Paul Joseph Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister of Adolf Hitler, once said, “A lie, if it is repeated a hundred times, becomes the gospel truth.”
The World of Propaganda
When the people of Sham received the news that ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib was fatally wounded by Ibn Muljim in the mihrab (niche) of the Kufah Mosque, they could hardly believe that Abu Turab (‘Ali ibn Abi Talib’s epithet) would visit a mosque and much less that he knows how to pray! These they were saying about a person who would spend the whole night privately conversing with His Lord, entreating, imploring and beseeching Him in utmost humility and abjectness. Lady Zaynab bint ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib – that articulate voice of ‘Ashura – had to swim against the tide of ‘truth,’ ‘justice’ and ‘movement’ in inverted commas in order to hoist the true banner of the truth of Muhammad truth, the justice of ‘Ali and the movement of Husayn.
Regrettably, the minbar (pulpit) – that sacred Prophetic platform for the conveyance of the Divine revelation and dissemination of socio-political instructions – was not spared from the blemish of black propaganda. As can be recalled in history, it was in the very minbar that the foremost defender and believer of the faith and scribe of the revelation would be cursed every Friday prayer throughout the then Muslim world from Sahara Desert in the west to the Ganges River in the east. This malpractice would continue for more than a generation until it was finally ended by Umayyad caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz. Yes, whether we like it or not, we are living in a world of propaganda. Look around us – billboards, tarpaulins, graffiti, monuments, and simple signboards. These are all tools of propaganda. Yes, ours is a sphere of incessant struggle; ours is a stadium of perennial competition of winning the hearts and minds of the people. Yes, ours is a world of media spinning and manipulation.
In Arabia during the time of the Prophetic mission, this role being played by the mass media, as we know it today, was played by the poets or shu‘arā’. At the very beginning of ‘The Message’ film, poets could be seen in a poetry-arena vying one another in impressing more the tribal and clan chiefs and prominent figures with their words of flattery and eulogy. On various occasions – marriage ceremony, war declaration and burial procession – poets would compose rhymes and elegies to incite emotions and move people. Innermost feelings were also expressed in poetry. For instance, Abu Talib’s unflinching allegiance to the Faith of his forefathers Ibrahim and Isma‘il as well as his unwavering support to the mission of his nephew Muhammad could be gleaned from his poetical verses. In the same manner, Yazid ibn Mu‘awiyah’s skepticism and mockery of the Prophetic mission and the sending down of revelation could also be found in his couplets, as recorded in history.
The Poets in the Scripture
Given this pivotal role of the poets at that time, it is not surprising that Chapter 26 of the Qur’an is known as Sūrat al-Shu‘arā’ (or, Chapter: The Poets). Interestingly enough, out of 227 or 228 verses of the Chapter, the poets were the topic in only the last seven verses, yet the sūrah is still called Sūrat al-Shu‘arā’. Without quoting anymore in this marginalia the Arabic text, an English rendition of the said verses is as follows: Shall I inform you (of him) upon whom the satans descend? They descend upon every lying, sinful one. They incline their ears, and most of them are liars. And as to the poets, those who go astray follow them. Do you not see that they wander about bewildered in every valley? And that they say that which they do not do, except those who believe and do good and remember God much, and defend themselves after they are oppressed; and they who act unjustly shall know to what final place of turning they shall turn back. (Q 26:221-227) The following points can be inferred from this passage: * That the majority of poets were condemned for being liars and sinners; * That these poets were followed by the misguided ones; * That these poets had no specific agenda of their own – they wander about bewildered in every valley; * That these poets say in their poetry what they themselves do not do; * That there is also a group of poets not included in the categorical condemnation – those possessing such qualities as (1) belief in God, (2) doing of good, (3) constant remembrance of God, and (4) defending the rights of the oppressed.
The Poets’ Burden
In today’s setting, this exceptional group of poets may be represented by a very few media people and journalists who are neither submissive to the selfish interests of the corporate media nor included in the payroll of politicians and power-holders. This is while the rest of the media people, with due respect to those who are not guilty, are a showcase of those characteristics of the poets for which they are categorically condemned by the Scripture – being liars, sinners, followed by deviants, paying lip service and having no wholesome agenda. As such, the burden of the upright ‘poets’ of today is to possess those four exceptional qualities – (1) belief in God, (2) doing of good, (3) constant remembrance of God, and (4) defending the rights of the oppressed – while upholding the ideals of journalism – honestly and fearlessly relating the events to the people.
Media 2.0 as the Modern Poets’ Arena
This burden of the upright journalists is compounded by the nature of the new playing field. Not too long ago, the study of media would deal with the post-Gutenbergian mass communication through a small number of key forms like the printed books, newspapers, cinema, radio, and television. It was characterized by the writer or reporter shaping the ideas and opinions of the recipient or reader about the events. This is what mass communications students call ‘Media Studies 1.0’. With the advent of the computer technology and the paving of the information superhighway, there is now a murky distinction between the news producer and receiver. Gone are the days when the news production owners had the sole monopoly of the creation and production of the events’ narratives. Through social networking sites, for instance, the ‘conventional’ news receiver could easily react to the news, thereby shaping the opinion of other ‘receivers’. Most often, the news of an event would shape the trend and even the outcome of that event. (For instance, a septuagenarian wife reported in the news that her fellow septuagenarian husband was missing. After sometime, the missing old man was found through the voluntary efforts of young netizens who had helped in locating him throughout Metro Manila and the surrounding towns.) This ambiguity concerning the producer-versus-receiver and event-versus-news divide is dubbed ‘Media Studies 2.0’. In fact, some media scholars and practitioners are now talking about Media Studies 3.0. For the meantime, it is not our concern to delve into this matter.
The Challenge Facing the Upright Modern Poets
After stating the nature of the media, its crucial role and the present playing field of the players, let us lay down the aspects of the challenge facing ideal journalists or what we may label as ‘upright modern poets’. The challenge facing them is to narrate the true account of events in the most convincing manner. Unless the concerned netizens tell their own story, others will do so on their behalf – but in the most unjust and unfair way possible. This is our own version of the “Publish or perish” dictum.