Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Islam's media presence over time

In a Taki's Magazine column, John Derbyshire writes:
Plainly Islam was not, up to 1976, anywhere near the front of anyone’s mind in conservative intellectual circles.

The same was still true in 1986. By 1996, I think, there had been some modest awakening. Now, of course, we are all up to speed. Book-reading aside, the ordinary attentive reader of newspapers, magazines, and websites has taken in a million or so words on the topic of Islam this past few years. We all have our ideas now, though no doubt some are better-founded than others.
For as long as I've been paying attention to the world around me, a point in time that corresponded closely with 9/11, Islam has been a perennial media subject. But I'm aware that that coincidental timing will leave me with a skewed understanding of Islam's historical importance with regards to the country that is my home if I don't force a little perspective.

I assumed the war in Serbia, Desert Storm, the barracks bombing in Lebanon, the Iraq-Iran War, and the Iranian hostage crisis would cause spikes in attention paid to Islam, but figured 9/11 would dwarf them. Thanks to Agnostic, I have a handy method of quantifying (and improving) that generalized conception.

Utilizing the New York Times' online article archive, the following graph shows the number of articles containing at least one of the three words "Muslim", "Moslem", or "Islam" as a percentage of all articles written that year:

It's my understanding that Zionism was, in the late forties and fifties, largely an issue supported by the American left but over time lost its luster as the greatly outnumbered Israelis obliterated their Arab neighbors in every conceivable dimension--economic, political, cultural, military--causing the progressive David steadily morph into the imperialistic, merciless Goliath. So I'm surprised to see that the Muslim world was given so little media attention in Israel's early days, though it's also my impression that, prior to the sixties, the Establishment didn't much care about the world's backwaters. The American public presumably didn't either. Today, the difference is that the Establishment now clearly does care about the third world, though the public remains largely uninterested, as the Derb recently noted by pointing to Eastern Congo. In any case, throughout the fifties, fewer than 1 in 200 articles mentioned Muslims or their religion.

The 1973 oil crisis, putatively precipitated by the US' favoring of Israel in the Yom Kippur War, represents the first noticeable spike in coverage. The Iranian hostage crisis pushed Islam near the 1 in 50 articles range, a level it wouldn't return to until the onset of the Bosnian War more than a decade later. When the World Trade Centers were brought down, 1 in 35 articles mentioned Islam. It has fluctuated modestly year to year from that point since 2001, hitting its historical zenith in 2006 when the bloodletting in Iraq was at its worst.

Tangentially, it is at some point in late 1988 or early 1989 that "Moslem" is replaced with the contemporarily favored variant "Muslim". For the last couple of decades, "Moslem" has been a relic. I understand the change was a result of "Moslem" translating into something nasty in Arabic, while "Muslim" is quite flattering. I wonder if any readers are aware of where the push for what was apparently a very acute change came from. If so, please edify your humble host.


Steve Sailer said...

The Middle East was in the news a lot in the 1960s, but the big Middle Eastern newsmakers like Nasser of Egypt, Arafat of Palestine, and the Shah of Iran didn't emphasize their religion but their nationalities.

It was, as you say, OPEC's emergence in 1973 that shifted emphasis to the overtly religious Saudi Arabia, which had mostly stayed under the news radar before then. I think King Faisal was Time's Man of the Year in 1973. Initial American reaction was that we ought to learn more about Islam because now the Saudis have all the money.

TGGP said...

Until the Iranian revolution (though arguably the defeat of Nasser put the writing on the wall) political Islam was a weaker force than secular Arab nationalism. As Razib pointed out, Christian/secular Arabs were prominent among the leftist "liberation" movements as well as the Ba'ath party. In "Pensees" from 1985 Joe Sobran lumped Shiite Islam together with constitutional conservatism, libertarianism, monarchism & fascism as "right-wing.

Tom in Va said...

Regarding "Muslim/Moslem," Arabic script is usually written without vowels, so Europeans generally added the vowel sounds that made the most sense to them when transliterating. However, when most people pronounce "Moslem" it sounds like 'mozlem', unlike 'muslim' where the s sounds like an s. This is important, because the words Islam and Muslim come from the Arabic word 'salama' which means to submit (as in submit to the will of Allah). However, zulm means 'harm' or 'wrongdoing,' so a 'mozlem' sounds like 'wrongdoer.'

As an aside, why did we change from "Peking" to "Beijing" and "Bombay" to "Mumbai," but not Vienna to "Wien" or "Munich" to "Muenchen?"

Son of Brock Landers said...

Interesting NY Times word or phrase search regarding Islam would be how often they use the phrase 'religion of peace' when discussing Islam. I bet they never brought it up until 2001 when we actively went to war with terrorists and Islamofascists.

dearieme said...

"As an aside, why did we change from "Peking" to "Beijing" and "Bombay" to "Mumbai," but not Vienna to "Wien" or "Munich" to "Muenchen?""

Because the Krauts view themselves as our equals. And vice versa.

Sgt. Joe Friday said...

What was wrong with calling them "Mohammadens"?

Audacious Epigone said...

Very informative, thanks.

Brock, Tom, and Sgt Joe,

More posting material served up!

FuturePundit said...

Tom in Va,

I hear everyone pronounce Muslim with a z sound. So the shift in spelling hasn't changed the pronunciation of the s in my experience.

As for Bombay: I know people from there who call it Bombay.

In college I met a guy who introduced himself as from Ceylon. I said isn't it called Sri Lanka? His response: "That's the buddhist name, nobody calls it that". I have no idea.

bgc said...

This change is underpinned by demography and political domination - see Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations -

"The West had once been pre-eminent and militarily dominant, and the first generation of third-world nationalists had sought to fashion their world in the image of the West. But Western dominion had cracked, Huntington said. Demography best told the story: where more than 40 percent of the world population was “under the political control” of Western civilization in the year 1900, that share had declined to about 15 percent in 1990, and is set to come down to 10 percent by the year 2025. Conversely, Islam’s share had risen from 4 percent in 1900 to 13 percent in 1990, and could be as high as 19 percent by 2025."

(From memory) In 1900 there were two Muslim-controlled countries - Turkey and Afghanistan - now there are about 8 or 22 depending on how you count:

In other word's Islam reached the lowest ebb of its history around the beginning of the twentieth century since when there has been exponential growth in numbers and influence.

It is characteristic that exponential trends growth sneak-up on you, and not long after the time they first become visible, they become *very* obvious.

I think that is what has happened here.

Anonymous said...

(From memory) In 1900 there were two Muslim-controlled countries - Turkey and Afghanistan - now there are about 8 or 22 depending on how you count

Keep in mind that there has been little or no geographical spread of Islam during that time period. The parts of the world that were non-Muslim in 1900, remain so today. Islam may actually have experienced some geographic retrenchment in West Africa.

The expansion in the number of Muslim-controlled countries is due to the end of colonialism. On a similar note, in 1900 there were only two or three black-controlled countries in the world (Haiti, Liberia, I'm not sure about Ethiopia), today there's probably more than 30. All because of decolonialism.


TGGP said...

I disagree that there has been no spread of Islam. Much of Africa used to be pagan, it has since been divided up among Christianity & Islam. Paganism in Asia also took a big hit, but falling more toward major asian religions like Buddhism or just plain non-belief.

Audacious Epigone said...

Re: the phrase "religion of peace", I'm surprised to find how scarcely it has been used in the NYT--only 40 times since 9/11, or once every 3 months. Granted, it was virtually unheard of before that time, but I was under the impression that it was far more common than it actually is.

Son of Brock Landers said...

AE - I wonder if the NY Times is slightly different with religion of peace because, ahem, the 9-11 attacks are so vivid. Maybe another giant MSM paper would be a better proxy for that phrase.

Audacious Epigone said...

Son of BL,

Ha, New York City, right. Good point!