CENTRE for POLICY ANALYSIS

CENTRE for POLICY ANALYSIS

“Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex” - Karl Marx

ARTICLE


Muslims Need a Fair Media


The COVID-19 pandemic has put medical workers through one of themost gruelling tests of all time. They are on the frontlines of the battle to save human lives and are putting on a truly brave show. Yet away from the battle lines, in comfort's confines, is another tribe of doctors engaged in an unusual combat. These are the communal doctors: who are forever devising new medicines and tools for breeding the propaganda that will create hate. In the lead are some 'journalists' who see in this pandemic yet more incendiary fuel to stoke the communal agenda. The media has for long been engaged in toxic propaganda against Muslims, and this new calamity has led to more lethal mutations of the communal virus.

The damage to health, wealth, and well-being has already been enormous. This is like a world war, except in this case, we're all on the same side. Instead of pitting one section of humanity against another we should make it a combined united fight.  

But there is a cottage industry of creative professionals who keep the midnight oil burning to ensure the searchlight remains turned on the big bad Muslim. Churned out by a well-oiled Islamophobia machine, with financial backers, think tanks and misinformation experts constantly manipulating the already flawed image of who Muslims are, or what Islam is. They are confining and attacking the identities of Muslims, which are so diverse they cannot possibly fit in a box.  

In an ideal world, journalism is a profession of incredible integrity and journalists are among the most dexterous and skilled people in the world. We have all benefited from the work of persistent journalists who put life, limb, family and even sanity on the line in their pursuit of truth. There is no sane, decent, and democratic polity possible without journalists who challenge power, relentlessly pursue and disseminate the truth, and always find the next story to tell.  

The press once seemed to have a conscience, thanks to history's painful social conflicts and questions of war and peace. The world, however, has changed, and many of us may be in the time warp of old values. Like all institutions, the media has also suffered.  

Mark Twain once said: "Stupid people - who constitute the overwhelming majority of this and all other nations - believe and are convinced by what they get out of a newspaper, and there is where the harm lies."   

For the media to be credible it has to take responsibility for getting its facts right. That means digging deep, talking to a range of people to get the different sides of the story, and checking their facts rigorously. It should not hesitate to root out and expose lies, hypocrisy and corruption, but has to be sure of its facts before doing so.

There is widespread agreement among Muslims that media reports involving them are selective, biased, stereotypical and inaccurate. If you want to know how many times Muslims have themselves condemned violence and extremism, you just have to Google with common phrases associated with Islamic extremism and you will be surprised by the thousands of Muslims, their institutions, scholars, leaders, priests and governments that are condemning and fighting violence, hatred and terrorism while assuring everyone that this does not have anything to do with the peaceful message of Islam.

Yet it is only the voices of extremism that are microphoned, and the saner voices of secularism, liberalism and pluralism are totally obscured, giving a very distorted slant to the whole discourse. It should go without saying that the majority of Muslims are moderate, peaceful people who have in fact been more affected by terrorism and violence than non-Muslims. But the media is not interested in this positive news. It has constructed its own stereotype of a Muslim and uses selective stories to reinforce this stereotype.

So what is the purpose of the mainstream media if they are not going to fulfil their mission of informing the public? Money. The collective media is a multibillion-dollar monolith. It is an industry that is managed by industry barons who want to promote their own ideology and feed on firing information at the viewer at a machinegun pace, and when that happens, a lot of context is lost.  

Many of the people who work in media have no clue how to tell a story at street level and when it is a story about Islamic issues, they are even more clueless. The press follows a familiar narrative everywhere. Muslims are extremists, intolerant and their scriptures promote violence. The distorted images of Islam stem partly from a lack of understanding of Islam by non-Muslims and partly from the failure by Muslims to explain themselves. The results are predictable: hatred feeds on hatred.

Non-Muslims, ignorant and misunderstanding Islam, fear it. They believe it threatens their most basic values. Fantasy, conjecture and stereotypes replace fact and reality. Similarly, Muslims have their own misconceptions about Islam. Reacting to non-Muslims' hatred and fear, they create a kind of defensive posture within their communities and a combative environment built on militant rhetoric. In this heat and misunderstanding, the voices of peace and tolerance are drowned out.

The reality is that religious leaders and dialogue practitioners may not be equipped to properly understand and analyse news sources or reach out meaningfully to the media. They may not be aware of the process of the newsroom's agenda setting, and may not recognise that journalists do not usually set the news agenda.

Religious leaders and dialogue practitioners could benefit from training on how to represent themselves better to the press and online. They should not allow their messages of peace and reconciliation, or the fact that they represent people of faith, to be overshadowed by media savvy religious voices that deal in conflict and hatred. There is the possibility that in the heat of debate objectivity gets diluted. It is necessary that both faith leaders and journalists appreciate and understand each other's constraints.

The news media relies on sales for survival because their sales figures determine both their subscription and their advertising revenues. What sells is hard-hitting news about dramatic, action-packed and emotionally charged events. This does not mean that audiences do not react positively to in-depth features and profiles, but traditionally headlines are driven by hard news, including political, military and economic developments. This can make it challenging to find a prominent space for nuance.  

There are scholars who devote their entire careers to understanding even a single religious sub-tradition. There are different doctrines, beliefs, modes of dress and practices, institutional structures, leaders, alliances and disputes among individuals or communities that are opaque from the outside. Different communities within the same religion may have different interpretations of history and doctrine. For the news media, training reporters so they can depict and report knowledgeably on religious communities may seem prohibitively time consuming, expensive or difficult. These are the cold, hard facts of day-to-day media operations.

For their part, Muslim leaders can play a very meaningful role in sensitising the media to the various complexities that Islamic issues have. Broader dialogue can help in a nuanced understanding of the whole issue.  

Journalists will need to rededicate themselves to the mission that made journalism the noble calling of so many great women and men. It is their commitment to the values of liberty and freedom that earned the press the status of the Fourth Estate alongside the other three custodians of free speech and democracy.

It is time journalists reaffirmed their commitment to the credo of Joseph Pulitzer III (1913-1993), the founder of the world's gold standard in journalism the Pulitzer Prize: 'We will illuminate dark places and, with a deep sense of responsibility, interpret these troubled times.'  

Photograph by Dar Yasin who won this year's Pulitzer for feature photography together with Channi Anand and Mukhtar Khan  


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