Culture & Society

  • Issue 92 / March - April 2013

    Mala’, Manufacture of Consent, and True Freedom

    Hamdi Sener

    Mala’, the ruling clique of a particular social order, throughout history have always been at the forefront to control the thoughts and actions of their people. With a new face and form, the mala’ continues today, covertly, without being exposed as a distinctive group, and reaches its objectives by manipulating majority thinking through propaganda, manufacture of consent and acquiring “true” freedom. How can the threat imposed by the present day mala’ be defied and how can the majority gain true freedom?

    Historical events mentioned in the Holy Qur’an reveal critical clues about the social arrangements of the tribes onto which God has sent His messengers. By scrutinizing on these parables one can easily notice that whenever a prophet is sent to a group of people, his message was denied at first by the ruling clique of that social order. In various places of the Holy Qur’an, these people, who are at the climax of the society and who oppose the prophets and their followers, are addressed as al-mala’ (the chieftains). Mala’ is a distinctive group in tribal culture because, even though they are small in number, they are rich, influential and well respected. Among the society in which they live, mala’ appears to be the ultimate preservers of the status quo where they have the final say. According to the Qur’an, arrogance is the central characteristic of mala’ which gets in their way of accepting the religion:

    “The leading ones among his people, who were arrogant and oppressed the others, said to those that they scorned, to those among them who were believers: “Do you really know and consider Sālih as one sent by His Lord with a message?” They replied: “We do indeed believe in what he has been sent with.” Those who were arrogant said: “What you have come to believe in we indeed disbelieve.” Then (without enduring any longer to see her as evidence of the truth of Sālih’s message), they cruelly slaughtered the she-camel, and disdainfully disobeyed the command of their Lord, and said: ‘O Sālih! Bring upon us that (punishment) with which you have threatened us, if you are of those sent (by God with the truth)!’” (Al-A’raf, 7:74−77)

    Even though mala’ portrays itself as a completely sovereign and self-sustaining group, it necessitates the full obedience of jumhoor (majority of the society) in order to continue its existence. This is the main reason why mala’ has been the foremost opposing group towards the messengers of God. The message sent to people via prophets, and the notions attached to it (e.g. tawheed: accepting that there is no god but God, tasleem: surrendering to the God, tawakkul: reliance on God by accepting that He alone is sufficient for all the needs) in every way undermines the very existence of mala’. The particular teachings of the prophets that turned mala’ against them include:

    •Wealth or genealogy does not reflect peoples’ positions before God
    •No group of people is inherently superior or inferior
    •Worshipping God does not require any mediators

    Based on the verses of Qur’an and traditions of the prophets, the methods used by mala’ in order to alienate the prophets and their followers can be categorized and exemplified as follows [1]:

    1)Fabricating misconceptions about the prophets, their messages and followers: Claiming that the prophets are wizards, liars and/or mad people. (7: 65-66, 109-110)
    2)Ridiculing and mocking. (11:38)
    3)Encouraging materialism and denying the afterlife. Using material tendencies to divert the attention of people from the teachings of religion towards worldly pleasures. (23:24, 25, 33)
    4)Violence: Torturing and killing prophets and followers publicly or secretly, casting them out of their homelands. (7:121-124; 127)
    5)Creating fear among the laypeople either through violence against the believers or through misconceptions (7:90; 7:88)

    Mala’ in the present day
    The intervention between individuals and high moral values, for the sake of personal interests, is still continuing to this very day, only changing its form. So Mala’ still executes a very subtle yet effective plan to protect the socio-economic status of the “privileged,” at the expense of depriving society of morals. In the modern times, thanks to the blooming ideas of freedom and democracy, it has been well accepted that social orders, in fact, sustain themselves much proficiently in the absence of an aristocrat group which is meant to rule the rest of the society. That is the main reason why, in today’s societies, it is not as easy to refer to a specific group as mala’ as it was in the past. However, according to some theories, mala’ has never ceased its existence. According to these claims, even though today’s democracies are designed in the best way to reflect the majority’s opinion on governments, mala’ has generated novel ways to control society without being exposed as a distinctive group. Mala’ of modern times prefer to perform its methods behind the scenes by simply making laypeople believe that it does not exist. It is not involved in matters openly as it used to be but rather reaches its objectives via manipulating majority thinking [2].
    These theories might be quite stirring but they are still in need of conclusive evidence. On the other hand, if we re-examine Qur’anic verses explaining the tactics employed by mala’, we can easily notice that similar practices are still being used for various propaganda purposes, especially in the mass media. According to Noam Chomsky, institute professor* of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the mass media is the ultimate milieu of spreading propaganda in the contemporary world. In his book Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda, Chomsky claims that in modern societies propaganda is the ultimate strategy employed by the elite clique to be able to pacify the masses and control them: “In what’s nowadays called a totalitarian state, or a military state, it's easy you just hold a bludgeon over their (society’s) heads and if they get out of line you just smash them over the head. But as societies become more free and democratic, you lose that capacity. Therefore you have to turn to the techniques of propaganda. The logic is clear. Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.” Chomsky summarizes the methodology of propaganda as follows: “The people in the public relations industry aren't there for the fun of it. They are doing work. They are trying to instill the right (!) values. In fact they have a conception of what a democracy ought to be. It ought to be a system in which the specialized class are trained to do their work for the service of the masters, the people who own the society, and the rest of the population ought to be deprived of any form of organization because organization just causes trouble. They ought to be just sitting alone in front of the television set and having drilled into their heads daily the message which says the only value in life is to have more commodities, or to live like that rich middle class family you're watching…” [3].

    The methodology of modern day propaganda was introduced at the first quarter of the twentieth century by Edward Bernays (1891-1995), so-called father of public relations, whose marketing skills made him one of the most popular advertisers of the time. According to Bernays, an advertisement could make consumers want things they do not need if it is prepared with the right tools; the tools that are capable of manipulating human thinking [4]. Nevertheless, these techniques necessitated a profound understanding of consumer psychology. Even though Bernays was not a psychologist by training, he had a very robust source from which he could obtain intriguing ideas about the ways the human mind work: his uncle, Sigmund Freud.

    Freud was not a big supporter of the United States and he would not hesitate to criticize America openly. However, by means of his nephew Bernays, his ideas have influenced US lifestyle profoundly. Freud believed that human beings were in fact irrational creatures controlled by their primal fears and unconscious, selfish and bodily desires. Based on this assumption, Bernays concluded that instead of being logically persuasive, advertisements had to link the mass produced goods to people’s subconscious in order to be appealing. One of Bernays’ first advertisement campaigns is a great example of how this new approach worked: George W. Hill, president of American Tobacco Company, hired Bernays in 1929 with the intention of convincing American women to smoke. This was not an easy task in the 1920s because in that era smoking was perceived as a masculine habit, one which was unthinkable for women. After discussing with various psychoanalysts, Bernays decided to start an advertisement campaign called “The torches of freedom” which portrayed smoking as a symbolism of free women [4]. To this end Bernays used mass media to distribute images of top models wearing the most fashionable outfits of the time to create a “free woman” image whose indispensable constituent was smoking cigarettes. The campaign turned out to be a triumph for the American Tobacco Company. Soon smoking became a central habit for modern American women. Ironically, American women became addicted to tobacco on their quest for freedom. Even today majority of advertisements targeting women are based on similar slogans.

    Manufacture of consent
    After his successful advertisement campaign with the American Tobacco Company, Bernays worked for other big US corporations such as CBS, Procter and Gamble, General Motors and General Electrics. His achievements in the marketing sector started to influence political thinkers as well, such as renowned journalist and political commentator Walter Lippmann (1889-1974). Lippmann believed that mobs could not be entrusted with decision-making, thus, in the interests of power, ordinary people (or in his own words “the bewildered herd”) needed to be managed by enlightened experts. In the art of democracy public management was supposed to be obtained not by force but by what he called the “manufacture of consent.” In his articles he defined this concept as follows: “… the manufacture of consent is capable of great refinements no one, I think, denies. The process by which public opinions arise is certainly no less intricate than it has appeared in these pages and the opportunities for manipulation open to anyone who understands the process are plain enough…The creation of consent is not a new art. It is a very old one which was supposed to have died out with the appearance of democracy. But it has not died out. It has, in fact, improved enormously in technique, because it is now based on analysis rather than on rule of thumb. And so, as a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner. A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power.”

    The revolution indeed took place. As Lippmann has foreseen the techniques introduced by Bernays, it has been vastly used by world powers in order to manipulate communities’ thinking. One of the most infamous examples is for sure the Nazi Party’s anti-Jewish propaganda before and during World War II. Dr. Joseph Goebbels, who worked as the Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945, was a passionate admirer of Bernays even though Bernays had Jewish origins. He tried to meet Bernays several times in his lifetime. He even claimed that he had one of his books autographed by Bernays. Goebbels used propaganda techniques to psychologically prepare German society for the annihilation of Jewish people. Unfortunately, it was neither the first nor the last case where propaganda techniques were employed to alienate a group of people because of their race, nation or religious beliefs.

    True freedom
    In 1990, Edward Bernays was named one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century by Life Magazine. In his book Propaganda, Bernays describes the extent of manipulation quite frankly: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. In almost every act of our lives whether in the sphere of politics or business in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind” [4].

    Such means of social manipulation is indeed discomforting to consider, but remains a reality. In the contemporary world, the means through which propaganda spreads is stronger than ever. A single touch on our smart phones, let alone watching television or surfing the internet, can be sufficient to expose ourselves to a bombardment of manipulative advertisements, news and ideas. Consequently, the inevitable question that is raised is: “How is it possible to live and think freely without being controlled and manipulated by sources of propaganda?” Unfortunately, solution to this problem is not a trivial one. Rather than using logical arguments to modify society’s mindset, modern day propagandists try to change people’s lifestyles in order to influence their way of thinking. A quote credited to Prophet Muhammad’s companion, Umar ibn al-Khattab, underlines this threat quite successfully “He who does not live in the way of his beliefs starts to believe in the way he lives.” Perhaps, under such circumstances, the least we should do is to filter out materials that are intended to change our moral values bit by bit. In particular, elements of mass media tirelessly impose that an individual cannot be completely free unless he performs whatever he desires. Any external factor that prevents people from obtaining what they like is represented as a restriction to freedom. By doing so it is made sure that religious and moral disciplines do not interfere with people’s decisions and they are left alone with their yearnings. As a result, instead of becoming free men, society is being transformed into slaves of egoism and consumerism. In my opinion, being able to defy such threats depends on following the footsteps of the people who managed to reduce mala’s influence in the most effective yet peaceful ways, namely the messengers of God. Frugal but dignified lifestyles of prophets Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them all) and alike should be our points of references instead of the characters displayed on billboards, movies and television series. We should constantly remind ourselves the moral teachings which state that true freedom can only be achieved by freeing ourselves from selfish desires.

    *Institute Professor is the highest title that can be awarded to a faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    [1] Muhammad Alshareef. Perished Nations, online lecture series.
    [2] Bernays, Edward. 2004. Propaganda, Ig Publishers.
    [3] Chomsky, Noam. 2002. Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda, Seven Stories Press.
    [4] Curtis, Adam. 2002. Century of the Self, BBC.


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