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Towards Informed and Conscientious Media Coverage of Islam
by Karim H. Karim
The violence and destruction visited upon New York’s World Trade Center, its occupants and their loved ones on September 11, 2001 has brought into sharp focus the stark differences in what we had begun to think of as “the global village.” The remarkable advances in transportation and communications of the last few centuries have made the world increasingly smaller. Supersonic air travel and the Internet have changed our notions of time and space, vastly accelerating our ability to reach the distant lands physically and virtually. Despite these significant achievements, the cognitive frameworks which govern our interactions with other cultures continue to be based on age-old stereotypes. Recent events have underlined the vast gulf in understanding between Northern1 and Muslim societies. Lack of information and misunderstandings exist on both sides. But the world-wide dominance of Northern-based global media networks makes it imperative that they make sustained efforts to better understand Islam and Muslims. Violence by militant Muslims is usually portrayed by journalists within frameworks whose cultural biases are centuries old. For example, editorial cartoons draw on images such as the bloodthirsty Saracen wielding “the sword of Islam”, an image embedded in medieval European literature. Such depictions hinder the understanding of violence as well as of Islam.
How does one carry out interpretations of events in another culture to produce a coherent account for the reader at home, without either lapsing into an ethnocentric narrative or losing oneself completely in the Other’s discourse? An answer may be found in Abdul JanMohamed’s description of “the specular border intellectual,” who must disengage personally from allegiances to any one culture, nation, group or institution, “to the extent that these are defined in monologic, essentialist terms.”2 The specular border intellectual “caught between two cultures... subjects the cultures to analytic scrutiny rather than combining them.”3 Instead of becoming disoriented and out of place, he uses his vantage point to view horizons difficult for others to envision. A case in point is that of the Reverend Benjamin Weir, who was held in captivity by a militant Islamist group in Lebanon, and who sought to understand his captors, despite his suffering at their hands:
I reflect on their self- and group-perception neither to justify nor to approve, but to describe. In fact, I deeply resented what they were doing to me. They prevented my freedom. They were a physical and psychological threat to me. They caused distress to my family. They caused fear to my colleagues. They upset the scheme of life, and they shook the foundations of what social order was still left in Beirut. Their violence had already caused, before my capture, great loss of life and severe destruction at the U.S. Embassy and the Marine base. None of this could I excuse. Obviously I could not trust them. But still it was important to me to try to understand them. That understanding came to me very slowly, bit by bit, over sixteen months of my captivity.4
A more recent example is that of Robert Fisk who, after having been physically attacked by Afghan refugees during the American bombing of Afghanistan in December 2001, commented in The Independent (December 10, 2001):
...there were all the Afghan men and boys who had attacked me who should never have done so but whose brutality was entirely the product of others, of us—of we who had armed their struggle against the Russians and ignored their pain and laughed at their civil war and then armed and paid them again for the “War for Civilisation” just a few miles away and then bombed their homes and ripped up their families and called them “collateral damage”. So I thought I should write about what happened to us in this fearful, silly, bloody, tiny incident. I feared other versions would produce a different narrative, of how a British journalist was “beaten up by a mob of Afghan refugees”. And of course, that’s the point. The people who were assaulted were the Afghans, the scars inflicted by us—by B-52s, not by them. And I’ll say it again. If I was an Afghan refugee in Kila Abdullah, I would have done just what they did. I would have attacked Robert Fisk. Or any other Westerner I could find.
Under such circumstances, the task of the border specular intellectual is little short of heroic, but apparently not impossible. The foreign correspondent, by learning to question the essentialist bases of his own socialization could genuinely begin to understand the people he is covering (but, as Weir indicates, understanding does not necessarily mean agreeing with them). The ideal of a specular border journalism has the potential for providing genuinely global narratives that are not monolithic but pluralist, in which cultures are not viewed hierarchically. Such pluralist discourses become all the more crucial as people in different locations on the planet seek to develop a world-wide civil society.
One of the most significant barriers facing the development of informed reportage about Islam is the lack of knowledge and unease among many Northern journalists about religion in general. Henry A. Grunwald, a former editor-in-chief of Time, arguing for the need for a “new journalism” in the post-Cold War era, noted:
Crucial among the newer topics journalism must address are tribalism and ethnic self-assertion, phenomena about which social scientists, let alone reporters, know little; likewise with religion, a subject most journalists have found unsettling ever since it wandered from the Sunday religion pages to the front page. Religious wars, large and small, seem increasingly likely in the decades ahead. Time magazine recently tied together in one cover package the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City by Muslim fundamentalists, the siege in Texas of a group of cultists whose leader apparently thought he was a messiah, and the conflict between Muslims and Christians in Bosnia. This link was legitimate but frail, because these were very different manifestations of “religion.” Not every Muslim fundamentalist wants to blow up New York City, and few Christian fundamentalists belong to cults ready for Armageddon. The press must discuss such distinctions knowledgeably and conscientiously.5
Unfortunately, such journalistic hindsight about “religious wars” seems to occur usually after considerable damage has already been done by traditional media discourses. Deviant faith frequently becomes the focus for reporters not familiar with issues of spirituality. NBC’s former bureau chief in Cairo, S. Abdullah Schleifer, remarks that peaceful religious events are usually disregarded by the foreign press: “Somehow religion only comes alive as a story when somebody is getting insulted or killed.”6 Most Northern journalists covering Muslim societies are largely unfamiliar not only with the subtleties of contemporary religious debates but also with the primary beliefs and practices of their members. For example, the practice of sufism, popular in virtually all Muslims societies and which emphasizes Islam’s humanistic side in its aspirations for universal fellowship, goes almost unacknowledged in the news media.
Even though Muslims comprise around one-fifth of the world’s human inhabitants and Islam is the second-largest religion, after Christianity, in most Northern states, policy makers and journalists know very little about the faith and practices of Islam. Even though Muslim civilization has had long interaction with Europe, it is almost completely absent in the school curricula of Northern societies. The strong resentment in certain Muslim quarters against Northern, especially American, dominance and occasional attacks against Muslim-majority countries is generally not considered to be of significance in Northern discourses. Where no significant effort is made in the mainstream media to understand even the basic tenets and tensions within Islam, a backlash or reaction related to such tensions will inevitably appear to be sudden and without basis. Consequently, the attacks of September 11, 2001 against US targets came as a complete surprise. While this violence was reprehensible, again the tendency in dominant discourses was not to inquire into the fundamental reasons for these acts but to cast the conflict in terms of a polarized struggle between “good and evil.” There was little acknowledgment of US violence in various parts of the world nor any adequate attempt to understand the nature of Islamist militancy.
It appears that American policy makers and media had not learnt from the lessons of the past. The failure of Northern observers to realize the impending fall of the US-supported Shah of Iran in 1979 was largely due to their ignorance about the extent of the populist outrage against the monarch, that had been harnessed by the religious leadership for its own purposes. State-run mass media, which had largely lost credibility among the public, were circumvented by traditional means of communication linked to religious institutions.7 This remarkable underground network was virtually invisible to Western journalists who were enamored with the Shah’s much-touted modernization policies, that in reality had left large numbers of Iranians dispossessed and alienated.
In a study on the American mass media’s coverage of the Iranian hostage situation, Hamid Mowlana considers alternative modes of reporting in a conflict situation.8 He suggests that journalists should have attempted to assist in the resolution of the Iranian hostage crisis rather than inflame passions on both sides with their reporting. Instead of contributing to a crisis mood, Mowlana proposes that the Northern media could help to create non-conflictual attitudes in periods of moderate stress. An exploration of “universal concepts of religious, ideological, or traditional values should be used to bridge the existing cultural communication gap. The common aspects of life that unite rather than divide could be emphasized.”9
Beyond the economic, cultural, and military humiliations suffered by Muslims at the hands of dominant Northern powers, one has to acknowledge the violence done to the Muslim spirit. The extreme reactions of some dispossessed Muslims to Northern interests cannot be explored without taking into account the spiritual dimensions of the conflict. Such an analysis is attempted of the Iranian hostage-takings (1979-81) by Robin Woodsworth Carlsen:
If we considered some of these points: the context within which the Iranian action has taken place, the perception they have of the foundation of our policies, the interpretation they must give to the kind of reaction we have had to this confrontation, we might realize another level of approach, another level of understanding, one that would enable us to transcend the disastrously narrow basis of our present attitude... the Iranians would believe they would be doing an injustice to us if they gave in to our demands, i.e. released the hostages under the terms the U.S. has demanded. For the Iranians believe the world is caught in the most tragic spiritual condition, that is, through this drama that the potency, the beauty, the resoluteness of the religious consciousness will be revealed, [and] the bankruptcy morally, spiritually—of the purely secular, realpolitik conditioned view of the world will be exposed.10
The intrusions of the values and commodities emanating from a secularist and consumerist culture have assailed the world views of Muslims in profound manners. While many do not understand the bewilderment they experience, they do sense the violation of their fundamental senses of right and wrong. Observers of these tragedies cannot divorce the subsequent reactions—some of which are violent—from their causes. Carlsen’s approach, in attempting to communicate at the level of the human spirit and of universally acknowledged values, brings to light a plea for justice on the part of the Iranian dispossessed. He also carries out moral, political, psychological, and aesthetic analyses in his study. Such a multi-faceted scrutiny should not excuse or justify atrocities carried out by Muslim militants, but it helps bring to light some underlying causes.
Despite Edward Said’s own disposition in favor of “secular criticism”11 he is appreciative of the “science of compassion” adopted by Louis Massignon in his extended study of Muslim societies. A devout Catholic and scholar of religion (and a specular border intellectual by JanMohamed’s definition), Massignon strove to understand the spiritual universals that underlay the faith and practices of Christians and Muslims. Said notes in his work the notion of distance that kept Christianity and Islam distinct, without the attempt to assert the dominance of one’s own religious or cultural background: “the religion [Islam] attracted and yet resisted the Christian in him, although—and here is the man’s extraordinary stroke of genius—he conceived his own philological work as a science of compassion, as providing a place for Islam and Christianity to approach and substitute for each other, yet always remaining apart, one always substituting for the other.”12 For Massignon, “language is both a ‘pilgrimage’ and ‘spiritual displacement’”13 which enabled his non-hegemonic narrative. Despite some shortcomings of Massignon’s approach14, journalists would do well to learn from it.
Contemporary approaches to conflict resolution suggest the importance of understanding symbols and symbolic behavior (rituals) on the part of disputing parties. More than statistics or descriptions of events, the symbolic sub-texts of human interactions should be among the primary foci of interest for observers. Symbols and rituals help establish power, and are key to interpreting gestures of peace-making, forgiveness, and harmonious co-existence.15 Underlying symbols and rituals is myth; it is vital for journalists as observers of the human condition to be cognizant of the place of myth and symbols. The mythical significance of Jerusalem, for example, is key to understanding the contemporary relations not only between Palestinians and Israelis but also among Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Uniform media references to “the Temple Mount” rather than “Haram al-Shareef” privilege the Jewish perspective and history over the Muslim. Mohammed Arkoun has argued for a better appreciation of “the radical imaginary common to the societies of the Book/books,”16 namely, Jews, Christians and Muslims. The radical imaginary is viewed here as the common Abrahamic root of these believers’ respective sets of symbols, which could be tapped to understand the true universals shared by these communities for the development of dynamic national and transnational civil societies. (Indeed, there is a larger need to extend understanding of human universals to engender a genuinely global civil society.)
The secularist17 outlook militates against a full understanding of human impulses. Jacques Ellul has argued that it is the fundamental human attraction to totalizing world views, which seek to provide answers to all questions, that makes the secular individual responsive to the universal myths couched even in the technological state’s propaganda.18 There appears to remain a primary affinity to the spiritual import of communication even among those inured by the technique-dominated ethos of contemporary society. Aziz Esmail proposes a wider humanistic discourse that would integrate an understanding of the material and the spiritual aspects of life:
This means transcending our present compartmentalization of knowledge into discrete techniques and disciplines. Let me emphasize here that I am arguing for something deeper, something more basic, than what is nowadays called an “interdisciplinary” approach. The task is not simply to make the “disciplines” blend together into what would merely be an intellectual cocktail mixture. It is, rather, to explore the human foundations in their unity, in a state logically prior to, and transcending, the division of the human project into separate arts, crafts, and sciences. The ultimate aim, in this as in other areas, should be to reconnect knowledge to the human person, for man stands at the point of intersection between technique and spirituality.19
In this, Esmail envisions the disintegration of the dichotomies that have separated religion from humanism and tradition from modernity. Technique, rather than alienating the individual through its obeisance to rationalism, can thus be vitalized by responding to the innermost aspirations of human beings.
The dominant discourses of journalism are rationalistic; they tend to undervalue those actions and events that cannot be explained by “the logic of the concrete”20 which derives from mainstream political or socio-economic theories. Media narratives therefore generally disregard the non-rationalist expressions of the human spirit. Quite apart from religious motivations, all human beings carry out actions whose causes have little to do with the rational faculty. Astute journalists have long recognized that compassion, love, devotion, faith, loyalty, honour, pride, ambition, guilt, jealousy, fear, anger, hate, and revenge are among the most powerful “positive” and “negative” impulses, driving people to behave in manners that rationalism fails to inspire. Those who do not understand these fundamental workings of human communication fail to comprehend the non-rationalism of much of social, political, and economic behaviour as well as the roots of truly universal values. As a result they tend to attribute the actions which they do not understand to “the bizarre,” “the strange,” “barbarism,” “fanaticism,” or “fundamentalism.” They also fail to comprehend the direct, physical violence which is a reaction to the structural violence of the rationalist discourses that deny what Johann Galtung calls the “higher needs”21 of human beings. Understanding the dynamics of power and violence in the relationship between Northern and Muslim societies necessarily involves an appreciation of the continual assault by the dominant technological discourses on the spiritual as well as rational sensibilities of the people located in these Muslim societies.
If Northern journalists wish to produce informed reporting on Muslims they will find it necessary to reorient their modes of operation. First of all, one has to understand the basis of one’s own conceptualization of the Other. Collective cultural memories play a large part in our views about Islam, as do our society’s fundamental myths. One must also acknowledge the importance that religious beliefs hold for significant numbers of people; these cannot be dismissed as mere superstitions, bizarre or quaint, but must be seen as forming a vital part of many individuals’ existence. The human spirit is the source of universal values; rather than dwell on superficial differences, the recognition of the truly universal can help the observer of foreign cultures to understand the basis of their members’ actions. Symbols and rituals embedded in daily life constitute a language that is a truer guide to deeply-held attitudes than political and diplomatic discourses. The journalists who understand the value of these fundamental forms of communication are able to decipher the reality that underlies words and gestures. Those who are mired in stereotypical images of groups and individuals produce hackneyed reports that do not go beyond conflictual scenarios. The institutional response of the mass media to a conflict situation is usually to react first, using clichés and stereotypes in an almost unrestrained manner, and then to reflect upon the matter. Journalism as a craft has to explore more seriously the ways of rising above those of its institutional structures that inhibit informed and conscientious reporting. While structural constraints, like the deadline, the world view of the gatekeeper, and the desire to see one’s work used by media outlets mould adherence to formulaic models of particular situations, the practice of informed journalism by significant numbers of reporters can conceivably produce a critical mass of more authentic coverage.
Dominant Northern discourses have labeled Islam a source of global instability. By so doing, they have reduced Islam to the interpretation favored by the most militant of its followers. Self-serving regimes in Muslim societies have generally tended to exploit Islamic symbols to buttress their own power bases, thus further alienating those who are vulnerable to the propaganda of militant Islamists. There has been little initiative among this militant minority to come genuinely to terms with the issues of modernity within indigenous Muslim contexts, or to go beyond a closed-minded dogmatism by broaching what Mohammed Arkoun has termed the “unthought in the exercise of Islamic thought”.22 While some Northern governments have made isolated attempts to understand Muslims better, this has often been prompted by the desire to control what is seen as a source of conflict and terrorism. There appears to be a sustained trend among certain Northern integration propagandists to institutionalize the view of Islam as one of the most disruptive forces in the contemporary world. This discourse dehistoricizes the relationships between Northern and Muslim societies, erasing the memory of the colonial era in which indigenous socio-economic structures were destroyed and replaced with a global system that favours the North.
Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis posits Muslims as a major threat to the North. Instead of searching for ways to resolve this perceived conflict it incites Northern governments to adopt a more aggressive stance towards Muslim countries. Overtures by the US government to some “rogue states” notwithstanding, the dominant American discourses on international relations remain generally irreconcilable towards Muslim entities that challenge the superpower’s hegemony. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the clash between the two becomes more likely as their respective agendas are influenced by the militant elements amongst them, such as Al-Qaeda. As the dispossessed among Muslim populations come increasingly to suffer under the systemic violence of Northern-dominated global structures, the possibility grows that Muslims will be urged to respond with direct violence through organizations like Al-Qaeda. And as this “Islamic peril” begins to threaten Northern structures of power, as happened on September 11, 2001, the Northern reaction is to place greater restrictions on the freedom of minority Muslim communities. There is also an increased deployment of Northern military power in Muslim countries and the arming of client regimes. The outcome in Iran of such a process during the 1970s was the overthrow of the Shah—a favorite of Washington—and the ascendency of a mullah-led government. Several other Muslim countries are facing various levels of militancy from Islamist groups and may be headed towards similar futures. The likelihood of these tendencies will probably be enhanced by Northern provocations arising from Bible-based predictions of Armageddon-like confrontations in the new millennium.
Dominant media discourses appear to be echoing rather than challenging the “clash of civilizations” thesis and the belligerency it proposes. The influence of Northern-based transnational media in global image and decision-making is well-established. Their world-wide reach and the dependence of media institutions in virtually all countries on them for foreign news coverage ensures that their stereotypes about Muslims are disseminated much more extensively and intensively around the world than the stereotypes that Muslims have about Northerners. However, certain journalists have genuinely attempted to provide more responsible coverage.
Some Northern-based mass media have also been instrumental in uncovering corruption and human rights abuses in Muslim societies. But the generally negative and sometimes ideologically hostile approach of Northern discourses makes it easy for perpetrators of these crimes to dismiss this type of coverage as more anti-Muslim propaganda. An enhanced reputation for informed and ethical journalism in the transnational media would make such reporting more difficult to dismiss.
Some Northern journalists are coming to agree that they can play a role in defusing tense situations or at least in not contributing to their exacerbation. The call by the former editor-in-chief of Time magazine for a knowledgeable and conscientious journalism is an admission that reporters have often been neither. But it is also a recognition that the media have a place in not only acting as mediators of messages but also in the process of improving transnational, inter-cultural communication. The role of the growing number of Southern journalists who work for Northern-based media can be vital in this respect. Structural changes such as increased collaboration between media institutions in the North and the South could also be beneficial to both. Amending newsgathering procedures to ensure that getting it right is more important than getting it first would also improve the quality of reportage. However, as long as newsworkers assume that the “current affairs man” is too occupied with the urgency of today’s news to notice the inaccuracies of yesterday’s reporting, the craft will not rise above its formulaic style of coverage. Those media institutions in which there remains a general absence of intellectual honesty and of respect for the news consumer will not feel the need to contemplate structural changes.
Conscientious journalism comes from the acknowledgement by media professionals of the effects of their work on society. News workers cannot pretend that their claim to objectivity innoculates them from human subjectivity. Whereas it is humanly impossible to be completely objective, one can attempt to recognize the personal and cultural biases for or against the people one reports about. Conscientious reporting recognizes the ideological outcomes of media rituals, seeks to transcend the received scripts and models, and shuns the temptation to cast individuals and groups into the unidimensional roles of heroes, villains, and victims. Beyond just understanding the bases of the “facts” at hand, informed reporting requires the deconstruction of fundamental issues such as violence, peace, democracy, science etc.—assumptions about which have become the unthinkable in dominant discourses. Cognizance of the continual dialectic between different points of view that challenge each other enables the journalist to avoid entrapment into hegemonic interpretations. However, this process does not restrict itself to just two opposing points of view but leaves reporting open to a multi-faceted reality. It does not dismiss alternative discourses but introduces them as legitimate expressions of the people who are the objects of news coverage. The rational, the emotional, and the spiritual all enrich this form of reporting, to which the journalist brings his own intellect, experience, instinct, and conscience. It is this kind of revitalized journalism that will help us better comprehend the nature of truly universal values as well as the context of current events such as the attacks of September 11, 2001.
1 “The North,” which is used here primarily as a geopolitical, economic, and cultural term rather than a geographical one, comprises of United States, Canada, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel. Following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, it is even more pertinent to speak of the North-South dichotomy than of “the three worlds.” Whereas both the North and the South consist of countries and areas within countries with substantial differences in levels of economic development as well as a variety of distinct cultures, it is legitimate to group them into two global regions in the context of the North-South geopolitical divide. Northern societies have Eurocentric world views and Southern ones generally share the cultural subordination (which comes from being former colonies of Northern powers) and the disadvantages of global economic structures that are largely weighted in favour of the North. See Karim H. Karim, Islamic Peril: Media and Global Violence (Montreal: Black Rose, 2000), pp. 6-7.
2 Abdul R. JanMohamed, “Wordliness-without-World, Homelessness-as-Home: Toward a Definition of the Specular Border Intellectual,” in Michael Sprinker, Edward Said: A Critical Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992), pp. 117.
3 Ibid, p. 97.
4 Benjamin M. Weir, “Reflections of a Former Hostage on Causes of Terrorism,” Arab Studies Quarterly 9 (1987), p. 155.
5 Henry A. Grunwald, “The Post-Cold War Press: A New World Needs a New Journalism,” Foreign Affairs (Sum. 1993), pp. 14-15.
6 S. Abdullah Schleifer, “Media Secularism Taints Appraisal of Middle East,” The Middle East Times, 9, July 7-14, 1985, p. 9.
7 Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi and Ali Mohammadi, Small Media and Big Revolution (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota, 1994) and Hamid Mowlana, “Technology versus Tradition: Communication in the Iranian Revolution,” Journal of Communication 29:3 (Sum. 1979), pp. 107-112.
8 Hamid Mowlana, “The Role of the Media in U.S.-Iranian Conflict,” in Andrew Arno and Wimal Dissanyake, eds., The News Media in National and International Conflict (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1984), pp. 94-95.
9 Ibid, p. 94.
10 Robin Woodsworth Carlsen, Crisis in Iran: A Microcosm of the Cosmic Play (Vancouver: The Snow Man Press, 1979), p. 40.
11 Edward W. Said, The World, the Text and the Critic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 29.
12 Ibid, p. 285.
13 Ibid, p. 286.
14 Thierry Hentsch, Imagining the Middle East, pp. 171-178.
15 Daniel L. Smith, “The Rewards of Allah,” Journal of Peace Research 26:4 ( Nov. 1989), pp. 385-398 and Stephen P. Cohen, and Harriet C. Arnone, “Conflict Resolution as the Alternative to Terrorism,” Journal of Social Issues 44:2 (1988), pp. 175-89.
16 Mohammed Arkoun, Rethinking Islam: Common Questions, Uncommon Answers, translated by Robert D. Lee (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1994), p. 9.
17 “Secularism/secularist” is not meant here in the sense of the separation of Church and State, but what Aziz Esmail refers to as “the strong sense of the term” (he calls Church-State separation “secular thinking” as opposed to secularism). According to Esmail, “Secularism in the strong sense of the term has the characteristics of an ideology, treating religion as a rival to itself, and attempting to offer a total explanation of its own...” Hayat Salam, ed., Expressions of Islam in Buildings (Geneva: Aga Khan Trust for Culture, 1991), p. 24. For a useful list of secularism’s meanings, see Michael Hill, A Sociology of Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1973), pp. 228-251.
18 Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, translated by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969), p. 251.
19 Hayat Salam, ed., Expressions of Islam in Buildings, p. 27.
20 Gaye Tuchman, Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality (New York: Free Press, 1981), p. 90.
21 Johan Galtung, “The Specific Contribution of Peace Research to the Study of Violence,” in UNESCO, Violence and Its Causes (Paris: UNESCO, 1981).
22 Arkoun, Rethinking Islam, op. cit., p. 2.