By Karen Jayes
A subtle but powerful hand ensuring that the stories told by Muslims about Muslims in the media fulfill a narrow political spectrum friendly to the government’s aims, is an old tactic, employed also by Apartheid South Africa to ensure black people remained segmented and politically weak.
The end aim of the British government’s War on Terror propaganda campaign is to use Muslims voices for the purpose of reinforcing the authority of the government and its Counter Terrorism laws. The South African Apartheid regime followed the same modus operandi globally and locally as the British government is today, using the media and its influence to turn black people against one another in order to sustain a system that violated the rule of law.
A global campaign that influenced David Cameron
To address global opinion, and after gauging the unpopularity of the Apartheid system, the South African government of the 1970s hired an expensive New York based PR firm called the Hamilton Wright Organisation to perpetuate the idea that the government was really caring for black people and looking after their interests. At the same time, it was portrayed as forming a bulwark against communism – the overwhelming message that the Organisation was tasked with was that Apartheid was preferable to communism, and its target was African Americans.
A recent book entitled Selling Apartheid by Ron Nixon details how this PR firm targeted black Americans specifically, pumping out “articles and films featuring beaming black South Africans and scenic wildlife, and distribut[ing] them worldwide.” The aim was to get black Americans talking in support of Apartheid, to counter growing opposition worldwide.
In the same way that the British government wants Muslims to repeat its baseless assertions that there is a ‘poisonous ideology’ that is ‘the root of terrorism’ – an inference to Islam – while ignoring the very real role that its domestic and foreign policies play in driving people to political violence, the goal of the Apartheid propaganda campaign was to get prominent black Americans to gloss over human rights violations and repeat their language word for word: Apartheid was good because it was countering communism.
And speak they did. According to Nixon, prominent black Americans gave interviews, wrote columns and used key government posts in the US from which they perpetuated anti-struggle propaganda, urging the public to “go easy” on Apartheid South Africa – while Black South Africans were being imprisoned and tortured under the regime. The initiative also included televangelists. This was complimented by a slick and far-reaching campaign to pay journalists around the world to write positive stories about South Africa, feeding them information straight from the highest echelons.
Like the British government’s links to right-wing think tanks and lobby groups, Nixon mentions how the Apartheid government used Strategy Network International (SNI), to lobby British MPs to dissuade parliament from sanctions against South Africa. SNI also invited them on expensive sorties, trips to South Africa to show MPs that things weren’t as bad as they seemed. But the links of SNI go deeper and are even more relevant to the British government of the day and its modus operandi; David Cameron, in his early twenties, spent eight days as a guest of Derek Laud of SNI, “visiting mines and factories in Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town” and forging ties with the organisation. Several other British MPs enjoyed such trips from SNI, which in turn was paid handsomely by the Apartheid government.
Local opinion was managed by a media that cultivated fear and division
According to a study for the Media Monitoring Project by Edward Bird and Zureida Garda, the system of Apartheid was reinforced through a complex interaction between authorities, society and the media which worked to perpetuate fear of blacks, while also subtly and not-so-subtly reinforcing their inferiority.
Racism was perpetuated by the lens through which media reported on violence, in the same way that the global mainstream media reports on the War on Terror. Whites were treated as victims with lives and loved ones, while black deaths were statistics, “reducing them to an unidentifiable mass” in the same way that Muslim victims of drone strikes and counter-terrorism legislation are treated. When it came to political activism, blacks were cast as “mobs”, inherently violent – while whites were its hapless victims, and little political context was given to uprisings and discontentment.
Political activism was criminalised in the same way that Muslim political activism on issues such as Palestine is being criminalised, in a clear effort to “delegitimize political activity”. This shallow, dehumanising lens has many echoes in current War on Terror media coverage and is underlined by the PREVENT agenda. Such a media landscape does no justice to parties and blocks the way to mutual understanding, respect for differences and peace.
The importance of the media in its portrayal of Muslims should not be underestimated. In the same way that South African media worked hard to divide society and subtly maintain the status quo in order to uphold unjust legislation, so the British media landscape casts the stage for the government’s fear-based and unjust counter-terrorism legislation.
The entrance into this landscape of often quoted right-wing think tanks that uphold War on Terror language and policy – as well as the media campaigns of so called “independent” grassroots organisations in the pay of the government show that the state’s hand is not only overt in terms of its legislation, but devious and powerful, serving to both influence media, dilute the power of civil society, and turn Muslims against their own.
Relelated: CAGE report: We are Completely Independent: The Home Office, Breakthrough Media and the PREVENT Counter Narrative Industry
All of this has its end aim in maintaining the overarching War on Terror hierarchy. Little credence is given to conversations around the political and psychological terror meted out at Guantanamo Bay and other black sites around the world, or the ongoing terror of drone attacks across Africa and the Middle East, or counter-terrorism legislation that removes children from their mothers in the very Britain that espouses the Magna Carta as its greatest achievement. It is with these tools that this hierarchy is maintained. Even media portrayal of the torture of Muslims inevitably objectifies the Muslim body in the same way Apartheid objectified the black body. Such coverage, though necessary to reveal the depths of depravity of the War on Terror, still serves to cast fear into hearts, and, like a diluted version of the torture itself, fundamentally changes people, stealing from many their personal and broader political aspirations.
The brushing over of these truths by attempting to cast at centre of the media stage, so called “grassroots” organisations that are agreeable to the government’s fundamentally unjust laws – either by pulling the wool over their eyes, or entering into deals with them – must be seen for what it is: a psycho-social experiment that has behind it the flawed assumption that it is this current government that best looks after Muslim interests, as opposed to their own inherently powerful faith-base. In so doing it reinforces its own power.
But in the same way Apartheid did, this should serve only to awaken all right acting citizens concerned with justice to peaceful unified action. This, so that the War on Terror will also, by the grace of God, come to an end.
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)