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“I have killed the Pharaoh!”

On October 6, 1981, Lieutenant Khalid Islambouli, the leader of the plot to assassinate President Anwar Sadat, leaped from his passing military truck and ran toward the stands where dignitaries were viewing the parade. He and three collaborators lobbed grenades toward the Egyptian President and discharged their weapons. After Islambouli finished firing his assault weapon at Sadat, he cried out, “I have killed the Pharaoh!” Sadat was shot thirty-seven times. Forty people were killed or wounded.

Why a reference to a dynasty over 3,000 years in the past? This may seem strange to us in the West. More recently, in an audio statement released to CNN on November 14, 2002, Osama Bin Laden labeled President George W. Bush, “the Pharaoh of the century”. Here was another reference, among many in current events, to the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh. Why? To Muslim hearers, these references are not strange at all. They are readily understood.

In Islamic folklore there is a master narrative about the Pharaoh of Egypt. The Qur’an introduces the figure of the Pharaoh into Arabic literature. The tale is commonly told of the Pharaoh of Egypt oppressing enslaved Semitic people in ancient times. His rule was authoritarian. He was proud and arrogant. He was obsessed with power and intoxicated by wealth. The Pharaoh of Egypt sovereignly exploited land and people for personal selfish ends. But, the story tells of God revealing Himself to a chosen leader from among the oppressed people and commissioning him to stand against the Pharaoh as the authentic representative of the one true God. This, Moses did, and through a series of miracles, the oppressed people were delivered and the Pharaoh himself was killed.

The Pharaoh master narrative is really about conflict between the oppressive state regime and political rebels. In the narrative a diety reveals himself and commissions a leader from among the oppressed to stand against the state. The chosen leader from among the people represents deity and exercises the will of deity. For Islamists, the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 ended the rule of an arrogant tyrant who persecuted believers and prevented the establishment of the Islamic state in Egypt.

Why do I need to know about master narratives? They can be found at the root of Islamist extremism. They are repeated daily throughout the Muslim world. Arguments for the benefits of democracy do not displace master narratives. In fact, there are master narratives about the blasphemy of democracy as a trickster human system intended to thwart the rule of Allah.

What are master narratives? A master narrative (MN) is “a transhistorical narrative that is deeply embedded in a particular culture” (Halverson, Goodall, & Corman, 2011, p. 14). They attain dominance over time through relevance, repetition, and reverence.  MNs always contain ideal and unideal archetypes – characters, events, and plots that are known to and remembered by all people in a culture. Just the mention of archetypes invoke the whole master narrative without actually telling the story. Hence, the simple reference to Pharaoh invokes the whole master narrative and its meaning noted above.

MNs shape the environment in four ways:

  1. They enable people in a culture to make sense of everyday life
  2. They connect the present day with the past
  3. They are used by people to justify current behavior
  4. They tell people what the future will be, and as such, provide a trajectory

To have credibility with people in a culture, master narratives must display six characteristics. They must be:

  • Coherent – they must make sense
  • Thematic – they must include a collection of systemic stories that elaborate a cultural value
  • Real – they must comport with reality as people perceive it
  • Meaningful – through framing they make meaning
  • Prophetic – they reveal trajectory
  • Historical – they must be deeply rooted in history, so much so, that they are widely shared, told again and again, and are extremely resistant to change

What are examples of master narratives? The number of MNs throughout all cultures is incalculable. Here are five that illustrate the characteristics and purposes described above:

  1. The Pharaoh in the Qur’an and Torah
  2. The Account of September 11, 2001 in Lower Manhattan, New York City, USA
  3. The Battle of Karbala
  4. The Story of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s
  5. The Account of the Dirty War in Argentina and the Disappeared Ones

How do socio-political and religious leaders use master narratives in strategic communication, that is, communication intended to influence people toward a specific goal? How do master narratives create a rhetorical vision that drives human behavior? Are master narratives and their rhetorical vision able to be changed? If yes, how? In blog posts to follow, Global Perspectives Consulting will explore these questions.


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