Six Ideas for Improving Western Coverage of Islam
by Yahya Sadowski
(American University of Beirut)
In English the word “Islam” can refer to a religion, a particular civilization or set of traditions built around that tradition, and all those societies where Muslims form a majority or supply the dominant culture. But these are really very different things, and they should not be confused. For example, the religion of Islam insists that women, along with men, have a right to inherit agricultural land. But in virtually every Muslim society, women are denied this right—because these societies were thoroughly patriarchal long before they became Islamic.
Even once you distinguish between Islamic religion and Islamic societies, it is still hard to make generalizations about Islam. In Turkey there are some Muslims who interpret their faith as a call to war on all expressions of Western culture (the Hilafet Devleti) and others who insist that Islam is an essentially modern faith (the Nurcular). The patriarchal, legalistic Islamic society of rural Morocco is radically different from the matrilineal, pluralistic Islamic society of central Sumatra (even though both subscribe to a mystical interpretation of Islam).
With more than a billion Muslims in the world, it should not be surprising that Islam comprises a wide variety of diverse communities. Some are quite militant, some are pacifist. Some are very political, others are totally apolitical. Yet, although more than half of the world’s Muslims live in south and southeast Asia, Western reports gravitate to the Middle East (where only a quarter of the Muslim population resides) for their images. How would you feel if every time someone discussed “religion in America” they focused on Jerry Falwell?
Four Not-So-Innocent Questions
The West has confronted Islam longer than any other civilization. Even when the first Crusades were launched, Westerners had already spent five centuries refining certain negative stereotypes about Muslims. Today these stereotypes persist, albeit in a more refined form. Often they emerge in the form of apparently “innocent” questions that imply a need for a “reform” of Islam. They are:
· Is Islam “authentic”? Until this century, Westerners often portrayed Islam as a crude corruption of Judaic and Christian mythology, contrived by one Mohammed who was part fakir, part sensualist, and part despot. The scholarly and journalist presentation of Islam has changed—but less than you might think. Suggestions that the Qur’an has been fundamentally misread, that early Islam was a Judaic heresy, that Muslims have never really cared about Jerusalem, remain popular news topics.
· Is Islam fatalistic? One idea that was often invoked by imperialist states in the 19th century to justify the occupation of Muslim societies was the need to awaken them from the “torpor” of Islam. Islam was portrayed as fatalistic and predestinarian. The same idea resurfaced in the post-September 11 debates about whether or not Islam was an obstacle to modernity and economic progress.
· Is Islam Oppressive? This is another trope that has a long history in the rhetoric of imperialism. When France invaded Algeria in 1830, it claimed it was working for the liberation of women. Some Americans have recently raised the same claim about Afghanistan, although women’s liberation is not one of George W. Bush’s domestic objectives or his declared war aims, and although it looks like the majority of Afghan women will remain veiled despite the presence of US troops in the country. Most Muslim societies are patriarchal, but so are most other Third World cultures.
· Is Islam Violent? When, in 1492, the Conquistadors occupied the last Muslim Kingdom in Spain, they were already claiming that Islam was a religion of violent fanatics. Talk about calling the kettle black! Islam, like all religions, has been used to justify violence. But is there something special about Islam (about its monotheism, its universalist claims, or its missionary dimension) that disposes Muslims to violence? Maybe. But if so, the same forces are at work in Judaism and Christianity—the other Abrahamic faiths.
In reality, the answer to all four of these questions is: it depends upon which Muslims you are talking about. Some Muslims are violent, but casualty figures from the wars of this century suggest they are less violent than Europeans. If you insist upon posing these particular questions, at the very least be prepared to report subtle and complex answers.
Social scientists warn us about “the fundamental attribution error”: when someone else behaves differently, we tend to exaggerate the differences of our values or motives and minimize the differences in our situations. We too often focus on the fact that Muslims follow Islam, and forget the fact that they live in Third World countries whose problems and opportunities are very different from our own. One of the easiest ways to correct for this is to learn about the wider context of life among people who live in societies that are neither industrial, nor democratic, nor modern. A peasant in the West Bank has much more in common with a campesino in Guatemala than he does with an American farmer or even an urban Jerusalemite.
Few Westerners now know what it is like to live in permanent danger of a currency meltdown, much less a famine. We worry about crime but not about civil war.
Perhaps the best advice ever given to writers (or journalists) came from George Orwell: “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” Every other news story about Africa features the image of a body lying ignored along the roadside. Nobody ever seems to write about roads in Africa that don’t have bodies strewn along them. The same is true of the Middle East and Islamic societies: the vast majority of stories focus on “senseless” violence, veiled women, and other curious local customs. Try to capture a picture of something you haven’t seen before. Just the fact that it violates the prevailing stereotypes (“man bites dog”) may make it newsworthy.
Get a New Rolodex
Virtually all of the Western “experts” on Islam, when they are not out-and-out frauds, are living clichés. Their positions are well-staked out, their hostile or sympathetic postures are well practiced, their bumper-sticker sound bites well honed. The easiest way to write a story is to interview two that are known for opposing viewpoints and to mistake their counterpoised their quotes for an example of insightful objectivity.
With a little bit more work, journalists can come up with a more original and valuable approach to the “Islam story.” There are now think tanks and media centers scattered all over the Muslim world. There are Muslim novelists and filmmakers who are exceptionally articulate. For that matter there are Egyptian Copts and Balinese Hindus and Afghan Jews who may have their own special insights into life among Muslims. Try to talk to more people from the countries you are studying; even bank tellers may have an interesting story to tell. Indeed, all over the world, taxi drivers are the best single source of news.
A Test for Bias
If you are really unsure about whether or not something you have written about Islam is biased or not, there is a simple test. Reread your draft, but substitute the name of your own religion or society for “Islam.” If it makes you uncomfortable, if the questions seem unfair, if the answers seem overgeneralized—you have a problem.
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