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Islam as Medium...

Battle of Symbols

Islam as Medium Cool

“Any hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one, as a lecture makes for less participation than a seminar, and a book for less than dialogue … our own time is crowded with examples of the principle that the hot form excludes, and the cool one includes.”

Marshall McLuhan
Understanding Media

In the November 2nd edition of The New York Times, novelist Salman Rushdie weighs in on the side of the “clash of civilizations” side of the debate with a twist. In his article “Yes, This Is About Islam,” Rushdie argues leaders have been repeating the “mantra” that the war is not about Islam for various reasons.

Rushdie sees some of these reasons like deterring “reprisal attacks on innocent Muslims living in the West” as “virtuous” ones centered around hope. Others are based on a political strategy that attempts to play down the size of the opposition for coalition building reasons. As Rushdie says, “if the United States is to maintain its coalition against terror it can’t afford to suggest that Islam and terrorism are in any way related.” The trouble with this “necessary disclaimer” is that it isn’t true.

"If this isn’t about Islam, why the worldwide Muslim demonstrations in support of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda? Why did those 10,000 men armed with swords and axes mass on the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier, answering some mullah’s call to jihad? Why are the war’s first British casualties three Muslim men who died fighting on the Taliban side?"

Rushdie says that events like the above show that “of course” the conflict is about Islam.

At the same time he points out that Islam is a pretty amorphous stand-in for a villain symbol. “The question is,” Rushdie asks, “what exactly does that (Islam) mean?” Islam can and does mean a number of things to millions of people around the world:

"After all, most religious belief isn’t very theological. Most Muslims are not profound Koranic analysts. For a vast number of ‘believing’ Muslim men, ‘Islam’ stands, in a jumbled, half-examined way, not only for the fear of God - the fear more than the love, one suspects - but also for a cluster of customs, opinions and prejudices that include their dietary practices; the sequestration or near-sequestration of ‘their’ women; the sermons delivered by their mullahs of choice; a loathing of modern society in general, riddled as it is with music, godlessness and sex; and a more particularized loathing (and fear) of the prospect that their own immediate surroundings could be taken over - ‘Westoxicated’ - by the liberal Western-style way of life."

It is this amorphous “cluster of customs, opinions and prejudices” that draw together millions around the world with a particular invisible gravity.

Invisibility, whether it is of the fundamentalist network around the world or bin Laden and his direct terrorist perpetuators, ironically invites a type of participation mystique. In this respect, the very lack of definition allows for others to become part of the definition by participating in its invisibility. And perhaps even becoming part of this invisibility?

The wandering, perpetual homelessness of the terrorist groups allow for imaginations to fill in the blank physical space of where they are. Much like cyberspace allows this. Marshall McLuhan would term this transparency of Islam and the terrorists perhaps a form of “cool” medium or a symbol inviting participation because it was less filled with data than a “hot” medium. Radio and movies are hot mediums allowing less participation. Telephones and television are cool mediums allowing more participation.

Arthur Kroker, one of McLuhan’s leading contemporary translators, applies this to the current situation. Writing in an early October 2001 post from his C-Theory Listserve, Kroker notes “Dissuasion is inoperative. Again, the code of dissuasion is intimately linked to a politics founded on preserving territory. However, viral power is terroristic precisely because it occupies only the imaginary territory of symbolic exchange.”

One is reminded of a extremely successful commercial deployment of the “medium cool” of negative space and “imaginary territory” in the Absolut Vodka campaign. In the same way that there is no space inhabited by the “star” brand of the ads, there is no real space inhabited by the terrorists.

Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, writes about the power of Absolut Vodka, negative space and the invisible “hero” product observing “its brand was nothing but a blank bottle-shaped space that could be filled with whatever content a particular audience most wanted from its brands.”

Is the hot medium of information saturated western symbols against the cool medium of low information Islam?

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