Awis Mranani

Semiotic example

Macleans Magazine - Jihad Rally

Macleans Magazine - Muslim Women


Issue or problem

After September 11, 2001, the media has (unintentionally/intentionally) created images that WE often categorize as "them", "others" or "evil" just because culturally they are different from what we generally believe or know.

Semiotic theory


Structuralist semioticians tend to focus on the internal structure of the text rather than on the processes involved in its construction or interpretation. Where those working within this tradition do theorize beyond the text, they tend to argue that communication (particularly mass communication) is a primary process of reality construction and maintenance whereby positions of inequality, dominance and subservience are produced and reproduced in society and at the same time made to appear 'natural'. The 'New Critics', W K Wimsatt and M C Beardsley, whilst not structuralists, advanced the formalist argument that meaning lay within the text and defined as 'the affective fallacy' the notion that the meaning of a poem depended on the 'subjective' responses of the reader, which they saw as 'a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does)' (Wimsatt & Beardsley 1954, 21). Such accounts tend towards 'textual determinism', assuming that texts are invariably read much as was intended by their makers, leaving little scope either for contradictions within and between texts or for variations amongst their interpreters. Monolithic theories of this kind ignore what Saussure had referred to as 'the role of signs as part of social life' (Saussure 1983, 15; Saussure 1974, 16).

Application of theory to example

Islam was introduced to the United States before 1800. It was first brought by the Moriscos who accompanied Columbus ("A Brief Story of Islam in the United States"). The Moriscos are Catholic Spanish who allegedly secretly practice Islam ("Moriscos"). They joined Columbus in the journey to the New World.

During this period, there were names that can be considered as the pioneer of Islam in the United States. One example was Istafan from Azamor, Morocco. He went to the United States to guide the Spanish who wanted to settle in the United States (Ahari). The region where they settled in is now known as Arizona.

From 1800-1890, Islam was very dominant in the slave quarters. In fact, there was much documentation on Islam. One of them is by Theodore Dwight, Jr. who wrote two stories about Lamen Kebe, a school teacher in Africa. In the stories, Dwight incorporated teaching method used in those Islamic schools (Ahari).

Even though Islam seems to have developed for a long time in the United States, the acceptance of Islam is not always smooth. In fact, Islam, the religion of peace, has often involved, affiliated and faced with violence.

After September 11, 2001, the acceptance of Islam is getting more difficult to achieve. The terrorist attacks that hit the World Trade Center had caused American media to generate stereotypes on Muslims. It seems like all Muslims are Arabs and all Arabs are evil (Merskin 158). Media, as a matter of fact, is something that can shape society. Americans spend 32 minutes per day watching TV news and 17 minutes listening to radio news ("Seventy Percent"). Many people in the United States even use multiple forms of media at the same time to satisfy themselves (“Seventy Percent”). Media existence varies from non-moving, for example newspapers and books, to moving, such as TV news, motion pictures, and music videos. Looking at these facts, media seem to be the primary sources of information as well as sources of cultural transmission, through which society can receive new cultural views. Media can also develop public opinion on issues that were shared with them.

According Stuart Hall, the social positioning by mass media is part of encoding and decoding in the semiotic theory. Hall divided the interpretations into three categories depending on how the viewers/readers accept the codes that are given by the mass media (Chandler). The first one is dominant reading which is when the viewers/readers accept the entire preferred reading presented by the mass media. The second one is negotiated reading which is when the viewer/readers share the broad preferred reading but still modify some other codes so that those codes reflect their position. The last one is oppositional reading which is when the viewers/readers do not share the preferred reading (Chandler).

In the case of Islam, in the United States, there is a hegemonic reading in the Western society. In Canada, a magazine called Macleans Magazine published a photograph of Muslim women in their October 23rd, 2008, edition. The women are wearing black burqas and the photos are taken as if the photographer is close to them. Even though other religious leaders, for example, in Christian and Jewish leaders wear black clothing, the black that is associated with them is a sign of submission to God. However, when it comes to the photo of these Muslim women, the black seems to signify more on evil, unhappiness or mystery (Watt). Same case happens with the photo that was published in the October 24th – 31st, 2008, edition. It was a photo of Palestinian militants who were in a Jihad rally. Intentionally or unintentionally, the photo seems to portray brutality or if not hostility.The tool that is being used to mark or create hegemonic reading in the Western popular culture, in this case hegemonic reading on Islam/Arabs, is the one-sided presentation on Islam or Arabs.

Through the media, what is considered as important to the Islam society is not portrayed accurately; for example, like the history of oppression, the Islamic view of justice, and the Islamic vision of their own societies are irrelevant to the Western media. What the media see as significant to be published is anything related to outrages, Islamic revolution, and other violence because there is lack of interest in thinking about or portraying Islam sympathetically (Said). TV networks such as ABC, CNN and PBS do not spend a lot of time covering Arab culture. On the other hand, they have extensive reports on war, violence and threat which related to Arabs (Merskin 165). Therefore, viewers/readers will most likely be exposed only to those hegemonic readings.
It seems like the Western journalists do not consider much about other cultural values because from all the information above they tend to create a rigid depiction of Islam and Arab people as violent and fundamental through news they have presented. Their actions could be intentional or unintentional but still those actions contribute to the wrong construction of image of Islam and Arabs. On the other hand, the principles that the “other” believes are not well considered in the news stories. Plus, the viewers and the readers might not care about the principle that the “other” hold dear and might only care about the impact of the conflict on them.

Not only through images, but also through words is how the hegemonic reading is introduced. One recent example is the statement by the president in his address to the nation. In his address, he stated the word “evil” four times. He introduced the concept of good versus evil or us versus them (Merskin 166). According to Hathout, “Islam is probably the most misunderstood American reality” and “studies have shown that American’s knowledge of the Islamic faith is ‘tragically laughable.’” And as a result, “Most of the time we’re mentioned, it’s sensationalized, ugly, or weird. And when a group is generalized, it becomes an object of fear (Merskin 169-170).

One part of collective action frames that has a strong relation to image construction is identification. According to Wicks, identification as the process of presenting information in ways that highlight differences between groups of people resulting in a dichotomy of us versus them. For example, during the cold war, United States identified them as goodness and identified the Soviet as evil. And now, the West has identified Islam as the new communism (Abukhattala), where Islam portrayed as evil and bloodthirsty, while the West is portrayed as the good (Wicks).

The idea of us versus them is enforced by Bush’s statement:
“Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime (Merskin 170).”

Arab world has been reconstructed by Western elite experts so that it comes off as inferior in technology, religion, and culture (Fuller). The audience might take what they see about Muslims on the media as offensive or inappropriate, but what about other views? The act of terrorism happened in the United States are most of the time political, probably these people want freedom, space, or liberation and the action that they “think” might work is terrorism. That does not mean every member of the society that relates to those groups think the same. Many Muslims, Arabs, and Middle Easterners are moderate and they do not intend to do such violent actions.

Furthermore, propaganda about Islam and ethnic like Arabs and Middle Eastern people is also strongly embedded toward the audience.

There are several ways to propagate an idea through the cinema, one by oversimplifying issues, stereotyping the enemy, over generalizing an idea, creating band wagon, and using psychosocial techniques (Fuller 190). In fact, movies are perfect media to propagate an idea. Many people think movies are just entertainment and the audience will forget about it after sometimes. However, movies do more than entertain; they deliver invisible social, psychological and political messages. One ideological assumption is that a Palestinian is a terrorist is a terrorist (Fuller 190).

In conclusion, Western media, Muslims, Arabs, and Middle Easterners have to compromise. There seem to be cultural differences between the West and the Muslims and Arabs. For the West, things that are unfamiliar, uncommon, or different are seen as rather wrong and so the media play a key role in spreading this hegemony to the public.


A Brief Story of Islam in the United States. Islam for Today. Web. 9 Dec, 2009.

Abukhattala, Ibrahim.

Ahari, Muhammed Abdullah. The Islamic Community In The United States: Historical. Development. Muhammed Abdullah Ahari. Web. 9 Dec. 2009.

Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics for Beginners. Daniel Chandler. Web. 9 Dec 2009.

Fuller, Linda.

Merskin, Debra. “The Construction of Arabs as Enemies: Post-September 11 Discourse of George W. Bush.” Mass Communication & Society 7.2 (2004). 157-175. Web. 9 Dec 2009.

"Morisco." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 6 Dec. 2009. Web. 9 Dec. 2009.

Said, Edward.

“Seventy percent of media consumers use multiple forms of media at the same time, according to a study for the media center at API”. 2004. Web. 26 Nov. 2007.

Wicks, R. (2006). Emotional response to collective action media frames about Islam and terrorism. Journal of Media and Religion 5.4 (2006). 245-263. Web 9 Dec 2009.