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Doublespeak: Islam and the media

Fuad Nahdi
2 April 2003

During one winter Mullah Nasruddin, the wise man of traditional Muslim societies, was having difficulty in getting by, so he started to think of ways to cut down his expenses. He decided to give his mule a little less barley. He did so, and the mule seemed content.

A few days later he fed it a little less, and the animal still seemed normal and happy. This continued until he was giving it less than half its usual ration. The mule moved more slowly and was quieter, but the preoccupied Mulla Nasruddin did not notice this, believing it was still healthy and happy. Then one morning, to his surprise, he entered his barn and found that the mule had died.

Weeping, he cried aloud: “Just when he was getting used to not eating.”

This is much the same story that I feel must be told about the relationship between the western media and Muslim trust: the former – represented here by Mulla Nasruddin – having tried for the last couple of decades at least to cut corners when it comes to coverage of Muslim issues and concerns.

Over time, the western media has abused both its responsibilities and its power with the consequence that it is now, to a large extent, insignificant in the struggle for hearts and minds in the Muslim world.

Western reports, when positive, are seen as selective and partisan; when negative, hypocritical and insensitive. Everywhere you go people talk not only of double, but also of lower standards.

Western journalists – most of them young, inexperienced and excitable – are viewed with suspicion: the majority don’t speak local languages, are insensitive to local concerns and work from clippings and weekend visits. With the possible exception of the Independent’s Robert Fisk there is no western journalist working in the Middle East who has attained the status and influence, say, of the BBC’s Mark Tully in India.

A general degradation in the standards of the western media is a great loss to the sum of accurate information in circulation in the world. The increasing commercialism and pragmatism of institutions like the BBC point to a worrying decline. There was a time when across the Muslim world, it was the BBC which provided the most accurate, up to date and reliable information. BBC journalists would fight to broadcast the truth, not just process sound bites. These days, however, services are being cut. Most BBC staff, at whatever level, are on six-month contracts. No wonder few among their number are willing to rock the boat.

There is an increasing tendency to go for quick, easy stories. It is a painful irony that the legitimisation of the voice of extremist Islam comes not from the voiceless majority of the Muslim world, but from this kind of sensationalist media hunger. It was the BBC, rather than any official Muslim body, that gave Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri the title of Sheikh – a title that no Muslim I know would grace them with.

Among Muslims, most reports issuing from western media outlets are seen as hampered by double standards. More significantly, coverage of the key flashpoints of tension between western powers and the Muslim world are perceived, not as independent and open-minded, but biased – part of a hostile western agenda aimed at distorting and manipulating the truth.

This conviction has pushed Muslim trust (like the donkey in our story) almost to the point of non-existence. Today, the vast majority of Muslims – old and young, men and women, city-dweller or villager – are almost totally immune to the western media and, in some parts, hostile. To be honest, there is no basis here for any fight for hearts and minds. Today the western media is increasingly only influential within its own boundaries and among its own peoples.

New technology means an even more disastrous consequence: the emergence of a media, particularly in the Arab Muslim world, which has far outstripped traditional opinion-makers and voices of influence such as the BBC or the Voice of America. Nowadays, the main source of all news, and of the truth, in most of the Arab Muslim world is al-Jazeera Satellite Station. The strength of al-Jazeera lies – in the eyes of its 35 million viewers – not only in its ability to provide alternative and relevant news, but also in its ability to master modern techniques for presenting that viewpoint.

Jihad

The almost complete breakdown in trust between the Muslim world and the western media means that out there now there are two conflicting worlds engaged in a fierce jihad: at the moment there are no hostages taken on both sides and truth, that elusive goal, lies somewhere in the desert, mauled by soundbites, and weapons of mass technology.

So we might live in the same global satellite village, but increasingly we each stay behind the closed doors of our own huts. While we in the west are reconstructing our whole contemporary narrative around 11 September, the Muslim world is building its own history around its own “Ground Zero”: and it is Jenin , not New York.

The war against Afghanistan, for instance, was not seen as a war against al-Qaida and Taliban but against innocent civilians and a heroic country. Conflicts in Kashmir, Chechnya, Palestine and other parts of the Muslim world are genuine freedom movements, not “terrorism”: it is the brutal actions of the Indian, Russian and Israeli armed forces that are seen as institutional terrorism, worthy of a fighting response.

This dichotomy dividing our perception has become wholesale: when the US president accuses Saddam Hussein of flouting UN resolution 1441, the other side thinks of the 64 UN resolutions disregarded by Israel; when Tony Blair talks of “amassing weapons of mass destruction (WMD)” the majority of 200 million Arabs think not of Iraq’s invisible weapons of mass destruction but of Israel’s real massive arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. And when talk is of repression by Saddam, Muslims remind each other of western support for the despicable dictator from the time he took office, and Washington and London’s collaboration in his evil antics, resulting in more than a million Muslims dying in Iraq and Iran.

So what next in our traumatised world, in which neighbours are no longer trusted to acknowledge each other’s existence, expected instead to deny their pain, suffering and aspirations? Where will all this lead?

Bringing balance?

Let us look in two directions: global consequences, and their impact on community relations in Britain.

Globally, the outcome is the emergence of media outlets that are, unfortunately, a copy of their western counterparts. Al-Jazeera might be beaming a different message from that of CNN, but the tricks and justifications used are identical; in August last year I asked Mohammed Jasim al-Ali, managing director of al-Jazeera, what was behind the decision to broadcast Osama bin Laden’s video message after 9/11: “we did what every decent television station would have done,” he said. “It was a scoop and our concern was to bring balance to the debate.”

The kind of journalism that is in the ascendancy, particularly in the Arab Muslim world, is by definition western in its orientation, secular in its approach and tabloidy in its manifestation. In the case of al-Jazeera, this is unsurprising, as it was originally created from the ashes of the BBC’s Arabic television service.

The negativity of the coverage inevitably affects its viewers. Al-Jazeera’s schedule is full to the brim of evocative images of Muslims dying in Palestine and Chechnya. As a Muslim, I come away reeling from a session in front of these images – it is hard not to be filled with anger.

Unfortunately there is very little counterbalance to this. The so-called “Islamic media” is a non-starter: it is boring, partisan, judgmental, unimaginative and pedestrian.

This leaves the Muslim media in the west.

Take Britain: Islam’s relationship with the media hitherto has suffered from a number of problems. The south Asian element of the British Muslim community has a strong cultural suspicion of ‘muck-spreading’ professions like journalism and law, seen as thriving on the misfortunes of others. This has been something of a setback to the ability of the Muslim community to represent itself in public life, though with new generations of British Muslims, this is changing.

Beyond this reticence, there has been an ongoing problem with representation by the institutions of the state. The true nature of the Muslim community here only surfaced for official recognition in recent weeks, with the publication of the Census. For the first time it included the question of religion, giving us more reliable data on the numbers of Muslims in Britain. Before, we were categorised as black or Asian: the needs of the Muslim community did not appear on the official radar.

At the peak of the so-called Anglo-Rushdie affair, over a decade ago, before launching Q-News, I was involved in another publication called MuslimWise. Part of the aim of this innovative publication was to try and solicit a smile from its readers: we really believed that humour was the best halal medicine addressing the evils of racism and Islamophobia that surrounded us. MuslimWise was a statement saying, “the best way to deal with bad writing is good writing.”

Q-News was launched on the eve of the conflict in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Essentially, it was an effort not only to produce a community publication, with all its benefits, but also to encourage young people into the profession. And today it continues to give a staff of bright, young British Muslims a way into the profession: a chance to participate in the information society.

From the beginning we had to provide answers to many fundamental questions: What is a Muslim publication? How would it essentially differ from other publications? To what extent should it be a campaigning tool, as opposed to a reporting organ?

I am afraid, ten years on, we still don’t have all the clear answers. But we know that without credibility – without the fact that we are just and fair and seen to be just and fair, there is no future for any media outlet.

Investing in an extremist future

So what is the future of the relationship between Islam and the western media? I believe that a balanced media on both sides depends on reversing the trend towards the segregation of information.

The significant effect of the Rushdie affair was to bring Muslim youth out of their living rooms to protest. Now is the time to see that they want to go back to their living rooms. The way to do this is not with the prevention of terrorism act – essentially an investment in the future of extremism. This kind of legislation, when combined with the mainstream media’s general neglect, guarantees the burgeoning presence of an underground media which runs completely parallel to the mainstream, never engaging. The course of the continuing Muslim diatribe against ‘the West’ now raging particularly on the internet will depend on how strong Muslim journalists and media in the west are.

The Muslim world does not need political groups masquerading as Islamic foundations, but rather a revitalisation of culture: arts, drama, journalism. We need to breathe life into the collapsed civil society inherited from our countries of origin.

Within the western media, it will be impossible to forever marginalise and ignore Muslim opinion and understanding: anti-Muslim or anti-Islam sentiments are going to be increasingly challenged.

The future belongs to a dynamic, relevant and professional Muslim media produced and based in the west, drawing on the large numbers of Muslims living in the west. These people are crucial, because they can act as a bridge between two totally unsynchronised worlds.

More and more of our young people are going into the profession – they are learning the skills, asking the questions and putting the pressure both on their colleagues and on the system.

So let us end with another story about this media war we find ourselves in:

Once, in a tea shop, some soldiers were boasting about a few of their recent victories. The local people were gathered around them, listening eagerly.

“And I took my double-edged sword and charged the enemy fearlessly,” said one.

There was a loud round of applause.

“Oh, that reminds me,” remarked our friend Mulla Nasruddin, “of the time I amputated the leg of an enemy on the battlefield. I cut it right off!”

“Sir, it would have been better,” replied the captain of the soldiers, “to cut off his head.”

“Of course, I would have. But somebody else had already done that.”

Thank you.

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