Why media owes Muslims an apology

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Haq Se Agar Gharz Hai To Zaiba Hai Kya Ye Baat

Islam Ka Muhasiba, Yourap Se Darguzar!

(And if your goal be truth, Is this the right road,

Europe’s faults all glossed, and all Islam’s held to so strict an audit?)

Muhammad Iqbal 

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 condemned violence and extremism, just google “Muslims against terrorism” or “Muslims condemning ISIS” or any similar words and you will be surprised by the thousands of Muslim institutions, scholars, and governments that are condemning and fighting terrorism while assuring everyone that this does not have anything to do with the peaceful message of Islam.

The majority of Muslims are moderate, peaceful people who have been affected by terrorism and violence more than non-Muslims.

But the media is not interested in this news. It has constructed its own stereotype of a Muslim and uses selective stories to reinforce it.

Stories in the media often treat Muslims as if they were all the same. They also often treat understandings of Islam as if they have never changed and are the same around the world. Muslims continue to be portrayed as uniformly fundamentalist, violent, and anti-secular.

The terms Islamic or Muslim are linked to extremism, militants, jihad, as if they belonged together inextricably and naturally (Muslim extremist, Islamic terror, Islamic war, Muslim timebomb, etc.)

In addition to the media, scholarship often pays limited attention to the debates that Muslims have among themselves about Islam, what it means to be a Muslim, how Muslims deal with differences among themselves, their differing understandings of Islam and their diverse relationships with non-Muslims.

There is a strong voice of moderates from within Muslim ranks that can be properly channelised by the media to give a rounded assessment of Islamic issues. It is equally true that the media has tried to hype acts of Islamic impropriety by indulging in hyperbole.

Sadly, journalism is still failing to perform its fundamental role by simply rehashing tired old narratives of “radical Islam” or a “fight within Islam”. The truth is much more convoluted than that – and the entire world has a direct role in creating the dangerous reality that so many Muslims have to live with every single day.

 

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The media shows remarkable consistency in employing an arsenal of semantic games, key phrases, convenient omissions, and moral relativism to portray such violence as a product of Islam. As Jim Morrison observes: “Whoever controls the media, controls the mind.”

Several times headlines are sensational or distorted and reporting is often deeply racist. This impacts directly the lives of Muslims. Some of the stories that are thus emerging are painful and disturbing.  

It is much easier for the media to reduce the complex debate on various issues confronting modern Muslims to a series of clichés, slogans and sound bites, rather than examining root causes.

All of us from the media – from the most powerful columnists to the tiniest bloggers – need to be careful about what we put out into the cloud. Our keyboards have become so powerful now, that our slightest action of irresponsibility can blow us up into a crisis.

Can we, members of the media, also not cooperate to stave off negativity from ruling the psychology of our people? Can we not underscore every negative report with a story of heroism and leadership, such that we focus not on the dark side, but rather, make that extra effort to draw out what continues to burn as the eternal flame of the indomitable.

Because instant and credible information has to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumours and suppositions to fill in the voids, and none of them will ever be rectified, they will stay on in readers’ memory.

How many hasty, immature, superficial and misleading judgments are expressed every day, confusing the common reader. Doesn’t the media know there are thousands of heroic Muslims whose contribution to society is just extraordinary?

News value also depends on the “social weight” of the message, i.e. the extent to which the media user thinks the message concerns him or her personally. In order to increase the “social weight” of messages, the reporter is inclined to present deviant behaviour of Muslims in such a way that it appears to have many consequences for every single person in society.

This could explain why the media makes eager and uncritical use of negative statements about the groups concerned when these are expressed by politicians and other important persons in society.

The negative news presentation about Muslims in the media is also indubitably caused by the fact that reporters generally lack the specific knowledge which is needed in order to cover the groups concerned.

 

The negative news presentation about Muslims in the media is also indubitably caused by the fact that reporters generally lack the specific knowledge which is needed in order to cover the groups concerned.

The maximum effect of this lack of information is discerned when background articles are produced. Because of this deficiency, the reporter will quite often omit consulting the most suitable expert on the topic and consequently makes a mess of his critical analysis of the negative and inaccurate information gathered.

The time-pressure under which reporters constantly have to operate quite often forces them to turn to the most accessible, mostly secondary, sources which are already replete with prejudices about the groups concerned. 

Religion is often portrayed simply as a social or political construct, although for millions of people, religion is a daily practice, and the very real framework of understanding that connects human lives to a spiritual reality.

Their faith is the prism through which they view the world, and their religious communities are their central environments. It is difficult to overstate the importance of faith in the lives of so many.

It is evident that most people around the world would prefer to live in peace than in conflict. Yet, often the only religious voices on the front page are those speaking messages of hatred or violence, especially in stories about conflict or social tension.   

 

It is evident that most people around the world would prefer to live in peace than in conflict. Yet, often the only religious voices on the front page are those speaking messages of hatred or violence, especially in stories about conflict or social tension.   

 

M Scanlon’s now classic essay, ‘The Difficulty of Tolerance’, offers materials for an attractive affirmative answer: Tolerance is valuable for its own sake because of the attitude it allows us to bear towards our fellow citizens, an attitude of fraternity and solidarity that is deeper than the intractable disagreements that divide us. Tolerance makes it possible to view all our fellow citizens as equally entitled to participate in defining and determining the shape of society.

Intolerant individuals, Scanlon argues, don’t view their fellow citizens as so equally entitled. Intolerant individuals think they have a special status as compared to others, and do not view others as full members of society.

For example, many rightwing Hindus do not view Muslims as full members of society, but as interlopers who ought to live in a subordinate position to the Hindu majority. Their intolerance, Scanlon argues, alienates them from their fellow citizens.

It is worth quoting Dr S Radhakrishnan, the philosopher President of India:

“What counts is not creed but conduct. By their fruits ye shall know them and not by their beliefs. Religion is not correct belief but righteous living. The Hindu view that every method of spiritual growth, every path to the Truth is worthy of reverence, has much to commend itself.” (The Hindu View of Life, 1962)

The solution is not difficult. It requires a more meaningful engagement between the media and authentic Muslim spokesmen. The media has to seek out saner voices and not just pick up opinions that suit their news and views.

The distorted images of Islam stem partly from a lack of understanding of Islam among non-Muslims and partly from the failure by Muslims to explain themselves. The results are predictable: hatred feeds on hatred.

 

The distorted images of Islam stem partly from a lack of understanding of Islam among non-Muslims and partly from the failure by Muslims to explain themselves. The results are predictable: hatred feeds on hatred.

 

Ignorance of Islam exists both among Muslims and non-Muslims. 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. They, reacting to the hate and fear of non –Muslims, create a kind of defensive posture within their societies and a combative environment built on militant rhetoric.

In this heat and misunderstanding, the voices of peace and tolerance are drowned. We need sanity in all quarters to let the truth prevail.

For this to happen, the media will have to walk that extra mile. As John Pilger advises in his book Hidden Agendas: “It is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and the myths that surround it.”

 

The Article First Appeared In DailyO

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