, creating a relationship that is virtually cannibalistic. The journalistic coverage of the cartoon controversy exemplifies the superficiality of media stereotypes and conventions. (Snow & Alheide, 1991). The “hype-making” process divided the societies inside and outside the Arab and the Muslim world into good and bad. Western media condemned the protests against limiting the publishing of the cartoons based on the notion of freedom of expression, while most of the Muslim and Arab media compared the fight to that of Prophet Mohammad in Medina, when the Prophet, with limited power, formed alliances with tribes of polytheists and Jews for the greater good of Muslims.

Muslims/Arabs are torn. At home, they face subjugation by dictatorial governments. Elsewhere, they face stereotypes characterizing them as barbarous savages. This exemplifies what Wallerstein (1998) refers to as the “black period” of intense political and cultural struggle. The political contenders fight for supremacy, and the stronger players attempt to protect their interests through repression while the weaker ones resort to violence.


In conclusion, the surge in violence mirrors the hostile effects of the media, which continue to increase. While physical and information distances between cultures have been radically reduced through globalization, the global social distance remains a serious threat. Even as physical distances decline in importance, socio-cultural distances produce cultural misperceptions. Political conflict gets PR-ized through violence, as in the case of the cartoon controversy.

The Algerian bombings and the attacks on Muslim Hajj, like the Danish cartoon controversy, were geared toward radicalizing sections of Muslim public opinion, creating polarization, and thereby strengthening Muslim fundamentalism in its struggle against western hegemony and secularism. This process succeeds to a degree, because it makes the hegemonistic order more visibly militaristic and coercive.

In all three events, local circumstances are symptoms of a larger systemic conflict. The attacks, disinformation, dissembling, and “othering” reflect a fundamental insularity that precludes mutual understanding.

Local circumstances are symptoms of a larger systemic malaise. Admittedly, reactions of all parties involved to events surrounding the religious debate are rather extreme. The vehemence of the personal attacks, disinformation, and dissembling rhetoric used by “strangers”/”othering” seems an instance of a wider social phenomenon: a fundamental insularity that threatens the ability to make consensual decisions.

As extreme groups in civil society use “last resort” tactics as standard operating procedure, discourse gets strangled. Acting as spin doctors, these groups, in collaboration with government and media, bombard citizens with messages of bigotry and intolerance. Ideologues establish the frame through which events are interpreted. The public loses its capacity to act as an informed and critical citizenry.

The Arab world currently stands at a media crossroads. At stake is the type of communication and media environment we seek to have, from local to global levels, for ourselves and future generations. Today, spin doctors use religion to serve political causes. Religion is the means, contrary to many scholars, and not the end. The media equate religion in many cases with political institutions, and establish “otherness” through that template. Spin doctors use news frames to fight the struggle for meaning. The result is that media ignore or denounce the possibility of coexistence with the West, and accept unquestioningly their own coercive society.

The Danish cartoons represent a particular grievous blasphemy for the adherents of Islam. Nonetheless, one must emphasize that the Islamic demonstrations against the cartoons broke out some four months after their initial publication. When conservative and anti-immigrant papers elsewhere in Europe reprinted the images, mullahs inside and outside Europe decided to turn them into a cause celebre. Reactionaries and enemies of tolerance and respect on both sides use political spin. Each downplays ideological and political distinctions and fans the flames of a symbolic politics that permits no compromise.

Pointedly, the most important question revolves around how media in the Middle East legitimize self-defense vs. collective punishment to spin violence in the face of the “other.”

This researcher believes that only by breaking the stereotypes can we work through the deadlock. That is a stiff challenge. It is, however, one that each generation must face in order to foster the cause of freedom.


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Green, S. William (1983). Approaches to Ancient Judaism, Volume IV: Studies in Liturgy, Exegesis, and Talmudic Narrative. Brown Judaic Studies

Louw, Eric (2005). The Media and the Political Process. London: Sage.

Nicholas, Karolides (1998). Literature suppressed on political grounds. New York, NY: Facts on File Banned Books Series.

“Reading the Mohamed Cartoons Controversy: An International Analysis of Press Discourses on Free Speech and Political Spin” (2007). In Center for Advanced Study in International Journalism, European Network on Trans-Integration Research, Working Papers in International Journalism ( University of Dortmund)

Saleh, Ibrahim (2007). ‘A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Arab Civil Society.’ The International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law, Volume 9, Issue 3, June

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1 Dr. Ibrahim Saleh,, is Assistant Professor and Director of the Connect Project “Popular Diplomacy” in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, The American University in Cairo. Saleh is the elected chair of journalism education and research in the international association for media and communication research, and the representitive of the Academic Council on the United Nations System (ACUNS) in the Middle East and the Arab world. He is the author of Prior to the Eruption of the Grapes of Wrath in the Middle East: The Necessity of Communicating Instead of Clashing.