The Essence of Romantic Love is Nothingness?

A controversial title, no doubt, but certainly not intended to arouse your momentary attention. It comes from a genuine concern regarding a phenomenon so central to our lives – romantic love. Specifically, the passionate, companionship-based love between two people; the kind of love that that we assume was the force behind what gave us birth; the kind of love we see in the movies; the type of love that we desire insofar as we are affectionate beings.

So what do I mean by claiming that its essence is nothingness? Well, it’s quite simple. It rests on the idea that romantic love is conditional. Its formation and maintenance depend on certain criteria being present, and if these things cease to be present, it leads to breakups, divorces, and heartache. Such criteria can take a variety of forms for different people. They can be the enjoyment of someone’s appearance or wealth; the appreciation of someone’s good character, intelligence, understanding, charm, or spirit; the giving and receiving of support or emotional attention; feelings of trust, and so on. However usually it’s through a combination of many such desired attributes that love is established. There is no magic to the feeling of love. In most cases it is nothing more than a high score on a list of a person’s personal criteria. If you meet someone who satisfies many of your preferences – especially the most important ones – you will fall for them, and not necessarily through choice. There is more to the feeling of love of course, much of which is related to the subconscious mind, unmet needs, upbringing, association, etc., but the causes of love are not what I want to focus on. I’m more concerned with the idea that two people can fall out of love. That is, two people can share the most intimate, meaningful connection with each other, and then later, treat each other like strangers, or worse, even be agitated or repulsed by that ex-lover. How many people do we know who have loved a certain someone, perhaps used to make love to that certain someone, and even produced life with that certain someone, but are now largely estranged from them? What an odd phenomenon. Given the fact that the average person feels such a connection to more than one person throughout their lives, it’s fair to say that the construction of love, followed by its deconstruction, is actually the norm. That, is a worrying fact about love.

After the established passion, intimacy, and bond between a couple, we see too many cases where passion is replaced with indifference, and intimacy with distance, as the ‘magical’ bond ceases to exist. In essence, love becomes nothingness. Once certain criteria or needs cease to be met, it reveals an emptiness underneath. There is no transcendental, everlasting, underlying bond. It is a construction. Literally, like the building of a house on empty space, enjoyed for a while but always potentially destructible insofar as it was constructed in the first place. Some buildings last a few months, some a few years. The lucky ones make it last a lifetime. But this doesn’t deny the emptiness beneath. It’s just the case that these minorities of lasting relationships are fortunate enough not to arrive back at this emptiness. They build a strong enough house and maintain it together through the internal and external challenges that threaten its construction. In such a sense, the nothingness at the heart of romantic relationships is consistently masked. All the while, our culture, media, family and friends constantly tell us that ‘true love’ does exist, that it is ‘unconditional’, and that it ‘never dies’. I’m afraid the overwhelming evidence around us of break ups, divorces, and the endless examples of people contently moving on with new lovers, suggests otherwise.

In sum, it is impossible for something to be unconditional if it has evolved from the presence of certain conditions. And insofar as anything is conditional and constructed, it can be deconstructed. All loving relationships begin from a lack of feeling love towards that significant other. Over time, whether through a friendship or at first sight, love is conditionally created and strengthened through the satisfaction of certain criteria. Thus, insofar as romantic love starts from nothing, it can always return to being nothing and can never be associated with an underlying, unconditional connection. The nature of relationship breakups and divorces, followed by the finding of new love, offers overwhelming support for this.

I’m not claiming that romantic relationships are therefore a waste of time. By all means, people should construct and maintain these houses, and indeed, such constructions can be beautiful. However, the general popular perception of love as this transcendental, abstract, everlasting connection is quite unhelpful and leads to a lot of disappointment. It’s far healthier for us to be grounded in reality, and to see love for both what it is, and what it is not.


Early Muslims, Captivity and Sexual Ethics (Event)

This presentation explores classical Islam’s sexual mores on female prisoners of war. Highlights include:
• The condemnation and tolerance of concubinage in early Muslim law and ethics.
• The ethical boundaries around female war captives in early Islam.
• Orthodox readings on the Qur’anic term: “what your right hands possess”.
• The influence of Persian “harem” customs on medieval Arab court/palace culture.

An extended Q&A will follow.
Friday 5th Dec, Room: G3, 8pm
SOAS, Russell Square Campus, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London, WC1H 0XG

Audio file link in comments.

Victorian Perspectives on Islamic Sexuality

The issue of sexuality in Islam has been a common target of criticism against the religion since the earliest European perspectives. From the 9th Century, writers and travellers understood Islam as sanctioning the fulfilment of lusts, which Christian thinkers perceived as being detrimental to the spirit, and rationally argued as being contrary to natural law.

The framework within which such reproaches were deployed held Christian marital and sexual values as the benchmark from which all morality was measured. Christians had perceived marriage as strictly monogamous and permanent till death to the extent that divorce and remarriage of other traditions was seen as legalized adultery. The ideal was that of unconditional commitment – evidence of mutual respect and relational sanctity. Moreover, Christian thinkers understood Muslim marital law, which fell short of permanently exclusive monogamy, as sexist. Victorian writer on Islam, John J. Poole, in his Studies in Mohammedanism (1892), makes a stark comparison between the treatment of women in the two major faiths: “nowhere on earth will you find woman so degraded as in countries where Islamism reigns supreme! A Mohammedan regards woman not as a companion and helpmeet for him, but as a plaything, a pretty toy, as soulless almost as his turban, his pipe, and his amber mouth-piece. How blessed is the contrast when we look at Christianity, and think of Christ, who reverenced women, who made them His friends, who chose them as His co-labourers, and who regarded them as heirs with men of the Kingdom of Heaven!”

Similarly, in his foundational work “Psychopathia Sexualis” (1894), Austro-German psychiatrist, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, expresses that “Christianity gave the most powerful impulse to the moral elevation of the sexual relations by raising women to social equity with man.” Krafft-Ebing goes on to refer to Islam and its treatment of women in comparison: “the Mohammedan woman has ever remained essentially a means of sensual gratification and procreation; while, on the other hand, the virtues and capabilities of the Christian woman, as housewife, educator of children, and equal companion of man, have been allowed to unfold in all their beauty. Islam, with its polygamy and harem-life, is glaringly contrasted with the monogamy and family life of the Christian world.”

There was a general fascination towards the ‘looseness’ of Islamic sexuality, which permitted the fulfilment of desire in and of itself, against the strictly pro-creative function of the sexual union, rationalised by earlier Christian thinkers. Early 19th century scholar of religions, Robert Adam, described the laws prescribed by the Prophet Muhammad as “too loose for the most compliant moralist to justify, and too favourable to afford the most abandoned sensualist any probable ground of complaint.” The perceived sexual laxity of Islam was even seen as means through which to attain conversions from Christianity. It was as if Victorian scholars could not see past the question of sexuality in the Muslim faith in judging the religion or the character of its prophet. Adam continues: “the retirements of Mohammed, from his first acquisition of power to his last decline of life, were continually disgraced by every excessive indulgence of that passion, which has a more particular tendency to degrade the dignity of the human character even below the brute creation.”

Such was the sentiment across the Christendom of 19th century Europe. In the modern Western world, the perspective of Islamic sexuality has changed. No longer are followers of the Muslim faith seen as lax with their desires and passions, but rather, they are seen as sexually restraint and reserved. The simple reason for this is that the ethos of sexuality has dramatically changed in Europe, altering the standard from which Muslim social law is judged. In contrast, Muslims have remained relatively consistent in those practices and beliefs that so appalled the 19th century western onlooker: divorce, remarriage, polygamy, sex without the intention to procreate, and a sensual paradise.

Moreover, the modern liberal resentment towards Victorian prudishness, with its narratives of sin, shame and guilt (particularly for women), is often imposed upon the Muslim faith. The modern perspective is, therefore, also deeply psychological. The ‘contained’ and ordered sexuality of Islam is associated with a past self that most Europeans are happy to have left behind.

In many respects, the altering of European values undermines the stability and validity of its moral judgments. There can hardly be any absolute “truth” to a set of values if they are based on a shifting essence. And if moral relativity is self-acknowledged, it makes little sense to be so staunchly judgmental. Nevertheless, moral absolutes are typically deployed in anti-Muslim thought. Despite Europe’s evolving values, there is remarkable and almost perplexing consistency in the fact that in both Victorian and liberal modern times, Islamic sexual values are seen as negative, backward and unenlightened. This would unfortunately imply that the desire to construct Islam as negatively oppositional is a top priority in perceiving the religion at all, regardless of its actual content.

Adam, Robert (1818) The Religious World Displayed: or, A view of the four grand systems of religion, Judaism, paganism, Christianity, and Mohammedism, Vol. 1, Philadelphia: Moses Thomas

Krafft- Ebing, Richard von (1894) Psychopathia Sexualis, with special reference to Contrary Sexual Instinct, 7th ed., Chaddock, Charles G. (trans.) London: A, O. Watts & Co.

Pool, John J. (1892) Studies in Mohammedanism: Historical and Doctrinal with a Chapter on Islam in England, London: Archibald Constable and Company

Getting Over An Emotional Obsession: An Email

OK so, it’s taken me a real long time to post this for a couple of reasons. The main reason being that I wanted to make sure that it worked. To give a brief outline, I got an email from someone I didn’t know explaining that she had this year-long uncontrollable love for a guy and wanted my advice to make her feelings go away (tall order, no?) In her case, she was a Muslim, in love with a non-Muslim, BUT faith really isn’t an issue here. The advice I gave (though at times directed specifically to her circumstances) is for ANYONE. It doesn’t matter if you’re Muslim/atheist/spiritualist, whatever, nor does it matter what the other person is; the advice is psychological, and concerns thinking patterns. If you’re human, it should work (love-struck dog groans and turns away from computer screen). So fellas can use this too – if a guy had emailed me, the advice would have been the same.

I just have one major thing to mention before we go into the emails. If you are someone who has an uncontrollable love or obsession for someone and no longer want this feeling, in order for the advice here to be effective, you need to WANT to get better and you need to want it BAD. If you’re just reading this out of interest, pass it on to someone else who is sick to their stomach from their ordeal. The girl who messaged me clearly wanted it bad (heck she emailed a stranger). And that’s a major reason why this worked for her. I do have her permission, and have obviously censored the email for the sake of anonymity. Where my advice is specific to her circumstances, just substitute them with your own.

Email from young woman:

“Salaam aleikum,

I have read your tweets and your columns.
I have the following matter.
I have been struggling for a while with this.

I’m a young woman who lives in X. I’m in love with a non-Muslim man and I don’t want to pursue with this because I know its haram. He actually doesn’t have a faith but he is into spiritualism like sufis.

I pray everyday to Allah to release me from this passion and feelings for him but they wont go away. I’ve tried not to contact him but my heart ends up bluffing and I call or text him.

He lives in X so I don’t see him that often. But I love him when I don’t want to, because I know in my life I can never have the halal life I want for myself and my family. As a practicing Muslim that’s my problem but my heart doesn’t want to acknowledge this.

This has been going on for a year and I don’t know who to tell this because I don’t want my surroundings to know…

If you could share some advice I would be grateful.”

Philo_Human REPLY:

“Salam X,

I want you to take these words seriously because I know about these situations and have had plenty of experience. What I will say might sound harsh, but I sympathize with you a lot.

In the same way the body falls sick, the heart and mind can become sick too. You have a disease of the heart. Make no mistake about this. It is a habitualized feeling that you have constructed in your head. There is nothing “special” about this individual or your relationship to him. You may suffer from some kind of addiction to him, and it is like any other addiction – be it to sugar, or alcohol, or sex, or whatever. Know this. It could have been anyone. That it IS him is purely due to the specific circumstances that have led you to this outcome: right place, right time, right background, right words, and hey presto – you’re in “love”. But you’re not in love in any positive way because clearly this situation is bringing you great difficulty.

Know this: You create further “love” in your heart the more you invest in him. By “investing” I mean putting time, effort or money into him. This includes sending him a text, calling, checking his online profile (if he has one) etc. By doing these things, you FUEL the attachment, and will never get over it. You must cut off contact entirely – not even a glance to a photograph of him.

You need to make sure other things in your life are in order: Your health (eating well and exercising), your other relationships (family and friends), your job, your goals and ambitions (what are you trying to achieve in life; who do you want to be?). Often people aren’t able to move on from the past because they don’t have a great enough future to aspire towards. I obviously don’t know your situation, but this is all very important.

Most crucially, you need to RE-CONDITION your mind to change what he means to you. This is what it’s all about. You have falsely associated certain positive meanings to him: “happiness” “love” “completion” whatever, you need to radically change this. I want you to write down a list of new associations to him: “He’s bad for my faith”, “He takes me away from God”, “He will destroy my state in the akhira”, “He compromises my job ambitions”, “He makes my life miserable”, “He wastes my time and energy” “He brings out the worst in me” etc. Add your own, make them general and specific – make them emotional; and make them MEANINGFUL TO YOU. Feel the effects, contemplate on each one. I want you to do this EVERYDAY. Preferably before you sleep and when you wake up, as the defenses to the subconscious are weakest at these points.

In addition, I want you to remove the assumptions you have about him, as you are currently filled with them and they are a huge cause of your distress. You may have hoped that he will somehow come round, embrace Islam and marry you. Or you might think that he’s truly perfect for you. These are all likely fantasies and have no basis in reality. I want you now to make a list of questions that undermine and destroy these assumptions. Make them in the form of QUESTIONS. So for example, ask yourself something like: “Will he get married to someone before I get married, or after I get married?” (here the assumption is that you will both marry other people) or “Why waste precious time, energy and thought on someone you don’t ever want to see or hear from again?” or “How grateful will I be when God blesses me with someone who I am so much happier with?” (the assumption here again is that you are not going to be with him). It’s all about undercutting your assumptions. Make some more up of your own and ADD THESE to the list of associations I mention in the previous paragraph. Ask yourself these questions EVERYDAY. Make sure you FEEL the effects of asking these questions, because the subconscious is shifted more strongly when there is an emotional charge to it.

Try not to talk about being depressed over him to friends or family as this is also a form of investment and will fuel the attachment. If you must talk about it, make sure it’s from a position that empowers you.

In general, pray to Allah and repent. Repent until you feel like crying for all faults major and minor, hidden and open. Do this EVERYDAY or as often as you can. Know that He loves you and will not put you through anything without it strengthening you in some way. In-sha’Allah, you will be able to help someone with the same difficulty in the future, as it is a common problem among people.”

Now thankfully, she did as I said and emails that followed were very positive on her part. I won’t paste them all in full here because I want the focus to be on the method, but let’s just say it worked better than I imagined. Within a few days she was seeing dramatic changes, and by two weeks she displayed a huge turn around. Here is a part of one of her later emails (2 weeks later):

“I’m in a state now I’ve never experienced before. I’m enjoying my life again, I have a wonderful time with my family and most of all I’ve found peace in my mind and connected stronger with my Faith!

I’m no longer desperate in this kind of love. He’s been trying to reach out to me different times but I can handle it very well. He called me once because it was his bday. I clearly showed no interest and I told him that I have no intention in going further in such kind of relationship. He asked to skype etc but I refused. I said goodbye and that was it. I cried after but those were these of closure and joy at one side.

I can truthfully say to myself that I can look back at his pictures/memories without feeling any emotions (love kind)…

There are times where I have a moment because something I see or hear makes me remind of him. But then I just laugh it away and think, I was blind to not see the signs but hamdellah on the other way it brought me closer to my truth and to Allah and my family.”

But girls and guys, before you start sorting your lives out, I just want to add a few points:

When you do this just like I said, you may start feeling better to the extent that you feel you don’t need to carry on doing the daily re-conditioning. This is a mistake. You must keep going. The mind is like a rubber band; if you stop pulling it in one direction, it will slowly relapse back into its old thinking patterns. You need to create a new default. The girl had emailed me a few weeks later saying she had had some set backs due to “some brief encounters with him”. When I spoke with her much later (when everything was good again), I asked her if she had stopped doing what I told her during that time and she said yes. So do not stop. Feel great, but just keep doing it. Do it for months if you have to. And later you can start doing it less. I can’t stress this enough. Do not think, “OK I’m fine now, enough conditioning,” especially not for the first few weeks.

This leads me on to another point, which is that you should feel free to change and add to the list of new associations or questions according to how you feel. In the course of reframing the way you think about this individual, you might realize more reasons why this person isn’t good for you, or why you need to stop thinking about them. Add them to the list. Or, a new negative thought might arise which means you need to ask yourself a new question to undercut and uproot it. The mind can be nasty like that – you get over one negative thought and then it’s like, “oh yeah…? well, remember THIS!!” And you’re like “Noooooo!! I just remembered some sentimental detail which has made me mushy again!!” (or whatever).

And this leads me to a final point, which is: expect triggers to spark off emotional reactions now and then. Don’t worry, they’re totally natural and not a set back. They’re just associations. It could happen when you see the road he or she lives on, a park bench you sat on together, a gift they gave you, etc. This is normal, and eventually these strong emotional associations will fade away the more you just keep doing everything I mention in the email. And don’t skimp on the healthy eating and exercise – that’s all important too! (trust me, everything in that email is thought out with rifle-scope precision).

Please bear in mind guys, I’m not an agony aunt. I might even take this down later because this isn’t really my “field”. I just want to give you the tools to help yourself. I’ve now given you more than I gave to the young woman who got better just from that email. If you do everything there, you should notice big changes. Feel free to comment but pardon me if I can’t be so responsive because I will not have a life if I addressed everyone’s relationship issues individually. But it would be nice to hear how you are doing.

I really wish you all the best and am genuinely excited, because I know you can be happy again.

Peace be with you.

And with Allah is all success.

The Dogma of Advertising & Consumerism: What freedom are we calling for? P.4/5

As the call for freedom in the Middle-East cements itself into Western culture, some of us continue to question the extent to which a culture so consumed in consumerism is able to make such a call. This is considered in light of major and more nuanced social and psychological problems that arise from such ‘freedoms.’ In what follows I wish to highlight a few of these disturbances, which are often overlooked.

It’s not clear how many advertisements we are exposed to every day. Taking into account the average hours of TV viewing, radio listening, newspapers/magazine reading, internet surfing, public street and transport use; common estimates range from around 250 per day on the conservative side, to 3000 and above. Regardless of which is more accurate, there’s no doubt that being exposed to adverts is an extremely significantly common and almost necessary part of human experience in the modern world.

As well as showing us products, adverts also present us with values, ideals and social standards. They draw upon major personal themes such as beauty, happiness, love, companionship, sex, and self-image, in a positive but unrealistic light to promote their product. As a consequence, these adverts are potentially shaping us towards mental states, which are in fact, quite inhibiting, insecure, and unhealthy.

A common psychological principle used by advertisers is that repetition constitutes mental conditioning. Studies show that the more something is repeated to you, the more you will believe it. So whether it’s “I’m lovin’ it”, “Have a break, have a `Kit-Kat”, or “Washing machines live longer with Calgon”, the mere repetition of these messages is able to motivate potential buyers and construct certain ideas in their minds with added cognitive and emotional associations.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with such methods. Psychotherapy typically uses the brain’s ability to re-condition its associations to heal people and make their lives more fulfilling. This, however, is done with both consent and good clinical intention. Advertising is a different story altogether. A company’s main purpose is to sell a product and make money, even if that means falsely creating insecurities in people and offering their product as a solution.

The link between psychology and consumerism was expanded on in the early 20th century, when Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, used Freud’s ideas regarding primitive hidden sexual and aggressive forces to show corporations how to link purchasable products to unconscious desires. As a result, the insatiable fantasy and anticipation of buying a product became more pleasurable than actually possessing it. This would ensure that people would keep buying irrationally, giving rise to a consumer culture.

Bernays, who worked closely with numerous US presidents and large corporations, was one of the first to use psychological methods such as celebrity association, product marketing in films, and to link products to male or female power. In his book Propaganda (later Public Relations) he causally explains how, in many instances throughout our daily lives, “we imagine ourselves free agents”, but are “ruled by dictators exercising great power”. “A man buying a suit of clothes” he explains, “imagines that he is choosing, according to his taste and his personality, the kind of garment which he prefers. In reality, he may be obeying the orders of an anonymous gentleman tailor in London.” Bernays then explains how the gentleman tailor in London is part of a wider network utilising the psychological methods listed above. Thus, even our consumer choices are largely an illusion of freedom, as clarified by the official “Father of Public Relations” himself.

The values being presented to a nation through major advertising come in all shapes and sizes. Constant images of happy, smiling, healthy people with buyable products both insists on a materialistic existence, and promotes the idea that if you want fulfilment, you need to buy things. As a result, our worth is valued more and more by what we own as opposed to what we do, or who we are. Self-gratification is also excessively promoted by the advertising culture, encouraging a focus on our own immediate desires as opposed to our relations with others. Whenever displayed, family and friendship ties are seen as outlets for gift giving, while intimate and traditional ‘special occasions’ have been mutilated into wholesale consumer events. Not much is offered for the integrity of the self. Morally reflective messages are usually only found in charity ads, which, although might be sincere, share the principal goal of encouraging some partition with your finances. Thus, your worth still depends on what you can spend.

Sexualization and Body Dissatisfaction

An increasingly concerning issue regarding images in advertising is the consistent connection between women, sex, desire, beauty, thinness, and happiness. This collection of associations is one of the most oft-repeated and overtly used advertising methods that modern society is exposed to multiple times a day. It’s now so commonly used that we hardly even notice it.

The American Psychological Association defines ‘sexualization’ as: “when a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics.” Sexual objectification shares a similar definition, and is theoretically accentuated in a consumer-advertising context, where, not only is the individual sexually objectified in the way the body is presented, but also in the fact that they are associated with a purchasable object. Moreover, studies have confirmed that images which sexually objectify women have led to them being seen as “less human”, lacking “mind” and morality, and has caused men to grow indifferent to women’s experience of pain.

The phenomenon of ‘body dissatisfaction’ is defined as the perceived difference between one’s own body image and the ideal body image established and maintained by commercial media. Countless psychological studies show that this ‘dissatisfaction’ is a precursor to both eating disorders and psychological disorders such as depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, shame, and even self-disgust. What permanently cements these disorders into Western culture is that the gap between the reality and the ideal can never actually be closed since the beauty standard set by popular culture is impossible to attain. It has been argued that the female body-type typically portrayed in adverts is genetically true to some 5% of the female population, while photoshopped images and the portrayal of eternal youth further distances the ideal into an ever-higher fantasy. Insecurities are moreover ignited by evidence showing that men who are exposed to “media-perfect” beautiful women tend to view real life average females as significantly less attractive. This would theoretically include their own partners.

Although men are not exempt from an increased sexualisation in advertising, it is still nowhere near as prevalent as the sexualisation of women. Moreover, due to both the dissimilar perceived ideals and physiological differences of each gender, it is highly unlikely that men will ever be affected in the same way, despite the rise of the metrosexual man. A longitudinal study shows that when girls reach puberty, natural increase in body mass at this age distances them from the thin ideal, significantly increasing the chance of psychological and eating disorders. Boys, on the other hand, tend to grow closer to their bulkier ideal at puberty and thus show no increase in body dissatisfaction during adolescence. The gender bias is further confirmed with national stats from the UK and US showing that around 90% of cosmetic procedures are carried out on women, with breast implants being the most common, and vaginal modification being one of the fastest growing.

Most critical to the concept of freedom is how the beauty standard is imposed upon children, especially young girls. As one psychologist puts it: “the current aesthetic model for women, characterised by skinniness, is internalised early on, before the age of 10, and remains throughout adolescence.” Since children are below the age of responsible choice, freedom is entirely undercut, directing them to a series of potentially life long social and personal disorders and harms. Although a causal link has not been confirmed, this may well contribute towards explaining the belief that women are at least twice as likely to suffer from depression than men.

Of course, for the majority of major towns and cities in the Middle East, the caution is too late. The presence of multi-national corporations and the electronic mediums through which they advertise, have long been a part of Arab urban culture. “Thin and sexy” images of women in public are indeed rising, and Arab manufactures are quick to create equivalent products, which are no doubt having the same effects on their own children as they are on children in the West (Fulla is just as abnormally thin as Barbie). But in many cases, it’s not to the same degree. Strict values of individualism haven’t completely taken over the culture in the Middle East and it’s fair to say that some inhabited areas are completely untouched by commercialism. Traditional values of selfless hospitality, genuine respect for elders, and community spirit, still strongly subsist in non-consumerist communities scattered throughout non-Western lands. The spreading of modern Western values of freedom – of which consumer choice and abundant advertising are integral parts – tends to inverse these values producing opposite social effects.

In conclusion, meaning is derived from our associations. And advertisers are proving incredibly successful at shaping these associations for the sake of commercial and financial interests. While they may not always anticipate the negative effects, there’s more than enough evidence to suggest that the spread of consumer culture, along with its accompanying adverts, promotes far more social problems and insecurities than it does freedoms.

Attitudes to Disability: Islam, the West and the Middle East

Prophetic Attitude to Disability

Not a great deal of information can be found in the life of the Prophet Muhammed or in the Qur’an regarding the issue of disability. But like many other issues within the Islamic tradition, a lot can be drawn from a single prophetic example. With this I have in mind the incident where a blind man asked if he could be exempt from the general obligation of attending congregational prayer at the mosque, and pray at home instead due to his disability. Now, given the endless examples of the Prophet’s leniency, gentleness, and patience with all members of his community – especially towards the old, sick, and the needy, one would reasonably expect that the Prophet would have permitted the exemption. However, the tradition goes on to tell us that the Prophet turned down the blind man’s request and encouraged him to attend like everyone else. To some, this may seem a little harsh, but a little insight into social disability theory offers an alternative understanding.

According to sociologist Victor Finkelstein (1980), western attitudes to disability have shifted through three major phases over time. The first phase is said to have existed prior to the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, where those with disabilities were neither segregated from society nor viewed as socially incapable. Instead, they were part of a lower social class along with paupers and the mentally ill who took on the ‘profession’ of begging. Finkelstein claims that negative attitudes towards such people with disabilities were not exclusive to them. Rather, they were seen to be as much to blame for not working as able-bodied poor people due to their own sins, laziness, or the sins of their parents. It was only when society began to distinguish between the able-bodied poor on the one hand, and individuals with disabilities on the other that attitudes between them became distinct. This marks the beginning of phase two – the institutional phase. With the growth of medical institutions and asylums in the 19th century, more and more emphasis was put on ‘caring’ for people with disabilities. What followed was a long and continuous process of physically segregating such people into asylums and special care, removing them from general social engagement and hiding them from the eyes of the public. A new passive identity of ‘otherness’ was thus being constructed for them, largely characterised by weakness and dependence. This paved the way for what disability theorist Mike Oliver has called the ‘personal tragedy theory of disability’ (Oliver 1990). The rise and emphasis of hospital environments facilitated the rapid increase in the number of nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, social workers, counsellors, asylums, and charitable homes which, despite their apparent noble intent, only ensured the success of further segregating people with disabilities from society, and contributed heavily to their stigmatisation as alienated ‘objects of research and help’.

This was followed by phase three and the advent of the revolutionary ‘social model’ of disability in the mid-late 20th century, which was an approach that sought to both improve the way in which we perceive people with disabilities and to reintegrate them back into society. The new model, as an alternative to the previously prominent ‘medical model’ of disability, sees the disabling factor no longer in the individual person, but in the environment’s inability to accommodate them. What needed addressing were structural and technological issues which led to grand investments into the installation of ramps, lifts, automatic doors, better lighting in buildings, wider corridors, beeping signals at pedestrian crossings, audio announcements on public transport, computer aiding technology, and so on across the entire nation. This endeavour, which continues today, aims to reduce the phenomenon of disability as much as possible.

The negative effects of phase two – the institutional phase, however, are still with us. Studies continue to show that disability still exists as a form of social oppression and social exclusion (Oliver & Barnes 1998, Beart et al. 2005). Prejudiced assumptions remain deeply ingrained both in our common perceptions towards people with disabilities, as well as in our media portrayals of them, which are incredibly unflattering (Barnes 1992, Duncan 2002). And all this has been shown to contribute to their continuing lack of self-esteem and psychological distress (Abraham et al. 2002, Paterson 2007). Despite the positive goals of the social model, then, stigmatisation towards people with disabilities as incapable victims of tragedy has been stubbornly rigid in our minds since their construction in the institutional phase.

Coming back to the story about the Prophet, then; by encouraging the blind man to attend the daily congregational prayers – a rich and frequent activity of social cohesion – the Prophet sought to maintain integration amongst all members of the community. To be physically present and integrated denies the possibility of constructed alienation and otherness. Integration also reduces the scope of stigmatisation, insofar as the gap between ‘virtual’ and ‘actual’ social identity is kept to a minimum (Goffman 1969). Furthermore, the Prophet was known to give prominent roles and tasks to people with disabilities in order to further consolidate their involvement in society. Ultimately, the Prophet as ruler and statesman appeared to guide his community in a way which would by-pass the institutional phase of disability outlined by Finkelstein.

There are, of course, many other influences to be considered here, such as the phenomenon of ‘labelling’ in western medical institutions, as well as western society’s emphasis on and glorification of the ‘ideal’ body, which have also fuelled the stigmatisation of people with disabilities in our society – both of which are strongly countered in the Islamic tradition. What is being highlighted here, however, is that the primary solution for negative attitudes towards disability, should have been, and should always be, integration.

Attitudes in the Middle-East

So to what extent do Middle-Eastern Muslim countries follow the integrative attitude of the Prophet with regards to disability? Not very much at all, according to one visually impaired individual who grew up in Bahrain but has lived in the UK for the last 10 years. Yahye, a recent Masters graduate from the University of Westminster and freelance worker for disability integration social enterprise ‘Dialogue in the Dark’ tells me that despite the stigmatisation towards people with disabilities in the west, the implementation of the social model of disability in the UK is ‘head and shoulders’ above other countries in integrating people with disabilities back into society. It would seem that for the large part, the Middle-East is stuck in the institutional phase in which much money is spent on facilities for people with disabilities, but these usually take the form of exclusive ‘care institutes’ hidden from the eyes of the general public. Opportunities for people with disabilities are also incredibly narrow in the Middle East, resulting in degree graduates – of any subject – being destined to work in call centres, if they are fortunate enough to be employed for work at all. This has led many potential students with disabilities to not bother with university in the first place.

The ‘shame’ attached to families with disabled children is also more striking than it is in the west due to the comparative lack of social emphasis on disability equality and discrimination rights. People with disabilities often feel discouraged to even leave their homes due to such judgmental attitudes in society, as well as the lack of available practical assistance to travel. The sight of a disabled person walking or travelling alone is generally interpreted as such an individual being neglected by his or her family. For this reason, they are usually always accompanied by a family member or carer. The emphasis on hospitality and helpfulness typical to Muslim countries doesn’t help the situation either. Such well-meaning traits often only fuel patronising attitudes, unwanted assistance, and deny a disabled person’s independence. In fact, Yahye tells me that he feels much more dignified in the UK where they seem to have accomplished the right balance of allowing a person with disabilities to live and function independently, while at the same time, offering useful individual assistance only when required.

It should come as no surprise that yet another social failure in Muslim lands correlates with the departure from the Prophet’s example on the respective issue. So while the west continues to improve its policies to eliminate disability inequality and increase integration after its previous mistakes, the Middle-East still funds and builds institutes of exclusive care – exacerbating social stigma, and remain largely estranged to the social model of disability. They clearly have a very long way to go.

Abraham, C., Gregory, N., Wolf, L. & Pemberton, R. (2002). Self-esteem, stigma and community participation amongst people with learning difficulties living in the community, Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 12, 430-443
Barnes, C. (1992) Disabling imagery and the Media, an Exploration of the Principles for Media Representations of Disabled People, Halifax: Ryburn Publishing
Beart, S., Hardy, G. & Buchan, L. (2005). How people with intellectual disabilities view their social identity: A review of the literature. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 18, 47-56
Duncan, B. (2002) Portrayal of Disability in Recent Films: Notes, Disability World: 09 June 2002
Finkelstein, V. (1980) Attitudes and Disabled People, New York: World Rehabilitation Fund
Goffman, E. (1963) Stigma: Notes on the management of a spoiled identity, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Oliver, M. & Barnes, C. (1998) Disabled People and Social Policy: From Exclusion to Inclusion, London: Longman
Paterson, L. (2007) Stigma, social comparison and psychological distress in adults with a learning disability, The University of Edinburgh, Doctorate Thesis

Media Limitations and Manipulations: What freedom are we calling for? P.3/5

All social, political and economic policies and debates are communicated through our media. Therefore, the breadth of our democratic experience is largely defined by the structure of the media and its content. This may not be an immediate cause for panic in itself, but consider this alongside the centralization of corporate media ownership and the picture becomes a lot more worrying. If a handful of companies control the vast majority of what we constantly see, hear, and read about 24hrs a day, then the breadth of our information and democratic experience becomes considerably concentrated and narrowed.

News does not come down to us raw and unadulterated. Rather, it is ‘processed’ and structured in terms of what topics are selected; how information is filtered; what is emphasized and what is ignored; how an issue is framed; and how a debate is bounded. Such tailoring gives Western news a specific ‘character’ to which we have all become innately accustomed.

As author of The Press and Foreign Policy (1993) Bernard Cohen points out, it’s not so much that the media tells you what to think, it’s that they tell you what to think about. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, for example, holds in excess of 130 Newspapers worldwide, including the most widely circulated English newspaper in the world, The Sun. Now seeing as companies such as News Corporation are in competition with the likes of AOL Time Warner, Murdoch’s company will decide to turn many of these newspapers into profitable sensationalist journalism, focusing on the three themes of sex, crime, and sport (Herman and McChesney 1997).

Criteria for much news in general is about what can shock and rouse our emotions as opposed to what is actually informative and useful to society. Crime, sex/money scandals, bizarre/extremist opinions or behaviour, and anything to do with celebrities, occupy a large space within our mass media. Such attention-grabbing topics are also framed in ways that restrict our thinking even further. Violent crime reports, for example, take the form of concise horror stories, creating endless villains and victims out of our citizens rather than discussing the social problems that lead to such incidents. It’s as if unemployment, inequality, poor education, and lack of moral sensitivity in society has nothing to do with such crimes.

Our universities are, of course, filled with experts in such social sciences, but media professionals are largely uninterested in using their knowledge to create an intellectual platform to suggest ways in which we can minimise such offences in the future. Instead, politicians give simple solutions to appease the masses, while disregarding the opinions of experts. Moreover, there have been many studies which show that certain social problems, such as terror, violent and sexual crimes, have been exaggerated way out of proportion, while other studies show that more serious issues – many to do with the environment – are not emphasized enough or are completely ignored. Unsurprisingly, research shows that people who engage with mass media the most are less trusting of other people and more frightened of the outside world.

International Politics

Media has also a strong influence on people’s political opinions due to the majority of sources coming from government and other establishment interests. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky extensively argue that in their book Manufacturing Consent (2002) that the modes of handling material by the mass media serve political ends and maintain existing political and corporate power structures. War is a typical concern for such authors. Political scientist Michael Parenti, for example, points out that “whenever the White House proposes an increase in military spending, press discussion is limited to how much more spending is needed… are we doing enough or need we do still more? No media exposure is given to those who hotly contest the already gargantuan arms budget in its totality”. Typically, two choices are presented to the public but a third option that challenges the status quo is not.

There have been many studies that have analyzed the political biases in the mass media, which are relevant to today’s political climate. In a research-based publication, Bad News from Israel(2004) by Greg Philo and Mike Berry, the two-year study showed that the reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was biased towards Israel, which had significant effect on the attitudes and beliefs of Western audiences. The study showed, for example, that Israelis were interviewed or reported on more than twice as much as Palestinians, and Israeli casualties were strongly emphasised relative to Palestinians despite Palestinian casualties being greater in number. Even the language of news reports was used in such a way that favoured Israel. Words like ‘hit-back’ and ‘retaliate’ were used for Israeli action, while words like ‘murder’ and ‘cold blood’ was used for Palestinian action. There was also a lack of coverage on the context of the situation. That is, the forced mass evacuation of Palestinians from their homes, and a history of ethnic occupation, which, when not mentioned, makes the Palestinians look like they are initiating attacks for no reason.

Contextual details are typically neglected in such reports because essential root causes are seen as far less interesting than more shocking superficial symptoms. French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu captures this point well when he describes news as “a series of apparently absurd stories that all end up looking the same, endless parades of poverty-stricken countries, sequences of events that, having appeared with no explanation, will disappear with no solution – Zaire today, Bosnia yesterday, the Congo tomorrow.” Needless to say, such social and political simplification or manipulation works contrary to the democratic goal of educating people so that they make informed choices.

Biased narratives in the film industry are far less subtle. In his book and documentary Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People Jack Shaheen shows that Hollywood has vilified and portrayed Arabs as sub-human, militant, and barbaric to the masses since the beginning of film. In his research of over 1000 films that involved Arab characters or references, he found that around 90% were negative, 1% were positive, and the rest were neutral. For Shaheen, such “stereotyping has become so wide-spread that it has become invisible.” Similarly, Social Psychologist Sam Keen, creator of Faces of the Enemy claims, “you can hit an Arab free; they are free enemies, free villains – where you couldn’t do it to a Jew or you can’t do it to a black anymore.” Such social scientists never fail to mention the clear political manipulation, which, throughout history, has been used by a variety of political regimes to construct vile, sub-human representations of their enemies to justify invasion, occupation, killing, torture, and social exclusion. The phenomenon of Islamophobia is a current case in point.

We may not be physically forced to comply with state interests as in a dictatorship, though the result is not dissimilar. The corporate race for mass media consumption is a phenomenon that we as citizens pay the price for, both financially, and psychologically, producing news that is generally negative, superficial, and punchy; hardly ever constructive, beneficial, or thought-provoking. Of course, not every item within the media is necessarily shaped by such interests, and good, honest journalism does exist. But the relentless prevalence of social and political misrepresentations on our TVs, news papers, on-line, and on the big screen, is certainly enough for us to question the integrity of our cognitive freedom and the reliability of our democratic

How Social Fear Inhibits Our Freedom: What freedom are we calling for? P.2/5

In Part 1, I discussed the concept of freedom with regards to the banking system and argued that its principles of lending lead to an unjust dynamic between citizens and banks, mirroring a master-slave relationship. Here, I intend to show how crime and the national conditioning of fear are also largely inhibiting our sense of freedom.

National Crime and Security

The lack of freedom that citizens feel due to the highly anticipated threat of crime is often neglected when discussing the Western concept of freedom. Take the UK for example. The Home Office’s British Crime Survey estimated 745,000 domestic burglaries and 1,189,000 incidents of vehicle-related theft in England and Wales in 2010/11. That amounts to about 2000 homes and 3000 cars being broken into every single day. In response, citizens are spending more and more on security. Mintel, a leading market research company, has estimated that the current burglary prevention market is peaking at around £100 million in the UK as we continue to fortify ourselves within our homes.

But what is most alarming is not only the sheer statistical magnitude of property crime in the UK; it’s the psychological states and attitudes that this creates within us. The Office of National Statistics has claimed that 2.5million British citizens pretend to own a dog to guard their homes from burglars, many of whom place misleading dog-bowls at their front doors. In addition, half the population leave their lights on to trick potential intruders, and 1 in 10 Brits ask a neighbour or friend to move their car around when they are away. The list of deception tactics researched by one insurance company is actually quite exhaustive.

Even on the most basic level of human experience, a stranger knocking on your front door in the evening, or approaching you in the street is often met with threat or caution. We instinctively assume that you cannot leave a bicycle unchained in public for the briefest amount of time; and drivers had better hope that no passer-by saw them slip their Satnav into the glove box of the car, lest someone breaks in for it thereafter. You almost have to assume that everyone is a crook just to function in society. Such a lack of feeling safe and constant precaution does not represent the type of ‘free’ society that we would collectively favour. The correct balance between the right kinds of freedom is far from being achieved. Too often it seems that our justice system unwillingly grants the freedom to commit crimes and to re-offend with little consequence, while the freedom to feel safe is largely denied as a result.

World crime statistics typically show crime to be predominately a Western problem, with the US, UK, Germany, France and Russia occupying the top 5 places. But even if we cannot take these statistics entirely at face value due to international criminal recording differences, it’s hard to deny the national construction of criminal fear – particularly through the media – that is especially common in Western societies. Professor of Criminal Justice, Geoffrey R. Skoll, argues that there is a prevalent ‘discourse of crime’, which is said to have been emphasised by governments and the media in the last 30 years. These discourses, which “trickle down from the top levels of ivory towers to popular culture outlets” play on our deepest fears “wherein women are victims of stalking, children are sexually exploited, serial killers lurk in shadows everywhere, and so on”. Our trust in other people, especially strangers, seems to have been shattered by this caution towards criminal activity, which has settled in our public atmosphere.

The Fear of Terror

The construction of national fear in association with the War on Terror is especially significant here. Panic and fear from the overwhelmingly high volume of terror “threats” broadcasted in the media since 9/11 has probably caused more psychological harm to Western nations than any act of terror ever could. For Professor Henry A. Giroux, author of The Abandoned Generation: Democracy beyond the culture of fear (2003) the rhetoric of terrorism is not only important because it addresses human misery, but because it inflicts it as well. Some sociologists have argued that ‘waiting for terror’ is the most typical part of the fear discourse, characterized by a ‘perpetual omnipresent horror’. David Altheide, a Professor of Justice and Social Inquiry uses empirical evidence from news reports to show that the media has repeatedly used the term ‘fear’ in headlines and reports on crime. The association is so strong, that the mere mention of crime immediately implies and engenders fear. Since 9/11, research shows that the same repetitive mentioning of ‘fear’ has been associated with the words ‘terror’ and ‘victim’, producing wider sentiments of insecurity. For Professor Altheide, such fear-conditioning in the media exists because “government officials dominate the sources relied on by journalists”. The wider argument is that our governments are not keen on remedying a scared nation, since national fear pushes the public to consent to more government surveillance and social control (Altheide 2006, Kellner 2003Parenti 2000Glassner 1999). For an excellent and highly informative documentary on some of these issues, please see Adam Curtis’ The Power of Nightmares(2004).

American sociologist and investigative journalist, Christian Parenti, claims that not only does the discourse of crime leave people “scared, divided, cynical, and politically confused” but the prevalence of crime also “short-circuits the social cohesion necessary for radical mobilization”. I will leave it to the discretion of the reader to determine whether or not this is a contributing factor as to why there has never been an effective collective resistance to the economic problems outlined in part 1.

In sum, we have become a culture that accepts fear and caution as an integral part of life. Growing security measures and high crime rates, which are then further exaggerated largely through the media, only heighten this condition of fear, inhibiting both our social and psychological freedoms. If the theories of social control are true, it is all too ironic that some secular societies, which rightly criticised the Church for ruling society through fear of divine punishment, now themselves rule through fear of crime and terror. This once again calls into question the right that we have in the West to call for the ‘freedom’ of others.

In Part 3, I will be investigating the limitations of Western freedom and democracy, specifically in light of the influence of the media.