Asia’s Distorted Image (9/00)

In Indonesia, devout Muslim women named Gayatri or Laxmi read the Bhagavad Gita. Meanwhile, in India, Muslims and Hindus share a culture of co-existence and assimilation. Yet, such realities are largely concealed by a cultural mafia that legitimizes and markets stereotypes. They would have people believe instead that all Muslims are fundamentalists, all Christians are out to convert the world, and all Hindus are fanatics.

What is Ganesha doing in the Indonesian drawing room of a devout Muslim? How come women who pray to Allah five times a day are named Parvati, Laxmi, Gayatri, or Devi? Are these social aberrations? No, they’re the norm in thousands of Muslim households in Indonesia. In one of several visited during a recent trip, I was pleasantly surprised to find a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. The book wasn’t just sitting on a shelf, it was being assiduously studied, with paragraphs underlined and notes in the margins.

Back in Pune, I live near an important Muslim shrine. Every day, not just Muslim devotees visit it, but Hindus as well. And each year, our local festival transcends the traditional boundaries of both religions. Growing up, I heard as much about legends surrounding the ancient Syrian Christian church as those concerning the Devi of the ancient local temple.

These examples illustrate a tradition of cultural co-existence, reconciliation, and assimilation. But these values are often rendered almost invisible. What seems to matter most is image – too often constructed, marketed, legitimized, and used to subvert societies and cultures.

Concealing the Truth

Cultural policing is practiced by chauvinistic and fanatical elements around the world. Lately, we hear much criticism about bulldozing market globalization. But knee-jerk cultural reactions are equally dangerous and counterproductive, although the phenomenon is rarely discussed.

Aggressive market capitalism and reactionary cultural relativism feed each other in paradoxical ways. One significant aspect of the current information and media revolution is the predominance of images in shaping reality. There was a time when reality shaped images. It found expression in innumerable creative ways, transformed powerfully through poetry, plays, painting, art, and architecture. But the process seems to have been reversed.

Today, images are used to interpret and influence, often shaping our sense and sensibilities. In the image-saturated streets of globalized economies, poetry is nearly dead and buried. Few novels depict the nuances of living people. Instead, images of the future proliferate, coalescing into science fiction. At the same time, playgrounds are deserted; children no longer want to run around and get themselves dirty. They prefer simulated computer football matches and motorcycle races.

Markets thrive on images. So, when an Indian writer wins a prize, the work is marketed like any other consumer product, based on image rather than merit. Huge advances and box-office projections determine whether a novel will be read, or a film watched.

The construction and marketing of stereotypical images is practiced around the world by emerging cultural mafias. I call them that because they unethically and unscrupulously exploit culture to amass wealth and power while subjugating peoples and societies.

When you hear the word "Islam," the image of the Taliban or Osama bin Laden immediately comes to mind. Few think of the liberal, tolerant, and indigenous Muslims of Indonesia, a country with one of the largest Muslim populations. When you hear the words "Hindu nationalist," the image of Vivekananda, Gandhi, or Aurobindo isn’t summoned. Instead, it’s the vandalism and hooliganism of a minority of Hindu fanatics. Likewise, the image of the Christian in India is slowly being transformed into someone with Western loyalty, out to convert anybody and everybody.

Over time, these images help to conceal reality and manipulate middle class opinion in ways that suit the needs of the local cultural mafia. The threats posed by the Islamic Taliban, right-wing Christian fundamentalists, Hindu fanatics, and ultranationalists in Russia, Germany, and Austria are magnified by an emerging global elite that seeks to subvert existing structures of power and legitimacy for its own ends. The images they market are built around cultural stereotypes that selectively exploit history and promote a conservative social agenda.

Marketing Paranoia

Most Muslims don’t marry four times or seek divorce at the drop of a hat. We also know there have been very tolerant Muslim rulers and reform leaders. But the images thrust on the global public are based on biased interpretations and selective image construction. Hence, in Iraq, Saddam Hussein is widely viewed as a courageous savior; according to Western media, however, he’s synonymous with evil. Both images are based on stereotypes and sweeping generalizations.

Manipulative image construction can have dangerous political consequences. Historical examples are abundant: the stereotyping of Jews as exploiters in pre-Hitlerite Germany, the image of dissidents as imperialist agents in the Soviet Union, leftists as anti-US agitators, and the image of intellectuals as anti-national and anti-poor during the Cultural Revolution in China. Such politically manipulated stereotypes have left behind an unspeakable legacy. Though Hitler and Stalin used different rhetoric and arguments, at the end of the day, there was little difference. The ordinary people of Germany tasted the bitter consequences, and Russians still suffer the unintended byproducts of Stalinism.

On the other hand, the image-building industry isn’t merely part of a grand conspiracy. Rather, stereotypes emerge partly out of the insecurity and paranoia of the middle classes in different countries, and from the tendency to present news and views as consumer products packaged with striking images and sensational coverage. Television thrives on highly-charged images. Each channel markets them to compete with the rest, turning trivial and insignificant personalized images into global preoccupations. Sadly, many people feel the same kind of thrill watching the bombing of Iraq as they do viewing a boxing championship or World Cup cricket.

Some Christian missionaries appear more concerned with marketing images of Christianity than applying the lessons of their faith to their real lives. Their enthusiasm for saving the world from sin is more visible on TV networks than in real experience or actions. When the leaders of established churches sell salvation like soap or fast food, they’re basically marketing the idea of salvation rather than spreading a real message of hope.

High visibility marketing without any effective follow-through often creates backlashes in the form of cultural reaction and glorification. No wonder the prevalent image of the Christian is an overzealous southern Baptist out to save and convert "dark" continents.

In reality, most Hindus are concerned with survival issues: better food, shelter, and social amenities. So are most Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Buddhists. Every Christian isn’t a proselytizing maniac any more than every Hindu is rabidly campaigning against Valentine’s Day. But a power-hungry minority manipulates such images, and disseminates them through co-opted intellectuals.

Meanwhile, the bulldozing tendency of the globalized market creates cultural paranoia among the world’s middle classes. Reinforced by dominant images and symbols, this paranoia leads to the creation of social and political myths based on half-truths. The regressive and politically frustrated elements in each religious and cultural stream make use of this paranoia by further reinforcing cultural stereotypes and myths. In large part, such myths glorify the past and shift the blame for socio-economic inadequacies.

The media, more concerned with market share than long-term social responsibility, feed social tensions by producing more and more sensational images for more and more buyers. Ultimately, a critical mass of social acceptance is achieved for the stereotypes.

Along with aggressive marketing, stereotypes are legitimized by intellectuals and academicians who provide a veneer of intellectual sophistication. That’s why the Nazis made use of the work of Nietzsche and Heidegger. In India, erstwhile leftist intellectuals are increasingly turning saffron, while progressive editors write articles legitimizing stereotypes. Many see a ministerial chair in their future. In clinging to the powerful, such free-floating intellectuals and cultural activists become social parasites, rationalizing and glorifying extreme forms of cultural relativism.

Rebuilding Bridges

Cultural self-reliance and jingoism aren’t the same thing. For example, images of Valentine’s Day may well be largely rooted in the logic of the globalized marketing of entertainment, greeting cards, and the fashion industry. To some extent, it’s clearly about profit. Yet, knee-jerk opposition to the marketing of images of modern romance isn’t a solution.

In India, the same cultural mafia that woos multinational corporations also questions everything under the sun, presumably because it has a foreign (read "Western") origin. Instead of exposing the dangerous consequences of this politico-cultural trapeze act, intellectuals and the media busy themselves catching fish in the muddied waters.

The ultranationalist Zhirinovsky in Russia, bin Laden in Afghanistan, and their counterparts in India thrive because of short-term political calculations and emerging cultural paranoia. Nevertheless, an effective response to globalization and cultural reaction could emerge, locally and globally, out of a reform movement that revitalizes the liberating, humanizing, and eclectic streams of culture. Such social, cultural, and political reform is based on real life experiences rather than artificial, intensely marketed images and consumerist culture.

Culture is a double-edged sword. In the name of culture, women are sometimes denied justice, Indians practice untouchability, Blacks are defined as inferior, and human rights are abused. Some of the world’s worst atrocities are committed in its name. The world over, vultures thrive on the destructive elements of culture.

But the world’s social and cultural practice has evolved through mutual influence, assimilation, and reinforcement. That’s why a Muslim child in Indonesia may know more about the Ramayana than an Indian youth who is force fed doses of a glorified cultural past. It’s also the reason the Indian Constitution is considered one of the best in the world, and politicians talk about cultural purity in a parliament building constructed by British colonialists.

Culture isn’t an island. Rather, it’s a bridge connecting people, nations, and humanity. It’s a sense of belonging, not a denial of the other’s belonging.

To redeem culture from cultural mafias, we must shake off our complacency. We don’t require cultural policing to reinforce our heritage, but we do need to rebuild our sense of self-respect and self-worth without being swept away by the market.