By Asghar Ali Engineer
April 1-15, 2012
Muslims keep on complaining that media is hostile to Islam and Muslims, and projects their distorted image, more often than not. The western media in particular has been quite antagonistic, particularly after the horrible incident of 9/11. But even before it was not very friendly, if not hostile, to Islam and Muslims. There are complex reasons for this which must be properly understood by Muslims rather than all the time condemning the media. It is easier to condemn but difficult to understand.
We propose to analyze these reasons here in this article and on our proper understanding depends remedial measures. To start with let us keep in mind that this hostility is more political than religious though it appears to be religious. Both Islam and Christianity are global religions and rulers belonging to these two religious communities were also rivals and tried to build their empires at each others’ cost.
Islam and Christianity were never rivals as religions but political rulers were and they fought against each other and which created powerful prejudices in the minds of followers of respective religions. The crusades were most zealously fought and these crusades left deep impact on their minds. Turkey became one of the world’s greatest empires and penetrated right up to central Europe. This too left scars over the memories of Europeans.
Muslims were a dominant power right through the medieval ages and it is Europe which emerged after renaissance as a powerful force. It made tremendous advances in science and technology and soon began to colonize Asian and African countries. In these countries it was confronted with Muslim rulers. In India to the British had to defeat declining Moghul Empire to seize power.
Needless to say all this struggle for power and domination created powerful prejudices against Islam and Muslims. These rulers at times also used missionaries to aggressively preach Christianity and Muslims too responded to keep their flock together or to convert tribal’s to Islam as rival preachers. Such an approach made the whole struggle appear as religious rather than political.
Thus this hostile attitude is carried over and is reflected in the media approach towards Islam and Muslims. Prof. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations which got rave reviews in the western media was also nothing but reflection of his attitude. This book became all the more important after collapse of Soviet Union when the USA was looking for ‘an external enemy’ and Islam came handy for the most numerous and historical rival of western powers.
There was a sort of lull after devastations of two World Wars in which mainly Christian powers were involved and the strife was more for national domination this time than domination by two religious rivals. Once reconstruction of destroyed nations began and United Nations’ Organization (UNO) came into existence human rights and human dignity became more central than religion and religious rivalry receded into background.
But now another factor emerged on the scene in the form of creation of Israel in what was Palestinian area. What crusades could not achieve it was achieved through Israel post World War second. Israel was created, not so much to compensate for killing of innocent millions of Jews but to continue to dominate the Muslim world through other means. Arabs in any way were in no way responsible for Semitism or killing of innocent Jews yet it is Arabs, particularly Palestinians, who were made to pay the price.
Zionism emerged as most aggressive right wing political ideology with the support of western powers, particularly the USA which had emerged as the most powerful nation after Second World War replacing the British. Thus USA backed Israel to the hilt and continues to do so till today. Israel with its right wing ideology and neocons of USA found in each other political allies and came close to each other.
It is these elements who control US media both print as well as electronic and their interest was well served by maligning Islam and Muslims. Their alliance was not that of Jews and Christians but as right wing political forces. Similarly in Palestine the Muslim Arabs and Christian Arabs are solidly united as allies as both are victims of Zionist aggression. This makes it clear that it is not Christian or Jewish assault on Muslims but right wing political assault on Islam and Muslims.
It is interesting to note that western nations are generally secular and believe in secular nationalism but fully support Israel which is a religious nation and all non-Jewish people – Muslims as well as Christians – are secondary citizens. Thus Muslim and Christian Arabs are treated as second class citizens. But since Israel serves the interests of western nations it is acceptable as a key ally even if it is founded on the principle of religious nationalism. Any other nation, if based on religion, would be denounced as reactionary.
This hostility towards Islam and Muslims which has historical foundation became much more acute with the events of 9/11. Now it was an open war with Islam and Muslims. It was projected in western media as such. It is for Muslims to deeply reflect that such terrorist acts do not achieve anything but instead, brings bad name to Islam. This act by a handful of al-Qaida followers led by Osama bin Laden has tremendously harmed Islam and thanks to western media now it is universally believed that Islam is religion of violence.
Of course al-Qaeda never had support of majority of Muslims; it was supported by a small aggressive minority as it generally happens in other communities also. Many surveys conducted by various agencies like PEW and others also clearly showed that right from Algeria to Indonesia only a minuscule minority supported acts like that of 9/11 and yet the mainstream western media never splashed such news prominently whereas any violent attack would be displayed most prominently.
Muslims should not only be peaceful but also appear to be so in various ways so that the media is compelled to splash such news also. If not, as we have been seeing, violence by few would be presented as if all Muslims are behind it. Also, there are other reasons too for projecting Islam and Muslims in an unfavorable light and it is for us Muslims to deeply reflect about it and bring about changes in our society.
They see lack of freedom and dictatorship in most of the Muslim countries. Instead of probing deeper they take it Islam is the main reason. Islam does not permit democracy and promotes autocracy. Many Muslim youth belonging to right wing ideologies propagate early caliphate system as the only solution and then media builds upon it.
The moment some article or cartoon or picture derogatory to Islam or the Prophet or any other holy personality appears in western media there are violent demonstrations or even threat to kill the person who wrote the article or drew the cartoon and this leads to the conclusion that there is total intolerance and lack of freedom in Islam or Muslim societies as the western culture is totally different.
They forget that until yesterday western society was no different and Muslim society is still pre-modern and semi-feudal. The young generation of journalists brought up in a very different culture and environment and also subject to rightwing propaganda thinks it is serious violation of human rights and writes strongly against it. It thinks only western culture guarantees freedom and has democratic culture whereas Islamic societies are highly intolerant and autocratic.
The present generation of journalists has been brought up in highly commercialized ethos of journalism and lacks the investigative ethos of older generation. It draws instant conclusions on the basis of hasty and sketchy evidence and under pressure of events to earn fat salaries. This is the truth of investigation of modern day journalism and it is investigation of truth which is the casualty.
What is worse is that what is written in western press or spoken and discussed in electronic media in the west is taken as gospel truth by the media in third world and reproduced in its own media. Thus it acquires global dimensions. India is no different. Though there is free and independent media but it pride itself on regurgling what appears in western media. And India has its own right wing parties and ideologies which is strongly reflected specially in language media.
Media is supposed to be an essential part of democratic functioning as it cultivates public opinion but instead of creating critical opinions it caters to existing prejudices and thus strengthens status quo and majoritarian point of view. The same is true of the media in Muslim countries. It also reflects majoritarian point of view and caters to anti-minorityism and right wing ideologies. What is worse there is hardly free media in Muslim countries except in few cases. Thus objective media is a casualty everywhere.
Asghar Ali Engineer is a scholar of Islam, and Head of the Centre for Study of Secularism & Society, Mumbai