Muslims need fair representation in the media but media itself is biased

“Islamophobia in its ugliest forms attacks our belonging.”

“Islamophobia in its ugliest forms attacks our belonging.”

In an ideal world, journalism is a profession of incredible integrity. Good journalists are among the most dexterous and skilled people in the world, and also the most respected. We have all benefited from the work of indefatigable journalists who put life, limb, family and even sanity on the line for the truth. There is no sane, decent, and democratic polity possible without journalists who challenge power, relentlessly pursue and disseminate the truth, and then 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 has changed however, and many of us may be in the time warp of old values. Like all institutions, the media has also suffered in terms of its reputation. Values are not what matter most here; in an age of social media, where stories can go viral in a much shorter space of time than before, one would think that it would become ever more important from an ethical point of view for stories to be contextualised and reported accurately.

There is a strong voice of moderates from within the Muslim ranks that can be properly channelised by the media to give a rounded assessment of Islamic issues.

A lot of ink, an infinite number of film reels, and a frenetic churn of news stories bristling with violent tones on Islam and they have fixated the Muslims as a stereotyped homogeneity. There is a cottage industry of authors who keep burning the midnight oil to ensure that the flashlights on bad Muslims keep blazing. These lies are churned out by a well-oiled Islamophobia machine with financial backers, think-tanks, and misinformation experts who swept in and easily manipulated our already flawed image of what a Muslim is – of what Islam is. Islamophobia in its ugliest forms attacks our belonging. It attacks our identity, which is so vast, diverse, varied and multilayered that it cannot possibly fit into a box.

Sadly, journalism is failing to perform its fundamental role of objective reporting and analysis and continues its job by 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 and incendiary phrases to link most of the violence around the world with some form of Islamic ideology or some Islamic group. In fact, the entire discourse is being orchestrated on predefined lines. To put it in the words of Jim Morrison, “Whoever controls the media controls the mind.”

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.

It is much easier for the media to reduce the complex debate on various 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 bigoted critics of Islam while ignoring the voices of mainstream Muslim scholars, academics and activists. From terrorists to dictators, incendiary literature to fabricated threats, Muslim identity is marred by almost every imaginable negative stereotype and menacing trope. Images of good Muslims, in every medium, are few and far between.

Societal understandings of “good Muslims” are just as narrow as its conception of “bad Muslims.” Both characterisations are rooted in a common baseline, which gives rise to linear caricatures that overshadow representations of “good Muslims” as Olympians or scholars, and even mayors of world-class cities. Indeed, the hegemony of “bad Muslims” has entirely eclipsed representations of “good Muslims.” Like the “bad Muslim,” the identity of “good Muslims” is also linked to terrorism; in their case, they were accused of not doing enough to stop it. Muslims are tagged with the affirmation of collective guilt that obliges them to disavow or apologise for entirely unrelated actors, or completely unconnected actions.

Terrorism is not only conflated with Islam but tied exclusively to it and nothing else. Muslim bashing is in several cases a by-product of the new brand of journalism which sees news value in the “social weight” of the message. The media keeps beaming recurring images of the deep-seated communal ruptures that already exist in the walls of our society and are too well known. By reinforcing them, it wittingly and unwittingly contributes to further deepening them. The new media not only reflects the mood but is responsible for building it as well. Media oxygen is provided only to those who say something communally inflammable. In such an environment, the efforts of pacifists and even of the moderated segments suffer great damage.

Religion has been simply reduced to a social or political construct, although for millions of people, it 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. 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 tensions. The media can carefully balance and moderate the coverage by injecting more reasoned and saner voices.

Good journalism requires deep and rigorous academic studies, attentive listening to diverse sources, dogged examination of data and other records, particularly when it deals with faith issues, and close observation of policies and institutions.

It takes time and skill and requires the support of editors and other news leaders who live in the community and care about it. It does not necessarily guarantee publishers a return in eye-popping audience numbers. M Scanlon’s now classic essay, “The Difficulty of Tolerance”, offers 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.

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)

From Cairo to Kuala Lumpur to the edges of the Islamic world, Islamic councils are more concerned with questions related to women’s dress and piety and sectarian conflicts than with talking about science, technology and innovation. Unless the Muslim world and the Muslim communities start moving from the periphery to the mainstream, the field will remain wide open for radicalists to carry the flag of Islam. The solution is not difficult. What is needed is meaningful engagement between the media and authentic caretakers of the Muslim faith. The media has to seek out the saner voices and not just line up opinions that suit its own narrative. Most important, it should reports facts faithfully. As CP Scot, founder editor of The Guardian would repeatedly advise: “Comment is free, but fact is sacred.”

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, 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. John Pilger advises in his book, Hidden Agendas, that “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.”