Vilifying and dehumanizing the oppressed
One of the most repeated stories in the Qur’an is the story of Moses (AS)’s confrontation of Pharaoh. When one reflects on the oppressive Pharaonic regime, one finds that its power rested on five pillars: 1) a dictatorial tyrant, who believed he possessed absolute authority over the people, 2) a hypocritical vice-assistant (Hāmān), 3) a wealthy financier of corruption (Qārūn), 4) a corrupt clergy (the magicians), and 5) media and propagators (the Ḥāshirūn). These five pillars that Pharaoh used have continued to manifest throughout history. Today these five pillars are embodied by wealthy corporations, powerful media outlets, corrupt politicians and people of influence (such as celebrities) who endorse the current genocide against the people of Gaza.
Furthermore, the dialogues of Pharaoh and Moses (AS) give insight into the tactics oppressors use to justify violence against those they subjugate. For instance, when Moses (AS) confronted and exposed the Pharaonic society’s false ideology, corruption and oppression, he was met with a wide range of responses to try to suppress his message. In Surah al-A’raf, Allah (SWT) says regarding the cabinet of Pharaoh:
وَقَالَ ٱلْمَلَأُ مِن قَوْمِ فِرْعَوْنَ أَتَذَرُ مُوسَىٰ وَقَوْمَهُۥ لِيُفْسِدُوا۟ فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ وَيَذَرَكَ وَءَالِهَتَكَ ۚ
And the eminent among the people of Pharaoh said, “Will you leave Moses and his people to cause corruption in the land and abandon you and your gods?”
The political elite who benefited from the violence and corruption of the Pharaonic state accused Moses (AS) and his people of causing corruption in the land. The irony is that it was actually these people who accused Moses (AS) of causing corruption in the land who were the ones that had set up and sustained a corrupt social order that allowed for the oppression, murder and enslavement of the Children of Israel. They were the ones who caused corruption by tormenting the Children of Israel, killing their male children and sparing their girls yet they accused Moses (AS) and his followers of what they were guilty of; that is, being corrupt.
By accusing Moses (AS) of sowing corruption they were trying to delegitimize his divine message of tawhīd which would expose their false gods and unveil the crimes they were committing. The accusation of the Pharaoh’s cabinet illustrates that the tactic of oppressors is to blame those they oppress in order to maintain power over them and diminish their struggle for truth, justice, and dignity.
Indeed, oppressive regimes throughout history have used similar tactics against the populations they oppress. Sir John A. Macdonald, the first prime minister of Canada, referred to the indigenous people of the land as savages. He stated in 1883:
When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write.
Macdonald’s language framed the indigenous people as savages, although it was the colonial settlers who were stealing their land and killing innocent people.
Another example can be seen in the 1960s, when Frantz Fanon noted regarding the media coverage of the Algerian struggle for independence against French colonial rule:
When a Western journalist interviews us, however, it is seldom done to render us service. In the war in Algeria, for example, the most liberal-minded French reporters make constant use of ambiguous epithets to portray our struggle. When we reproach them for it, they reply in all sincerity they are being objective. For the colonized subject, objectivity is always directed against him.
Fanon noted how the Algerians were constantly portrayed in a negative light in the media, so that their struggle against the French colonial forces would seem illegitimate. Algerians were portrayed as violent and extreme, despite it being France that was brutally occupying their land.
Another example of this type of propaganda was the negative portrayal of Black Americans in the American media before and during the civil rights era and even in recent times. El Hajj Malik Al Shabazz (famously known as Malcolm X) noted such tactics were used against Black people to delegitimize their struggle against the racism and oppression they faced in American society. He stated:
They take the newspapers and make the newspapers blow you and me up as if all of us are criminals, all of us are racists, all of us drug addicts, or all of us are rioting… They master this imagery, this image-making. They give you the image of an extremist, and from then on anything you do is extreme.”
He noted how the American media portrayed black people in America in a manner that labeled anyone who struggled for freedom, justice, and equality as an extremist while depicting those who benefited from and enabled the racism that oppressed the black community as victims of black extremism.
This is the press, an irresponsible press. It will make the criminal look like he’s the victim and make the victim look like he’s the criminal. If you aren’t careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.
What we learn from the above examples is that oppressors create propaganda to blame those whom they oppress for their own oppression. This is done in order to justify their state of oppression and delegitimize any attempt to challenge the system. Pharaoh accused Moses (AS) of causing corruption because his message was causing discord and exposing the corrupt Pharaonic system. The French colonialists did the same against the Algerians, the American media was used against black civil right activists, and we have been witnessing similar tactics against Palestinians for decades now.
The propaganda used by an occupying power against those they occupy is based on the fact that for an oppressive state to exist it requires an ideology to legitimize that oppression. The famous Palestinian intellectual Edward Said noted as much when he stated:
Neither imperialism nor colonialism is a simple act of accumulation and acquisition. Both are supported and perhaps even impelled by impressive ideological formations that include notions that certain territories and people require and beseech domination, as well as forms of knowledge affiliated with domination.
Once an ideology can be created that allows for a people to be seen as sub-human, savage, and barbaric, then violence against them is easier to justify.
Justifying violence and oppression
قال سَنُقَتِّلُ أَبْنَآءَهُمْ وَنَسْتَحْىِۦ نِسَآءَهُمْ وَإِنَّا فَوْقَهُمْ قَـٰهِرُونَ
…[Pharaoh] said, “We will kill their sons and keep their women alive; and indeed, we are subjugators over them.”
After claiming that Moses (AS) was causing corruption, Pharaoh declared that he was going to kill the sons of the Children of Israel and let their women live. As such, he framed a narrative that because Moses (AS) and his followers were corruptors he was therefore justified in killing them and subjugating them. The statement “we are subjugators over them” made by Pharaoh reflects the derogatory manner in which he viewed the Children of Israel and has strong parallels to the language and statements made about Palestinians, such as the aforementioned Israeli soldier referring to them as animals.
Interestingly, though Pharaoh threatened to kill the Children of Israel’s sons and enslave their women in response to Moses’ (AS) supposed corruption, this violence was present even before Moses’ (AS) birth. Therefore, the violence of the Pharaonic state was not a reaction to Moses (AS), but rather part of its inherent nature.
The manner in which Pharaoh justified his violence reflects the fact that oppressors refuse to acknowledge the violence of the system they create and maintain to oppress others. Therefore, when the violent nature of their system is exposed, they blame the resulting violence on the oppressed who simply demand dignity and freedom.
Returning to the case of Sir John A. Macdonald, after he portrayed indigenous populations as savages, he then justified putting them in reserve schools where they were forcefully taken from their families. In these reserve schools, indigenous children were often further abused and even killed. Macdonald stated:
It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that the Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.
The justification of violence towards the children of Canada’s indigenous population bears striking resemblance to the Israeli state’s justifications for the violence it carries out against Palestinian children. Golda Meir, one of the instrumental figures in founding Israel and its fourth prime minister, once stated: “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children,” she said, “but we can never forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.”
El Hajj Malik also noted in the 1960s how the West justified their violence towards the “third world” by seeking to dehumanize those they attacked. He stated regarding the western media during his time: “It always has words to justify their destruction of the people they’re destroying.”
One example he gave was the Western media coverage of the Congo’s attempt to gain independence from Belgian and Western control. He stated:
Right now, in the Congo, defenseless villages are being bombed, black women and children and babies are being blown to bits by airplanes. Where do these airplanes come from? The United States. The U-n-i-t-e-d S-t-a-t-e-s. Yes, and you won’t write that. You won’t write that American planes are blowing the flesh from the bodies of black women and black babies and black men. No. Why? Because they’re American planes. As long as they’re American planes, that’s humanitarian.
They take the press with their ability to control you with image-making, and they make mass murder, cold-blooded murder, look like a humanitarian project. All these thousands of black people dying, butchered and you have no compassion in your hearts whatsoever for them, because the victim has been made to look like he’s the criminal and the criminal has been made to look like he’s the victim.
His criticism of the bombing of innocent women, children and civilians in the Congo bears a striking resemblance to the current situation in Gaza. The carpet bombing of Gaza that has killed thousands of innocent people, many of them women and children, and displaced more than 1 million Palestinians in Gaza, all of which are violations of international law, are being justified by the same statement “Israel has a right to defend itself.”
In Surah al-Shu’ara, Moses (AS) and Aaron (AS) are commanded by Allah (SWT) to tell Pharaoh to free the Children of Israel from slavery and oppression.
فَأْتِيَا فِرْعَوْنَ فَقُولَآ إِنَّا رَسُولُ رَبِّ ٱلْعَـٰلَمِينَ
أَنْ أَرْسِلْ مَعَنَا بَنِىٓ إِسْرَٰٓءِيلَ
Go to Pharaoh and say, “We are messengers from the Lord of all worlds, let the Children of Israel go with us.’’
How does Pharaoh respond to this demand from Moses (AS) and Aaron (AS)? Pharaoh accuses Moses (AS) of being ungrateful.
قَالَ أَلَمْ نُرَبِّكَ فِينَا وَلِيدًۭا وَلَبِثْتَ فِينَا مِنْ عُمُرِكَ سِنِينَ
Pharaoh protested, “Did we not raise you among us as a child, and you stayed several years of your life in our care?”
Instead of conceding to Moses (AS) and Aaron’s (AS) request to end the oppression of the Children of Israel, Pharaoh reminds Moses (AS) of how he was raised in the Pharaonic palace, and how ungrateful he was, coming from a ‘slave class,’ having had the opportunity to be raised in Pharaoh’s palace amongst the ‘civilized class.’ Of course, what Pharaoh ignores is that he was raised in his palace because his forces were killing the male children of the Children of Israel and Allah (SWT) miraculously saved Moses (AS) by causing him to be found in the river and raised in Pharaoh’s palace without anybody knowing who Moses (AS) was going to be. As such, Moses’ being raised in Pharaoh’s palace was a divine intervention that saved him from Pharaoh’s murderous government and had nothing to do with his magnanimity.
The idea that an oppressor sees themselves as a benign and civilizing force towards those they oppress was an idea that permeated European colonial discourse over the past few centuries to justify the colonial project. Mamdani notes:
The idea “imperialism had served civilization by clearing inferior races off the earth” found widespread expression in nineteenth-century European thought, from natural sciences and philosophy to anthropology and politics.
Colonial discourse tried to remain consistent with its alleged humanitarian ideals by claiming that colonialism was a civilizing force for the world. If the colonized population was treated violently by their colonizers, it was not due to the violent nature of colonialism but rather due to the colonized’s failure to reach the level of being “civilized” as determined by their oppressors. Fanon notes this phenomenon in his statement:
Western bourgeois racism toward the “nigger” and the “towelhead” is a racism of contempt—a racism that minimizes. But the bourgeois ideology that proclaims all men to be essentially equal, manages to remain consistent with itself by urging the subhuman to rise to the level of Western humanity that it embodies.
One of the pivotal figures in the founding of Zionism, the Austro-Hungarian Theodore Herzl sought support from European colonial powers for his Zionist vision partly by justifying it through the Euro-centric racist worldview that saw non-Europeans as less civilized. He stated that amongst the benefits of establishing the state of Israel on the land of Palestine would be that:
We should there form a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.
Furthermore, Herzl fully acknowledged that his vision of the Zionist state was to be modeled after European colonies, where Europeans colonized and exploited non-Europeans. Herzl wrote to the white supremacist Cecil Rhodes, the brutal colonial dictator of South Africa:
Please send me a text saying you have examined my programme and approve it. You will ask yourself why I address myself to you, Mr. Rhodes. It is because my programme is a colonial state.
Devaluing lives of the oppressed
Another propaganda tactic used by Pharaoh against Moses (AS) was to minimize or ignore the suffering of Children of Israel but at same time amplify the alleged “crime” committed by Moses (AS). After Pharaoh responded to the request to let the Children of Israel go by highlighting how Moses (AS) was raised in his palace, he then proceeded to discuss Moses’ accidental killing of an Egyptian.
وَفَعَلْتَ فَعْلَتَكَ ٱلَّتِى فَعَلْتَ وَأَنتَ مِنَ ٱلْكَـٰفِرِينَ
Then you did what you did, being [utterly] ungrateful!
When Moses (AS) saw one of the Children of Israel being oppressed by an Egyptian he sought to stop the oppression, causing him to fight the Egyptian and accidently kill him. This incident is what led Moses (AS) to flee from Egypt. Notice how Pharaoh completely ignores the years of violence by his regime and instead amplifies an accidental killing that was actually the result of the oppressive conditions that Pharaoh himself created.
Again we can see such double standards practiced throughout the 20th century by various western media outlets in how they covered conflicts in which the West has a vested interest. Fanon noted that the Western media was almost silent when it came to the murder of thousands of Algerians and Malagasy by French colonial rule and the murder of thousands of Kenyans by the British in the 1940s and 1950s. El Hajj Malik also noted a similar double standard in the media’s coverage of the violence occurring in Congo during the 1950s and 1960s:
If you’ll notice, as long as blacks in the Congo were being slaughtered on a mass scale, there was no outcry. But as soon as the lives of a few whites were involved, the whole world became in an uproar. What caused the world to become involved in an uproar? The press.
Within the context of the current situation in Palestine, it should be noted that Islamic law condemns the killing of any innocent woman, child or civilian, but it is extremely hypocritical to only focus on the violence that occurred on October 7th against Israel, but completely ignore 75 years of oppression and violence against Palestinians. The media has never batted an eye to the over 650,000 illegal settlers in West Bank and East Jerusalem. The media never bothered to contextualize the living conditions of the people of Gaza caused by the Israeli blockade over the past 16 years. This brutal blockade resulted in 70% of Gazans being refugees, 82% living in poverty, 63% food insecure, and 95% not having access to clean water. Nor has there been any coverage of the fact that Israel has killed more than 3000 Palestinian children in the past 20 years prior to this conflict. The media highlighted the hostage situation on October 7th, but they rarely if ever mention that 20% of Palestinians have been arrested by Israel since 1967, or that an estimated 500-1000 Palestinian children are held in Israeli military detention each year? Currently, despite demonstrations around the world, there are still media outlets that refuse to condemn the over 14000 Gazans killed, more than 6000 of whom are children.
The question arises as to what the average person can do against a multi-million dollar propaganda machine that works in favor of oppression and violence. The Qur’an provides us insight into the Pharaonic method of propaganda and it also gives us insight into how to confront it.