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Media and Muslims

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A lot of ink, an infinite number of film reels, and a frantic churn of news stories bristling with harsh tones against Islam have fixated Muslims as a monolith. A cottage industry of authors keeps burning the midnight to ensure that the flashlights on bad Muslims keep glowing. A well-oiled Islamophobia machine churns these out, constantly manipulating the already flawed image of what a Muslim is, of what Islam is. They are attacking the identity of Muslims, which is so diverse that it cannot possibly fit into 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. The world, however, has changed, and often what’s masquerading in the name of journalism is business with an open display of bigotry and hate against certain social groups.

Thanks to history’s painful social conflicts and questions of war and peace, the press once seemed to have a conscience. Let us not forget that there was a generation of journalists in whose hands a mystic transference took place with each clack of the typewriter imprinting a journalistic legacy on the next generation. Stamped indelibly on our formative minds during our training in journalism was the line: “every time a grand editor puts a finger to a typewriter, he sits back to hear the crash of falling governments.”

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 its reputation. The media shows remarkable consistency in employing an arsenal of semantic games and incendiary phrases to link most of the violence around the world with some form of Islamic ideology or some Islamic group.

It is much easier for the media to limit the complex debate on issues confronting Muslims to a series of clichés, slogans, and sound bites, rather than examining root causes. It is easier still to champion the most extreme and prejudiced critics of Islam while ignoring the voices of mainstream Muslim scholars, academics, and activists. There is a strong voice of moderates from within the Muslim ranks that the media could appropriately channelize to give a rounded assessment of Islamic issues. You can’t have blanket damnation of the entire community.

By reinforcing them wittingly and unwittingly, the media further deepens their impact. The new media reflects the mood and is responsible for building it. Media oxygen is provided only to those who say something communally inflammable, and in such an environment, the efforts of pacifists and even the moderated segments suffer great damage.

Religion has been reduced to a social or political construct. However, it is a daily practice for millions of people and the very framework for connecting their 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 isn’t easy to overstate the importance of faith in the lives of so many. Yet, often the only religious voices on the front page are those speaking the language of hatred or violence, especially in stories about conflict or social tensions. The media can carefully balance and moderate the coverage by injecting more reasoned and saner voices.

In addition to the media, scholarship often pays limited attention to the debates Muslims have 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 the media can properly channelize to give a rounded assessment of Islamic issues. It is equally valid that the media has tried to hype acts of Islamic impropriety by indulging in hyperbole.

Sadly, journalism fails 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.

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.”

Often, headlines are sensational or distorted, and reporting is often deeply racist. This impacts the lives of Muslims directly. 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 issues confronting modern Muslims to a series of clichés, slogans, and sound bites rather than examining root causes.

From the media – from the most powerful columnists to the tiniest bloggers – we all 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 in staving 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 invincible.

The negative news presentation about Muslims in the media is also indubitably caused by the fact that reporters generally lack the specific knowledge needed 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 often omit to consult the most suitable expert on the topic and consequently mess up his critical analysis of the harmful and inaccurate information gathered.

Religion is often portrayed simply as a social or political construct. However, religion is a daily practice for millions of people 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.

The solution is not difficult, and it requires a more meaningful engagement between the media and authentic Muslim spokes people. 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 of Muslims to explain themselves. The results are predictable: hatred feeds on hatred. Ignorance of Islam exists both among Muslims and non-Muslims. Non-Muslims misunderstand Islam in their ignorance, and in turn, they fear it. This way, fantasy, conjecture, and stereotypes replace fact and reality.

Similarly, Muslims have misconceptions. They react to the hate and fear of non-Muslims by creating a defensive posture within their societies and, sometimes, a hostile environment built on aggressive rhetoric. In this heat and misunderstanding, voices of tolerance are drowned out.

Much coverage of Muslims in the news outlets has a negative slant. We’ve seen how some papers get their news about Muslims wrong and how often they reuse the same stereotypes. True, like many others, Muslims also have a share of negative elements. But the story has to be fair and reflective and shouldn’t generalize about all Muslims and feed into a broader far-right narrative. Good storylines of Muslim characters are woefully few. Often, there is a consistent stream of sloppy reporting, bias, or willful sensationalism about Muslims. The way stories are deformed to fit a particular formula about Muslims – and the difficulties in uprooting these fictions once they’ve been laid out – can be seen across the media. Corrections and retractions by the media are extremely rare. As CP Scott, the founder-editor of The Guardian, emphasized: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”

In this heat and misunderstanding, the voices of peace and tolerance are drowned. We need sanity in all quarters to let the truth prevail. The media will have to walk that extra mile for this to happen. 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.

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