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
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